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Elpel Through the course of history there have been many different forms of human society, ranging from tribes to chiefdoms to kingdoms and states, each varying in the size of the population, the structure of socio-political organization, and the technologies, customs, and beliefs associated with them.
Anthropologists have pondered these variables for generations, seeking predictable patterns in cultural evolution. In this article we explore this topic of cultural evolution to better understand the structure and customs of societies both past and present.
In his book, Ancient Society, Lewis H. Morgan proposed the first popular theory of cultural evolution to explain the multitude of socio-political structures and belief systems encountered around the world. He believed that human societies progressed through stages of lower, middle and upper savagery, to lower, middle and upper barbarism, and then to ancient and medieval civilizations, culminating with modern society.
Each level of progress was characterized by certain technological achievements and socio-political beliefs and customs. For example, upper savagery was characterized by the bow and arrow, the emergence of tribes, and cannibalism, while lower barbarism was characterized by horticulture, the village stockade, and the Great Spirit. Farb outlined the connection between the size of a population and the complexity of its social, economic, and political institutions. Rather, he observed that "A complex society is not necessarily more advanced than a simple one; it has just adapted to conditions in a more complicated way.
The socio-political structure, technology, and some of the customs and beliefs associated with each form of culture are summarized here. A lifestyle based exclusively on hunting and gathering necessarily limits the size and structure of a society according to the available food supply.
Most true hunter-gatherer cultures were organized as bands, consisting of groups of families that cooperated with each other. The family is what Farb calls the "irreducible minimum of human society," a socio-economic-political unit consisting of the association between a woman and a man and their children.
Most hunter-gatherer bands had strict gender roles; men hunted and fished while women gathered roots, seeds, and berries. This was apparently an effective pattern for survival, since ninety-seven percent of hunter-gatherer cultures were organized similarly.
Aside from strict gender roles, these were largely egalitarian cultures in which everyone worked to survive and neither gender, nor typically any one individual, had a higher status or more political power than anyone else. Perceived spirits were also egalitarian, being either male or female. Individual families roamed the desert seeking pine nuts, roots, seeds, grasshoppers, rabbits, fish, or antelope that happened to be in season. Families occasionally cooperated with other families when pine nuts, rabbits, or other resources were seasonally abundant.
The most experienced hunter became the temporary leader, organizing all aspects of the hunt. Afterwards the families disbanded and went their own ways. Understanding the basic structure of Piute culture helps explain some of their behavior and interactions with Westerners. American explorers sought tribal chiefs to establish treaties, but the closest thing to a chief among the Piute was the "rabbit boss" who organized the hunt.
There was no structure to bind the Piute people together as a single social-political unit. It was for this reason that the Piute were known as a largely peaceful people. They did not wage war on neighboring Indians, and they split up and ran away when attacked by others. They lacked the social-political structure to either mount an attack or to defend their territory. Homicide rates can be shockingly high in band societies.
A survey of one band of Copper Inuit revealed that each adult male had committed homicide at least once. Most homicides were related to quarrels over women. An enlightening movie produced by the Inuit is The Fast Runner This fictional soap opera of Inuit life, lust, and murder, offers a glimpse of social life north of the Arctic Circle. Bands consisted of temporary groupings of families, such as the Piute, or more permanent groupings of up to a few hundred people, which Farb classified as composite bands or patrilocal bands, but they were all essentially egalitarian in structure, with no person having any significant political power or exemption from normal day-to-day work.
Spiritually, bands as well as tribes typically believed in magic, rather than religion, which arose with agriculture. As Farb noted, "Magic differs from Christianity, Judaism, Mohammedanism, and Buddhism in that it does not attempt to regulate behavior in the society as a whole or to propagate a code of conduct and belief In magic, the practitioner believes that he can directly affect other humans and nature, either for good or for ill, by performing certain steps.
Magic is therefore instrumental-and some of these instruments are witchcraft, sorcery, oracles, divination, and various kinds of curing. Here the taboo is obviously an application of the law of similarity, which is the basis of homoeopathic magic: Following this train of thought the eagle hunter also refrains from using an awl when he is looking after his snares; for surely if he were to scratch with an awl, the eagles would scratch him.
The same disastrous consequence would follow if his wives and children at home used an awl while he is out after eagles, and accordingly they are forbidden to handle the tool in his absence for fear of putting him in bodily danger.
A larger caloric supply enables bigger social groups and more complex socio-political organization. Plains tribes obtained sufficient calories from hunting bison while the pastoral Massai of Kenya obtained their calories from cattle. Otherwise, most tribes depended on horticulture to a greater or lesser degree for the necessary calories to supplement a hunter-gatherer subsistence lifestyle. Tribes are larger and more complex than bands, often consisting of multiple subgroups, such as the clans of the Zuni pueblos.
Each clan has separate duties within the tribe. Like bands, tribes are composed primarily of related families living together. Specialization is minimal, without full-time soldiers, artisans, priests, or office holders. Everyone helps out with the effort to find or grow food. A chief or council of leaders can recommend a course of action and make decisions, but they lack the power of state to enforce those decisions. In essence, a tribe functions as a large gathering of independent individuals governed by persuasion.
A society of free-willed individuals can be a recipe for internal conflict, and homicide was common within many tribes.
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However, aggression was primarily directed outward towards neighboring tribes. From the Plains Indians to the northeastern Iroquois, as well as tribes in Africa, South America, and the South Pacific, fighting released tribal stress as warriors proved themselves in battle and earned prestige among their peers. Tribes rarely fought with the intention of conquering each other, and fighting had little to do with political disputes. Bloodshed was common, but the greatest glory typically went to warriors who merely touched or "counted coup" on an enemy and escaped unscathed.
He was later traded to the Ojibway and raised by a woman who had lost her son. He remained a member of the Ojibway tribe his entire life and participated in several raids against the Sioux. The warriors traveled far to attack the Sioux, but in every "raid" the warriors were turned back by hunger, thirst, premonitions, internal strife, or simply because there was no cohesive structure to hold them together.
In the mother of all raids, a mass of four hundred Ojibway warriors coincidentally met up with a thousand other Ojibway, Assiniboine, and Cree who were prepared to make war on the Sioux.
As Tanner described it, "On the first night after we came together, three men of the Ojibbeways were killed. On the next, two horses belonging to the Assinneboins, and on the third, three more [horses]. When such numbers of men assemble from different parts of the country, some must be brought into contact between whom old grudges and enmities exist, and it is not surprising that the unstable power and influence of the chiefs should be insufficient to prevent disturbances and bloodshed.
On this occasion, men were assembled from a vast extent of the country, of dissimilar feelings and dialects, and of the whole fourteen hundred, not one who would acknowledge any authority superior to his own will. It is true that ordinarily they yield a certain deference, and a degree of obedience to the chief each may have undertaken to follow, but this obedience, in most instances, continues no longer than the will of the chief corresponds entirely with the inclination of those he leads.
But the gathering dwindled to four hundred warriors by the time they were within two days striking distance of a Sioux village. When they finally reached the Sioux village, the war party consisted of a single chief and one or two warriors, who fled when they were discovered lurking around.
Like a band, even if a tribe were able to organize and conquer a foreign territory, it still lacked the means to secure and administer it. The absence of internal structure greatly aided Europeans in conquering North America. Native Americans fought battles for honor and glory against European enemies who fought wars to vanquish and rule over new territory.
Similar to bands, tribal cultures lived a primarily first-person existence in the present moment, and many tribal languages lack words to distinguish the past or future. For example, in Hopi there are no words for time, and no words that imply the passage of time, such as the idea that something might last or endure. People talk about long-dead friends and relatives as if they just walked out the door, as if all time runs together in a perpetual present moment.
Where we describe summer as a season, implying a span of time, the Hopi describe it as a phenomenon where conditions are hot. The Hopi do have a rich oral history, but it is linked to past generations, rather than to a numerical calendar. Instead of talking in past tense, stories are retold or re-enacted vividly in present tense regarding individuals who passed on generations ago.
Living in the present moment, bands and tribes existed largely unfettered by past regrets or future worries. They feasted when there was food, without worrying about putting anything away for the future. John Tanner never fully embraced this aspect of Ojibway culture, since he imprinted the homestead routine of storing food for the winter before he was captured as a child.
Unlike his adoptive tribe, he constantly tried to store food in preparation for hard times ahead. Filmmaker Lewis Cotlow noticed this present-orientation among the Jivaro of South America, as noted in his book, In Search of the Primitive, "Most Jivaros are not introspective or moody.
They spend little time regretting the past or worrying about the future. They live in the present and find it good, most of the time, even though it is filled with dangers.
The worst dangers are, in their minds, largely unseen. They fear the inguanchi, the demons or evil spirits, but not the jaguar, the white man or the Jivaro enemy. They acted in the moment without dwelling over future consequences, not unlike many teens and young adults from our own culture. As Ken Wilber wrote in Up from Eden, "Death is an abrupt, present, and magical occurrence, which might or might not happen now-it is not something that occurs in a distant future.
Extended time does not yet pervasively enter the picture. Women tended gardens with simple digging tools, while the men continued to hunt.
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Wherever women produced the majority of the food supply, societies often became matriarchal, or at least "matrifocal. Horticultural societies of sufficient size acquired the social-political organization of chiefdoms. Chiefdoms are characterized by a surplus of food, greater specialization in labor, and a central figure to take in and redistribute wealth. While bands or tribes often migrate from one food source to another, a chiefdom has a larger, more permanent population spread across a diversity of environments.
Some groups might specialize in raising crops, while other groups specialize in hunting and fishing or berry picking, and the resources from each are redistributed throughout the chiefdom.
Chiefdoms formed without horticulture along the bountiful northwest coast of North America, but otherwise, chiefdoms of the southeast and the Old World were dependent on horticulture to produce the necessary calories to sustain their population base. The chief was typically pampered throughout life and provided with an elaborate house and other needs, all financed by the flow of goods within the culture. Chiefdoms were hierarchical, so much so that in northwest coast cultures an individual would know precisely whether his rank was or from the chief.
The largest chiefdoms in North America were the mound builders, such as the Natchez people centered around present-day Mississippi. The Natchez built temples on mounds surrounded by palisades, which were decorated with skulls brought back by the warriors.