Avatar: What did they eat?

First off a quick link on avatar and anthropology: a brief article on anthropologist (and Melanesianist!) Nancy Lutkehaus helping plan the Navi.

Ok now on the meat of the post. I have not followed discussion of Avatar on an site other than our own, but as I think more about it, the less I am convinced that we get a sense of Navi society. Does anyone remember actually seeing them eat? There must have been some farming. And although I remember a few shots of kids (running away, mostly) there wasn’t much on that. In fact we miss the main facts of how Navi society reproduced itself. Am I wrong here?

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

31 thoughts on “Avatar: What did they eat?

  1. Still haven’t seen the movie (I want to more and more thanks to these discussions) but I thought they don’t have to eat because they draw directly on the energy field of Gaia, erm, Eywa. To reproduce don’t they sit meditation together and transcendentally imagine the perfect new member of the community, and bingo bongo (this is the technical term I believe), there she is?

  2. An earlier post seems to have been lost in the ether so hear goes again.

    bq. I have not followed discussion of Avatar on an site other than our own, but as I think more about it, the less I am convinced that we get a sense of Navi society. Does anyone remember actually seeing them eat? There must have been some farming. And although I remember a few shots of kids (running away, mostly) there wasn’t much on that. In fact we miss the main facts of how Navi society reproduced itself. Am I wrong here?

    In the main you’re not wrong—apart from a single hunting scene and scattered mention of hunters I don’t think we learned anything about subsistence. There was some vague references to kinship and marriage (mostly to generate tension with Laz Alonso’s character). But to be fair, “nobody poops”:http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/NobodyPoops in _any_ film that doesn’t come mail order from Germany. That’s bad practice in descriptive ethnography from which the audience might expect to learn something of the defecal lives of savages but it’s actually good practice in fiction (cf. nos. 9 & 10 of “Elmore Leonard’s ten rules”:http://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/16/arts/writers-writing-easy-adverbs-exclamation-points-especially-hooptedoodle.html?pagewanted=1).

    One thing that impressed me about the movie is that the ecology makes some sense. It made no sense that the Ewoks, a group at a decidedly non-complex level of cultural complexity, would defeat the Axis of Evil. But given that the ecosystem of Pandora is a networked network the fact that the natives should possess a limited and simple inventory of material culture while existing at an otherwise high level of cultural complexity actually seems to hold up. It holds up well enough that I suspect the creative team actually wrote it into the story (but consciously failed to exposit—cf. Hemingway’s “Iceberg Theory”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iceberg_Theory).

  3. Hello!

    I saw the movie on Imax 3-D experience and I have to say it’s awesome. An incredible movie! Anyway, if you see the movie again, you will probably recognize some clues about their social life.

    Yes, they do eat! Water, and the food source is from the animals surrounding. There’s one scene before the main male character, Jake Sully, and Neytiri killed the animal, they offered a prayer (like the Indians) to it and then “finished” its life. It’s the evidence that they do hunting animals for food.

    And yes, they do make love like us! Remember the scene when Neytiri’s brother was so angry at Jake Sully after the two, Jake and Neytiri, “slept overnight” under the Tree? And in the movie, Jake actually admitted that he mated with Neytiri. Please don’t get confused with the meditation stuff. It is, though, according to me, the most beautiful scene of the movie, where People and the Mother Nature are really strongly connected.

  4. Yes, they show them eating. There is a scene of a giant group meal where they are all sitting in a circle on the ground eating something brown from giant green leaves not long after Neytiri agrees to teach Jake the ways of the blue people (Jake stetps on someone’s tale while walking through the crowd); also there is a hunting scene from the back of a dragon where they are trying to hunt food.

  5. “eating something brown from giant green leaves”

    No, no, you’re confusing the movie with the recent “something brown” episode of “Iron Chef.” As I recall, Bobby Flay won because the judges admired his ability to season the something with chipotle without altering its essential brownness, and were appetized by his plating on stretched ostrich hides colored to look like giant leaves.

  6. Speaking of meat (and therefore hunting) and overall representations of ecology, I have to disagree about this last “making sense”. Irrespective of whether the living things of Pandora are networked or not, two things jumped out at me straight away: the first was the appearance of the huge, six-legged predator which attacks Sully when he first gets lost in the forest. The second was the massive size of the hammerhead/rhinoceri type herbivores which eventually rout the human grunts (sorry, a bit of a spoiler there).

    I’d recently been re-reading bits of Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters and remembered something he said about rainforests not being the optimal sites for sustaining large (size-wise) predator-prey populations. On the contrary, it seems that it is ecosystems with less vegetation, such as the African savannah, which are best suited to those kinds of animals. Among other things, thick rainforests do not generally provide easy or sufficient fodder to produce and sustain herds of giant herbivores, nor do they offer good conditions for large carnivores either. So this might be an instance of the “jungle” being made to seem more frightening because it contains nasty, gigantic beasts.

    This may seem like nit-picking, but consider the absence of such animals in any Earth-based rainforest ecosystem, especially New Guinea or the Amazon. Jaguars? yes…barely. Although even they have extremely complicated relationships with the environment, are rather timid, and don’t realistically make for great Hollywood carnivorous monsters. In this sense, the smaller, six-legged nocturnal predators that also stalk Sully made a bit more sense, although the hunting pack – reminiscent of hyenas perhaps? although they were apparently modeled on non-gregarious panthers – was also ecologically unlikely.

    As for the Navi, if they were primarily hunters, according to most studies of hunter-gathering populations they would long ago have become the apex predators in that forest system, to the detriment of other large beasts and plants.

    So, are the Navi meant to be hunters, horticulturalists, a mixture of both? or maybe none at all because they feed off of unseen energy flows or something, hence rendering this hypergeekish discussion a bit moot…

  7. @Carlos

    bq. Among other things, thick rainforests do not generally provide easy or sufficient fodder to produce and sustain herds of giant herbivores, nor do they offer good conditions for large carnivores either. So this might be an instance of the “jungle” being made to seem more frightening because it contains nasty, gigantic beasts.

    That’s fair, but there was enough thought put into the movie to allow for better than usual fan wanks. Everything is bigger on Pandora so the larger creatures could actually be equivalent to, say, Indian Rhinos and panthers. The size issue would also make the habitat hard to classify, ie, at what points in the film were we seeing mature rainforest and at what points were we seeing jungle?

    bq. As for the Navi, if they were primarily hunters, according to most studies of hunter-gathering populations they would long ago have become the apex predators in that forest system, to the detriment of other large beasts and plants.

    Again, there’s a fairly essay wank involving the network aspect of the ecosystem as a preventative to maladaptation.

    I don’t disagree with your point that we’re seeing “misplaced wildlife”:http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MisplacedWildlife for dramatic effect. But I do think Cameron took the science part of science fiction a little more seriously than usual. It’s light-years away from Peter Jackson’s _King Kong_, for example.

  8. The other thing that doesn’t make much sense, ecology-wise, is the apparent stability of Pandora, Hallelujah mountains notwithstanding.

    Considering its apparent proximity to a gas giant it would necessarily be subjected to enormous tidal pressures, tectonic and volcanic chaos and a hellish radiation environment from its neighbour’s magnetic field. Although its orbital condition makes for stunning visuals, it would also render it a rather unlikely candidate for stable mineral deposits of any kind.

    Just an afterthought : )

  9. @MTBradley, I think I may have come across as excessively critical.

    I greatly enjoyed the film for the reason you give, namely that Cameron obviously put far more thought into it than most other comparable enterprises. There are many positives to be stacked against a few negatives, really.

    In this respect, I agree with most of your points. I guess Rex’s post just got me to thinking about certain specifics to do with food production, ecologies, etc., that I haven’t yet seen discussed and might be usefully employed for discussion amongst anthropologists.

    But overall this film is well worth watching and has raised the bar in good ways.

  10. @Carlos

    I’m the last person to accuse someone of being an overly critical movie or TV viewer* as I’m a constant stream of “They didn’t speak Church Latin in the first century,” “The rope might have held but his shoulder would have dislocated,” “Stop saying theory when you mean hypothesis!” and “The NSA doesn’t even do human intel!” That being said, I’ve found the exchange on this thread enjoyable as it demonstrates that there is more to cultural anthropology than cultural criticism.

    *My biggest gripe with the movie was the spurious romance. Nine figures can surely buy you a team of writers bright enough to find a less cliché device to ensure the audience’s emotional engagement. (Though the money people may have made the nine figures contingent upon the inclusion of a spurious romance.)

  11. my first inclination was to say, no they didnt need to farm. why farm when the forest provides everything? hunter-gatherers don’t do it. but, hunter-gatherers are mobile, and the navi are apparently stuck at the home tree.

    which brings me to another issue: is there only one magic home tree and only one magic ewha tree? are the other clans inferior because they’re not in contact with it? and who puts their settlement on a cliff by the sea with crazy surf? you can’t swim or launch boats or fish there, why not live on a nice little bay, or far enough inland that you can use land resources in every direction.

  12. I saw the movie…oddly as part of a work “event.” While I agree with some of the statements (e.g. not a whole lot of learning about Navi culture itself), from the perspective of entertainment–I enjoyed it. When I look at it through the anthropological lense…having spent time with communities impacted by a natural resource company in New Guinea, the themes hit VERY close to home (mining company offering ‘development’ opportunity; mining company willing to ‘negotiate’–as long as they get their way; mining company willing to use any means neccessary, including force, etc). Although it was fantasy, it was nice to see the “natives” win :)

  13. Saw the movie. It’s Dances With Wolves. In 3D. Was expecting Jake Sully to leap up at the end of the scene, give a thumbs up and say: “Hasta La Vista, Baby”. Or “I’ll be back.”

    I had to watch it because I am doing digital anthropology. I will refrain from using it as an example in my essay.

  14. Dances With Wolves meets Jurassic Park through the device of HTS.

    Agree, and remain troubled by, the flatness of the Navi. Yes, it may take more time to develop, but take away a few minutes from the final militaristic invasion and would anything be lost? I don’t think so. What I missed was less a broad ethnographic understanding of their social systems and practices – politics, economy, material lives, etc. – and more some depth by way of a sense of subjectivities, on the one hand, and histories, on the other, related to these systems/practices For instance, how did the youth, Netyiri et al., feel about the traditions of marriage and leadership/rule? I didn’t get any sense of pride, resistence, identity conflict, etc. from within the Navi. They remained as much psychologically flat as culturally.

    My main complaint of an otherwise visually spectacular and imaginative film – HTS-inspired discomfort and all.

  15. It’s a rewrite of Rousseau’s Noble Savage…a perfect male fantasy world, but with green overtones, instead of the usual macho “Princess of Mars” overtones.

    But of course, those who love the primitive life will never face the reality of a life without aspirin or birth control pills…

  16. I’ve been following this discussion of Avatar and would like to make a few points.

    1] it’s a *movie* people. It’s not a documentary, especially not an ethnographic film. It’s an art form that is intended to be commercially profitable by entertaining a large number of people.

    2] For all it’s minutiae of plausibility failings (what did they eat… it’s proximity to a gas giant means it should have more tectonic disruptions), the movie succeeded in getting all of you to talk & think about it, and even pay to go see it.

    3] The plot is a fable. A classic Malinowskian Charter for Our Times. Sure, it is, as Nancy Reyes and others have noted, a re-writing of the Rouseauean noble savage plus Western-Man-Goes-Native (and his soul is saved in the process) narratives.

    But in the re-writing, the fable is modernized, as happens with all good social charters: The noble savages succeed at ousting the invading imperialist resource-seeking colonialists; the ecosystem is damaged but protected; the social fabric is sustained; the cultural stories are validated (Eywa is a living organism; People can sometimes connect with the mega-fauna & mega-flora). The plot may be predictable, but then so is the plot of all myths. That’s the point: even as the story is told the first time, it seems familiar and therefore validates our current (or desired) status quo. As an artist, Cameron has ‘sampled’ quite eloquently and sensitively, I think. We can point to the fact that he had a linguist create the language, and an ethnographer advise on the rituals, and a choreographer design the dances, etc. (I wouldn’t be surprised if someone from Cirque Du Soleil advised on the acrobatic sequences). But I don’t think that we should take that use of expertise and go away with the expectation that Pandora and it’s People will be real. Authentic as Art, perhaps. As Nancy Lutkehaus said in her discussion on helping to plan the Na’vi: Cameron sees himself as a connoisseur, and her role was “that of a curator whose expertise provides the imprimatur of authenticity.” She wasn’t brought in to make sure Cameron mirrored reality. What Cameron has done is created a movie that taps into the collective imaginings of a lot of people. We can critique the implausibility of the details, but the brush strokes are populist.

    In the annals of Hollywood stereotypes and representations, what Cameron did, in creating his Avatar fable has a lot going for it: Think about it: For once, the indigenous people win; the women are good at rescuing instead of being rescued; the women make important decisions; the men are sensitive, even when being macho; the fauna and flora are recognized as actants in their ecosystem; even the capitalist pig-dog miners and the rabid military grunts recognize the horror of their destructive capabilities.

    What’s not to applaud about that kind of fable?

  17. Many of compared Avatar to Dances with Wolves, but I was thinking more of “The Mission” with quasi-anthropologists instead of Jesuits. As in The Mission, we have a long period of simple, naked jungle reverie before the village is threatened, there is an attempt at negotiation and persuasion by the sympathetic foreigners, there is a hot-headed native man who wants to fight, and finally, after it becomes clear that negotiation can’t work, the hero rediscovers his military roots to help the natives fight for freedom. Despite these efforts, a sacred site is destroyed.

    But in Avatar, the natives win.

    A better ending would have avoided either total defeat, as in The Mission, or total victory, but would have referenced the Zapatista story. The hero could have become Marcos, and the use of military force would have been combined with savvy use of the media to earn a tenuous ceasefire, with ongoing low intensity violence.

  18. Many have compared Avatar to Dances with Wolves, but I was thinking more of “The Mission” with quasi-anthropologists instead of Jesuits. As in The Mission, we have a long period of simple, naked jungle reverie before the village is threatened, there is an attempt at negotiation and persuasion by the sympathetic foreigners, there is a hot-headed native man who wants to fight, and finally, after it becomes clear that negotiation can’t work, the hero rediscovers his military roots to help the natives fight for freedom. Despite these efforts, a sacred site is destroyed.

    But in Avatar, the natives win.

    A better ending would have avoided either total defeat, as in The Mission, or total victory, but would have referenced the Zapatista story. The hero could have become Marcos, and the use of military force would have been combined with savvy use of the media to earn a tenuous ceasefire, with ongoing low intensity violence.

  19. @Olivia

    “1] it’s a movie people. It’s not a documentary, especially not an ethnographic film. It’s an art form that is intended to be commercially profitable by entertaining a large number of people.”

    First of all, movies have to have enough common denominators with the cultural specifics of the audience for it to actually work. Otherwise people wont identify themselves with what they see, which takes me to a second and more potent point, if people dont identify themselves (using empathy, one would say, from a phenomenological perspective) then the different discourses conveyed in the movie wont be internalised in the audience. It’s not “just” for entertainment. It’s meant to convey some kind of meaning. Otherwise everyone could just as well watch Laurel&Hardy or Charlie Chaplin over and over again, even though the audience is Indian or from a different era of time.

  20. I’m looking for practical advice. My wife and I are planning a gourmet dinner for eight with cocktails, appetizers, soup and/or salad, main course, dessert and liqueurs. I loved Avatar and want to use it as the dinner theme.
    What should we serve?
    Keep in mind this is gourmet. (No Big Macs.)

  21. Dear Anthropologists:

    What do the anthropologists who work for the oil and mining companies say about the film? I spend a lot of time looking at oil and mining projects in Africa, and there are always anthropologists in the background (or, as in the case of Exxon Mobil’s venture into Chad, the foreground; see http://www.edf.org/documents/4187_mallaby_rebuttal.pdf). They provide an entry ticket, both for reaching the local communities and deflecting international criticism. Every land acquisition program — and every World Bank review — has its anthropologists. The underexplored history of the mining venture in Pandora is that the anthropologists were there from the start — perhaps making it possible to proceed in the first place?. I would love to know more about how this is read from within the discipline.

    Peter Rosenblum, Columbia Law School

  22. You should contact:

    Jamon Alex Halvaksz, II
    Assistant Professor

    U. of Texas at San Antonio

    From his site:

    Research

    My on-going research with Biangai speakers of Papua New Guinea focuses on the historical and contemporary politics of nature in a context of competing resource management regimes. Though grounded in a landscape of long-term gold mining, I interrogate a wide range of practices as they inform a local theoretic of human-environment relations. My work is directed toward interventions in contemporary policy highlighting 1) the role of local imaginaries and epistemologies in the definition and management of ‘nature’ and ‘resources,’ and 2) the competing ideations of indigenous and scientific knowledge.

    He’s also done work on the subject of Marijuana cultivation on Papau New Guinea.

    He’s a really great and very smart guy. Basically, he found that locals actually liked what the mine brought them, and they want the mines back. The conflict was in the disproportionate share of wealth produced by the mines in the area. So, they want to be able to negotiate with mine owners in the same way that a land owner in the US can. In the movie the Navi honestly didn’t need anything from the humans. They could fly, they has a global bio-computer, etc… On our planet, pre-literate peoples generally wanted things like steel knives, and no one had to push them on them.
    So, in the movie the company was willing to give the Navi whatever they wanted, but they didn’t have anything they wanted. On our planet, often it isn’t a matter of the people not wanting anything, rather it is a matter of the company not wanting to give them anything. So, I think that anthros. can help them negotiate the terms of any agreements, to ensure that sacred forest areas are protected, and that local needs are met.

    There’s also an interesting story about an anthropologist that works on environmental justice issues, and I can’t remember her name right now, but I’ll find out. Anyway, she had worked for the locals who were effected by the nuclear testing in French Polynesia atolls. She said that in the court case between the government, and the people, the anthropologist what worked for the government (who was the preeminent expert and worked in the islands for 20 years) came to court with very sloppy research. She came to court with something like a 5 page brief. She actually helped the locals by not trying very hard, basically.

    This story mirrors the theme of the movie that employees of the company, actually worked against the company.

  23. I had heard they cut a scene at the end where the Navi were feasting on Commander Falco, but apparently it got too many cheers from a test audience.

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