Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes, By Daniel Everett

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The Independent Culture

It is 6:30 on an August Saturday morning during the dry season of 1980. The sun is shining, and a breeze blowing up from the Maici River. Daniel Everett wakes up in his hut among the Piraha Indians of Brazil, and it is on this morning that he realises how differently the two cultures – European-based and Pirahas – see reality. For the next two decades he grapples with the nuances of these differences.

Everett first visited the Pirahas as a 26-year-old and ended up devoting so much of his life to them that his grandchildren now know them. His journey into the crucible of Amazonian culture teaches him both scientific and personal lessons which change his life profoundly. This memoir also shows his own perception of reality altering in fundamental ways: once a missionary, he finds himself converted by the Pirahas.

The title of this thorough, thought-provoking book is an expression used by some Pirahas as a good-night greeting: Pirahas believe that by sleeping less, they will "harden themselves" and also remain alert to the manifold dangers surrounding them in the jungle. Separated into two main parts, "Life" and "Language", the book examines the complexities of words as well as of people and place, studying the linguistic building blocks that make meaning, and what might be lost – and what found – in translation. We learn much about this fascinating culture: how they do not live by clock time, how competition is absent, how they have no word for "worry".

The vivid details are combined with broader questions, such as why we should care about other cultures and languages at all. The loss of language, argues Everett, brings loss of identity, and we must protect and respect languages and thus lives. The book also shows how those who once threatened to kill you can become your dearest friends.