Pirahãs — People Who Don’t Sleep


On the banks of  the Maici River in Brazil‘s Amazonas state, in the territory on Humaitá and Manicoré municipality lives an extraordinary tribe — the Pirahã people — with the unique way of life and faith.

They do not know how to count — even to one. They eat when they feel hunger. When there is no food, phlegmatic Pirahãs take it stoically. They don’t understand why they should eat every day. They eat no more than twice a day, and often fast even when food is plentiful.piraha88

Pirahãs have no notion of private property and do not care for anything that is of value to the modern civilized man. Anxiety, fears and prejudices that plagues 99 percent of the world’s population don’t bother them one bit.

Pirahãs feel no shame, guilt or resentment. If Haaiohaaa dropped the fish in the water, it is bad — no fish, no dinner. But surely it is not Haaiohaaa’s fault.Haaiohaaa simply dropped the fish into the water. If a small Kiihioa pushed Okiohkiaa, it is bad because Okiohkiaa broke his leg and it needs to be treated. But it happened because it happened, that’s all.piraha9Pirahã parents never reprimand, shame or scold their children. Of course they’ll stop the child from touching hot embers or falling into the river, but they never get angry or irate — they simply don’t know how.
If a baby turns away from his mother’s breast, no one will force milk into him — baby  knows better why he doesn’t want to suckle. If a woman in labor goes into the forest to give birth, and then screams and yells nonstop for three days unable to do so, it means she does not really want to give birth, rather, she wants to die. There is no need to rush out there and try to dissuade her to do as she wishes. Well, her husband might still run out to the forest and try to find solid arguments… piraha4

Pirahãs sleep fitfully for half an hour now and then. Pirahãs believe that sleep is harmful — it makes you weak. In the dream you die and wake up a somewhat different person. It’s not that you do not like this new person, you just stop being yourself if you sleep for too long and too often. So Pirahãs do not sleep at night, merely doze fitfully, for 20-30 minutes, leaning against the walls of palm huts or curled up under the trees. To fend off  sleepiness, they rub juice of a certain tropical plant into their eyelids.


The rest of the time they talk, laugh, carve something or another, dance around bonfires and play with children and animals. Sadly, sleep, however short and fitful, slowly but surely changes them — they remember that earlier they used to be different, perhaps some other people entirely.

“Those were much smaller, were not able to have sex, and even sucked their mothers’ breasts. And then those people have gone and here I am in their stead. And if I won’t sleep for a long time, I may not disappear. I’d slept and changed, I’ll take another name … “ On average, Pirahãs change their names every 6 to 7 years — a distinct “age-appropriate” name, thus the name alone can always say if Pirahã is a child, a boy, an adult or an elderly person.  piraha99

Pirahãs have surprisingly few rituals and religious beliefs. They know they are like all living things — the children of the forest. The forest is full of magic and secrets. More than that, forest is a universe devoid of order, rules and logic, and it is inhabited by ghosts and spirits. All the dead go there, therefore the forest is scary.
But Pirahãs’ fear is unlike that of Westerners. When we are afraid, we feel bad. Pirahãs, on the other hand, consider fear to be a very strong feeling, indeed, but not without certain charm. They seem to love fear.piraha7

Perhaps, it is the fabric of life in which the night’s sleep does not distinguish day and night, Pirahãs have a very odd notion of time. They do not know what is “tomorrow” and what is “today”, what is “past” and and what is “future.” Pirahã people have no notion of hours or days, mornings or nights. They never think about the future — they just do not know what it is. Past is irrelevant to them. Pirahãs live “here and now.”

— to be continued…

One comment on “Pirahãs — People Who Don’t Sleep

  1. Pingback: Laiks ir – māksla ir saruna

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