Explorer and adventurer Benedict Allen has seen more than most people so who better to answer those myths from far away places that we simply assume to be true.
We all know that Eskimos have 50 different words for “snow”. Or is it 500? Anyway, an awful lot. It’s one of those interesting little facts that says something about the amazing ingenuity of us humans. Whereas we see just snow, the Eskimo perceives an endlessly varying realm of white textures and possibilities. Wonderful.
Except that it’s not true. Talk to the average Eskimo chap and you’ll find he has about the same number of words for snow as we do. I discovered this when I took a sledge-dog team through the Russian Arctic and asked the locals. And it gets worse: the Eskimo-Inuit don’t live in igloos. They don’t even rub their noses together! Hearing this, I began wondering what other myths surround the world’s far-flung places. But first, those Eskimos…
How many words for snow?
For one thing, any comparison is meaningless because there isn’t a single Eskimo language but a whole variety of Eskimo tongues—though this hasn’t stopped us bunching the whole lot together. In the 1940s, the linguist Benjamin Whorf put the number of Eskimo-Inuit snow words at a modest seven. By the 1970s the number had crept up to 50, and in 1984 The New York Times gamely plumped for 100. But even assuming there was a single Eskimo language, such totals mean nothing. When describing snow (or anything else), the EskimoInuit add a suffix or prefix to root words, while we might say “wet snow” or “slippery snow” or “deep-and-crisp-and-even snow”. The result is, nonetheless, pleasingly precise: qanniq denotes falling snow; piqsiq is snow lifted up by wind; uangniut is snow accumulated by a north-west wind; and aniuk is snow for drinking water. The English language also does pretty well—blizzard, sleet, slush, powder-snow, white-out, snowstorm, hail, snowdrift, flurry…
Eskimos rubbing noses
To the first European explorers it might have looked as if Eskimos were doing this—clad in hefty furs, little else seemed possible. But typically the Eskimo-Inuit embrace—a more intimate expression of affection for them—is to inhale deeply, savouring your loved one’s hair.
Polar bears cover their noses when stalking Prey
It might seem like a sensible ploy—they have black, giveaway noses, after all. But there’s no substance to this claim—or to another myth, that they’re left-handed. These highly proficient hunters do rise up, however, waving both paws when excited. It’s this, perhaps, that’s encouraged tales among travellers and Eskimos alike of their cunning—including that they fashion ice walls to hide behind.
Shelters made out of snow are indeed constructed and fashioned from snowy bricks, just as we like to imagine. Except the Eskimo-Inuit rarely lived in them for long periods and, disappointingly, the elders that I met had never heard of them. In truth, these are coastal peoples who traditionally foraged for driftwood, whalebones, stones and turf to construct their camps, saving snow-houses for hunting excursions or migrations.
Penguins falling backwards
This story seems to have its origins in the Falklands War. When jet fighters zoomed overhead, the poor penguins, not a little inquisitive, were said to lean back and back until finally keeling over. Pilots reported them toppling like dominoes as they gazed skyward. In fact, penguins are wonderfully adept at maintaining their footing. Sadly, the likely explanation is that the colonies were in panic, fleeing this ghastly intrusion.
Perhaps because they also inhabit a world almost impossibly exotic to us, camels, like Eskimos, attract numerous myths: those humps contain fat, not water; camels don’t spit, nor carry syphilis (though they do regurgitate their cud at those who displease them, and that’s bad enough). As for them being irritable, camels do tend to make a bit of a fuss, but actually they’re very affectionate once you’ve gained their trust.
Perhaps their reputation stems from those we encounter as tourists—visiting the Pyramids, say. They groan at their unhappy lot, slowly rising to their feet and grudgingly plodding off through the sands. But from the camel point of view, the average tripper—adorned with factor 20, and with flapping sun hat and snapping camera—isn’t a happy prospect. To cope in the desert, the camel must behave in a way that increases his chances of survival, so he naturally favours the company of those who aren’t passers-by. All others are a waste of precious energy.
Big bad wolves
This one must date from our distant past, when the wolf was an arch-rival, preying on our nomadic herds, and a threat to our existence. But examine the scientific literature and there are only one or two substantiated attacks on humans—and even then you’ll find it’s not certain who was to blame. On the contrary, wolves have learned to survive by avoiding man. I discovered this when I visited a wolf researcher in Poland: he’d been studying a pack for three years and had yet to see them. European and other wolves do attack livestock—I couldn’t help noticing that nearby Polish sheepdogs wore armour plating to help them do battle. But, in truth, the only wolf that comes near man is the dog, which learned long ago to be submissive and make itself useful.
The seventh wave is biggest
It’s something that’s often repeated, and as a child I believed it—even before reading Papillon. You’ll remember that Papillon, the French convict, swore that the one way to escape the notorious Devil’s Island—and specifically its sharks—was to be carried off by that seventh mighty swirl. I went there myself, and waited and waited. Many came, but the seventh waves were on average no stronger than the fifth or sixth, or indeed the rest. In all my travels since, I’ve watched ocean shores, waiting in vain for that great seventh wave…
“We met cannibals!”
No you didn’t. I remember a well-known TV presenter, deep in the forests of New Guinea, introducing his task of that week: to live with notorious maneaters. They certainly looked the part, bristling with arrows, and with bones through their noses. But I’d lived with the same people 20 years before, and they hadn’t been cannibals then. In all my experience, it’s always been the same — endless tales, and not one substantiated case (they had eaten the evidence, perhaps?).
There is, of course, the oft-cited example of the Fore, a people of the Papua New Guinean uplands. They suffer from kuru, a variant of “mad cow disease”, and in their case it does seem to have been transferred through the ingestion of skull contents. In the Congo, too, there are credible eye-witness accounts from Victorian missionaries such as the respected George Grenfell, and horrifying contemporary reports of armies indulging in the practice to embolden their recruits and overawe enemies. But these are rare aberrations—and the rest is largely the stuff of colourful travellers’ tales.
I say “largely” because there’s a second source for these myths: the indigenous people themselves. Just like many a traveller, they find it useful at times to “big up” their reputation. If you inhabit the fetid swamps and malarial forest margins, there’s considerable merit in being left well alone to get on with the business of surviving. As for the Fore, those cannibals of Papua New Guinea, the ones with that disease you get from eating the grey matter of your dead… that’s a ritual practice, more to do with the afterlife than making the most of your enemy. Christianity has, symbolically, much the same ritual at its core in the Holy Communion.
Chameleons change colour to match their environment
While many chameleons do change colour, this is often less to do with camouflage and more to do with their mood and temperature. A chameleon might, if to cold, turn a darker shade to absorb more heat. Or it might turn a lighter colour to reflect the sun and so cool down. Moreover, chameleons often change skin colour as a signalling device—some, such as the panther chameleon, transform into a vivid orange to scare off predators, while others flash bright colours to attract a mate. The brighter the colour a male is able to display, the more dominant. Equally, he might communicate his submission with a dull tone, and a female might reject undesired courtiers by warding them off with her own skin signals. Thus the act of standing out can be more important than that of blending in. But, as I’ve often found on my travels, the truth is just as interesting as the myth.
I’ve swum with them; I’ve even gutted fish among them, initiating a feeding frenzy. But, in all my jungle years, I’ve never been bitten by a piranha, nor heard of a single victim. There’s no doubt about their appetite or the sharpness of their teeth, but ask the South Americans and they’ll tell you piranhas are a menace only sometimes in the dry season, when cut off in pools and starved. That’s not to say they don’t inflict injury—you might lose a finger or toe when you fish for them and they flop about in your canoe. But I suspect more people die choking on piranha than are ever eaten themselves: they are spectacularly bony.
The full article appears in June’s issue of the Reader’s Digest, out in shops now.
Explorer and adventurer Benedict Allen is currently writing an historical novel about the Congo.