We all know that Eskimos have 50 different words for “snow”. Or is it 500?? Anyways, an awful lot. It’s one of those interesting little facts that say more than something about the amazing ingenuity of us humans. While we see just snow, the Eskimo perceives an endlessly varying realm of white textures and possibilities. Simply wonderful! Except that it’s not true. Benedict Allen, the British traveller noted for his knowledge of indigenous people the world over, examined the following facts we had all learnt at school.
HOW MANY WORDS FOR SNOW?
Any comparison is meaningless, since there isn’t a single Eskimo language but a whole lot of Eskimo tongues. In the 1940s linguist put the number of Eskimo-Inuit (those at Canada, Northern Alaska and Greenland) snow words at 7 which crept up to 50 at 1970s and soared to 100 by 1984. Well, the real fact is, Eskimos add a suffix or prefix to root words for example- qanniq denotes “falling snow” while piqsiq is “snow lifted by winds” and uanguit is snow “accumulated by north-west wind”. Quite the same as English does- snowstorm, white-out, blizzard, sleet, slush, hail, snow-drift, flurry, powder-snow, etc and so on.
POLAR BEARS COVER THEIR NOSES WHILE STALKING PREY
It might seem like a sensible ploy-they have black, giveaway noses, after all. But there is no substance to this undue claim-or to another myth that they are left-handed. These highly proficient hunters do rise up when excited waving both paws. It’s perhaps this that has encouraged tales among travellers and Eskimos alike of their cunning-including that they fashion ice walls to hide behind.
IGLOOS FOR SHELTER
We all like to imagine that shelters made of snow are constructed and fashioned from snowy bricks. Contrary to this belief, Eskimos rarely lived in them for long periods and some had never even heard of them! Instead, these were costal people who usually opted for wood, whalebones and stones to construct their camps, saving igloos exclusively for hunting excursions or migrations. After all, who would have the guts to carve bricks out of something that could arrest your own blood supply!
ESKIMOS RUBBING NOSES TOGETHER
To start with, Eskimos have been grouped into the Inuits of Canada, Northern Alaska and Greenland, and the Yupik of eastern Siberia and Alaska. 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.
Camels too attract numerous myths-humps containing fat not water, neither spitting nor carrying syphilis! Perhaps this reputation stems from the prospective tourists. As for them being irritable, camels do tend to make a bit of a fuss, but actually, they are very affectionate once you have gained their trust.
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 energy.
PENGUINS FALLING BACKWARDS
This myth originated at the Falklands war. When jet fighters zoomed overhead, the poor creatures, not a little inquisitive, were said to lean back and back until finally kneeling over. They were reported to be toppling like dominoes as they gazed towards the sky. In fact, penguins are well adapted at maintaining footing. Sadly, the islanders were in panic fleeing this ghastly intrusion.
BIG BAD WOLVES
This dates back to our distant past when the wolves were our arch rivals, preying on our nomadic herds, and a threat to our existence. However, on examining scientific literature there have occurred only one or two substantial attacks on humans. On the contrary, wolves have learnt to survive by avoiding human intrusion into their domiciles. The only wolf that comes near man is the faithful dog.
THE SEVENTH WAVE IS BIGGEST
It is something that is often repeated, and as child all of us believed it blindly. All of you must have read in Papillion that the French convict swore that the only way to escape Devil’s Island was to be carried off by that 7th mighty swirl.
Benedict as well as other travellers have been there themselves and found that 7th waves were no stronger than the 5th or 6th, or indeed the rest. You could indeed check that by yourself while sitting your time out at the beach.
DEADLY MAN-EATING PIRANHAS
Benedict himself has swum with them and even gutted fish among them but has never been bitten by a piranha or heard of a single victim in all his jungle years. There’s no question about their appetite or the sharpness of their teeth as one might actually lose a finger or toe while fishing for them. Being spectacularly bony fishes, people actually die choking while eating those fishes.
The jungle tribes certainly looked wild, bristling with arrows, and with bones through their noses. But Benedict has stayed with the same people 20 years before, and they had not been cannibals then. Endless tales but no substantial proof of it!
The so called cannibals of Papua New Guinea, the ones with that disease called kuru they contract from eating the grey matter of their dead. That’s a ritual more to do with afterlife than consuming the won species. The second sources for these myths are always the indigenous people themselves.
CHAMELEONS CHANGE COLOUR NOT TO MATCH THEIR ENVIRONMENT BUT THEIR MOOD
While most chameleons change colour, this is often less to do with camouflage and more to do with their mood as well as temperature. A chameleon might, if too cold, turn a darker shade or turn a lighter colour to reflect the sun and so cool down.
Some often change colours to distract predators and others to attract a mate. The brighter the colour a male is able to display, the more dominant. Thus, the act of standing out can be more important than blending in.