One of the most important insights about people is that they can form social relationships with almost anything. Animals, the deceased, spirits, Gods, inanimate objects—humans look across nature and find new allies or adversaries everywhere they go.
What is intriguing about these associations is they are often structured around norms of reciprocity, much like conventional human relationships.
A hunter who kills his prey may naturally thank the beast for submitting to its death, singing a song in its honor, perhaps leaving an offering of berries, or ritually treating and decorating portions of its carcass. “Hunting is not simply a matter of killing animals; you owe them something, and this debt is paid when you bring the animals you have killed back to life by talking about them,” writes Pierre Clastres of the Guayaki-Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay.
Among the Xokleng of Brazil, arrows are thought to have a kind of soul, “not only do arrows weep and die if they are deserted or thrown away in the forest, but arrows can see when a man is threatened with death, and they will fall from their places in the house above him at night to warn him of his danger.” Arrows thus respected and treated well return this courtesy, and come to their owner and creator’s aid when he is in peril.
Human emotions and cultural norms, such as feelings of hunger and norms of modesty, can be projected onto diverse representations. When Margaret Mead showed Mountain Arapesh women of New Guinea a life-sized doll, she says, “They would take me aside to ask me how I fed it, and ask if it would never grow any bigger. And if I laid it on the ground with its head lower than its feet, some solicitous woman always rushed to turn it around.”
Animal trials were not uncommon in Europe in the Middle Ages, “In December 1457 the sow of Jehan Bailly of Savigny and her six piglets were caught in the act of killing the five-year-old Jehan Martin. All seven pigs were imprisoned for murder and brought to trial a month later before the seigneurial justice of Savigny.”
Charles Hose and William McDougal write that, “Although Kenyahs [of Borneo] will not kill a hawk, they would not prevent us from shooting one if it stole their chickens; for they say that a hawk who will do that is a low-class fellow, a cad, in fact, for there are social grades among the hawks just as there among themselves. [emphasis added]”. Thus the nonliving and the nonhuman may still be expected to abide to human’s cultural norms of moral culpability and accountability.
As I wrote on previously, in many societies there is a somewhat ambivalent relationship with the deceased, who not uncommonly are thought to feel confused or angry at their loss of life, and must be appeased and shown proper respect by the living.
Among the Manus of New Guinea, “Each Manus' man worships his Father, not in Heaven, but in his house front rafters...The skull of the father of the house owner has an honoured place in a finely carved wooden bowl hung high above...The spiritual presence guards the house and supervises the morals of its people.” This supervision is considered quite literal—Sir Ghost contributes to a man’s fishing success and protects the people of the household from sickness. If, however, Sir Ghost is not properly respected, he will instead inhibit a man’s fishing abilities and bring illness to home. Anthropologist Reo Fortune writes that,
The name of Sir Ghost is hallowed. The house owner often talks to his father's ghost, and honours the name of his father in his manner of speech. When he, in his turn, dies, his son or heir will honour him similarly, but not the ghost of the grandfather. The Manus honour a ghostly father, never a ghostly grandfather, saying that Sir Ghosts deserve to become anonymous and dishonoured when they fail to protect their sons from death. Then their skulls are cast out of the houses into the lagoons, in the house-breaking that follows a house owner's death. [emphasis added]
Because these relationships are often culturally stereotyped, with certain norms and expectations of proper conduct, the nonhuman and the nonliving may nonetheless impose significant demands on people’s time and attention, which they may come to resent. Anthropologist Peter Metcalf writes that,
The Berawan of Long Teru lost their stock of skulls in a disastrous fire that consumed the entire longhouse. It was an incident that was often recalled, and the poor woman, now elderly, whose kitchen fire started the blaze has never been allowed to forget it. But oddly enough, the loss of skulls was not lamented. Though it was claimed that the heads had the potential to bring benefits to the community, the service of them was considered onerous. The heads had to be ‘fed’, so it was said, with small offerings, and kept warm with a fire that never went out. Women had to avoid that part of the longhouse veranda, or pass by in a crouched position. Any contact with heads was dreaded, so that only old men, weary of life, would dare move them, whenever the house needed rebuilding. [emphasis added]
To me, this all points to a few key facets: 1) humans having an evolved psychology with mechanisms particularly attuned to developing and assessing identities: we form our own individual identity, we recognize others, we have a reputation and assess those of others in turn, etc. 2) the universality of cultural norms which structure and guide social interactions, and which, as shown above, are commonly projected onto the nonhuman and nonliving, who themselves have and are given their own identity and reputation, and 3) the role of socioecological context and exchange in incentivizing certain kinds of relationships (e.g., through hunting rituals).
The concept of human ‘ultrasociality’ is naturally focused on how good humans are at cooperating with other humans, but I am particularly fascinated by the effort people go to to try and cooperate with the nonliving and the nonhuman.