Nature and Culture

To regard nature as a social fantasy, a pure projection of social categories which has no influence on the manner in which those categories are formed and understood does not appear to be very helpful. However, it has been pointed out and accepted by most anthropologists and historians that ideas about what nature is supposed to be both vary between cultures and have changed historically in Western thought. The very distinction between the natural and the social world is a product of Enlightenment thought which produced and required the 'Othering' of nature (Collingwood 1945; Williams 1976; Horigan 1988; Latour 1994). Deconstructing the opposition we can note that it is just one particular local way of understanding the world and the place of humanity within that world. As Ellen (1996) points out food, the human body, technologies are both equally in nature and in culture rather than in one domain, and not another. Furthermore, we know that in many small-scale societies there is no linguistic term that might even be translated as 'nature' or a 'natural environment:' and opposed to culture and society (Descola 1992; 1996; Howell 1996; Århem 1996) Humans, and that which they produce, are conceived as being part of the world, enveloped within that world rather than being in some way separated and opposed to it. Plants and animals may often be considered as persons living in societies of their own and entering into relations with humans. A continuum exists between humans, plants, animals, ancestors, spirits and substances such as rocks. All these may be endowed with consciousness and a soul. The ethnographic record thus resists the imposition of a nature/culture dualism which cannot simply be projected onto other cultures either in the past or in the present as unproblematic.

The nature/culture distinction is one of a series of classic logocentric oppositions in Western thought which at the very moment of its denial only reconstitutes itself again. Ellen has recently addressed the 'problem' of nature and culture in this way: 'culture emerges from nature as the symbolic representation of the latter. As culture is a subclass of nature (the most inclusive class) nature cannot be fully specified using ordinary language, which is a kind of symbolic culture...If culture gives meaning to nature, then nature gives meaning to culture (humans adapt), and so on ad infinitum...the opposition of nature and culture is therefore a psuedo-problem arising out of reflexive symbolic constructs (ordinary language) within culture itself' (Ellen 1996: 31). We might perhaps simply resolve the matter by regarding the distinction between nature and culture as being not amenable to a description as true or false. It is just a means of thinking about the world and understanding the lives of people which may be more or less useful in empirical research.

If we are agnostically left with an analytical position of 'no nature, no culture' then in order to understand the relationship between humans and the organic and inorganic world which exists prior to and independently of the symbolic artefact of cultural categorisation we need to turn our attention to process rather than concept, the manner in which cultural salience is produced out of the world through the human practice of engagement in and understanding of that world. As Descola (1996) points out a universal feature of all conceptualisations of non-human entities by humans is that this is necessarily predicated by reference to the human domain. In Western thought this leads to a dualistic conception of the universe in which nature becomes negatively defined as that ordered segment of reality which exists independently from human action. In other cultures the model of nature, if such a concept exists, is usually sociocentric: social categories become the template for ordering the environment. The interpretation of these clitter structures perhaps requires us to abandon the opposition of nature to culture in a movement away from a binary to an analogic (or metaphoric) logic (Tilley 1998).

Nature in culture and culture in nature

What the Bronze Age people made of their hill and how they cognized it depends on how they viewed their relationship with the stones. Their social world was coexistent with the stones which were themselves a foundation for the cosmos. The stones in a basic way grounded and anchored an experience of place. Tied into the walls and houses they added permanence as a stabilising force. Moving the stones on the hill was part of a process of the objectification of nature through which these stones acquired cultural salience and significance. In view of the ethnographic evidence it seems reasonable to infer that the meanings of the stones were constructed by reference to the human domain. The attribution of life and a soul to inanimate objects, most commonly through anthropomorphism, is a basic part of human conceptualisations of the world in most small-scale societies. In animic systems of thought natural beings are endowed with human qualities: boundaries between nature and culture collapse, becoming thoroughly ambiguous. The non-human world is thought of in the same manner as the human world. Continuity between culture and nature is asserted. Social categories are used to construct models of nature. We believe that the people of Leskernick hill regarded the stones as animate sentient beings, the opposite of a modernist belief system in which the stones are simply regarded as inanimate objects to be exploited at will. As animate beings the stones would be regarded as subjects rather than objects. They would possess a personality, an essence, a spiritual and moral power. The stones would almost certainly have had ancestral significance either as physical embodiments of a generalized ancestral spiritual essence or in terms of individual ancestors and events and stories connected with them. The stones contained forces exogenous to human will but forces that could nonetheless be pacified, tapped and controlled. The stones as subjects possessing internal essences would require respect and reverence. They could have a protective function guarding the population of the hill and be potential sources of evil and danger. People would be intensely aware that through moving the stones and altering their configurations to create houses, walls etc. they were doing violence to their hill, a violence necessary for life and sustenance. There were morally right and wrong ways to engage with the stones. Altering the clitter, simply by modifying it, could in this light be viewed as an act of atonement. In altering the clitter people were merely materialising its own essence i.e. displaying the properties, powers, potentials it contained within itself and displaying the vital energies and forces residing in the stones. People were merely revealing a cosmic patterning and order inherent within the clitter, They were then not so much making the circles as drawing them out from amongst the stones: revealing a cosmic patterning, the circle, and a transcendent order lying beneath surface appearances- a jumbled chaos of stone.

In the cosmological circle of the Bronze Age we can easily surmise a regenerative connection between life and death. Stones represented permanence. In this stone world people were born amongst the stones and, on death, returned to the stones. Ancestors were stone-faced. The stone circles below Leskernick hill were places for the ceremonies of the living, places around and through which one could move. By contrast the stone circles in the clitter could not be moved through or used by the living: they were circles for the ancestors: spirit circles. We regard it as plausible to suggest that large impressive stones on the hill possessed individual names and had a specific significance. By contrast the stones within the clitter masses had a more generalized cultural importance. Large stones might be embodiments of particular ancestors or spirits. The mass of stones within the clitter masses could not have had individual names (there are far too many of them for that ) but would connote a more generalized spiritual and ancestral power materialised through the clitter constructions.

The stones on Leskernick are differentially visible. Leskernick is entirely different when seen from a fixed point of obervation (e.g. a house doorway) or from a mobile field of vision, a path of observation, lacking fixed points. So far in our research, while we have investigated the former we have neglected the latter. And we need to experiment with moving from one place to another. Leskernick is a topologically ordered network of houses and enclosures and places each marked by physical features with paths connecting them. To perceive is to be differentially aware of the stone surfaces of the hill. An interchange between hidden and unhidden surfaces and structures is an essential part of this awareness. The fact that structures and stones come into view and out of view as one moves around the hill and are visible for long distances or hidden, like the clitter structures, except when one is very close up to them is part of their meaning and the way in which they fit into the hill. The clitter structures are, in contrast to the houses and walls, both present and absent, of this world and of another world. Compared with a house they appear like shadows or spirits: through their ambiguity they thus internally refer to the very cosmological domain that they represent.


When one first starts to look hard at clitter the eyes hurt, the stones begin to swirl like looking at an Escher print. A pattern is no sooner seen than it is lost, the stones appear to be an ever changing kaleidoscope of forms. Such effects would be ideal in inducing trance-like states so important in shamanistic experiences and their capacity to mediate between this and other worlds. On Leskernick hill it therefore appears to be of great significance that the majority of the clitter structures we have identified are non-randomly concentrated in the vicinity of the large isolated houses 3 and 28 (see Fig. 4
[pdf]) located, when compared with the others, in liminal positions amongst the densest areas of clitter on the hill. Clitter structures of the type that we have been describing are not unique to Leskernick hill. We have recently begun to identify them elsewhere on Bodmin Moor. It is possible that they may be found in granite areas throughout the south-west of England and beyond.