Note: The following is an article I wrote for the Spyglass magazine, inspired by the indigenous cultures of Australia. It's not super relevant to the theme of this blog but I still thought my blog followers may be interested in this. Enjoy.
When I read a good historical tale, I almost feel immortal. It’s as if I’ve been transported to a different world and have been living a thousand different lives among people of various cultures. As silly as it may sound, sometimes I wonder if I was born in the wrong time period. I call myself an aspiring cultural anthropologist, hoping to gain some deep insight into human nature by studying the different ways in which various cultures view the world. I’d like to specialize in the native cultures of Mexico perhaps, but my most recent fixation is on a much older culture. In fact, it’s the oldest continuous culture in the world: the indigenous people of Australia. According to Australian Geographic, genetic studies have revealed that they’re descendants of the first people to leave Africa 75,000 years ago. They’ve also been a historically nomadic people, which means that my ‘armchair travelling’ through adventure stories would never content them. They live to wander.
There is something about these restless adventurers that all of us can learn from. The Australian aboriginals had a powerful oral tradition which included directions that acted as a sort of spoken map, something which anthropologists call the ‘songlines’. Every tribe had different songlines that covered their whole territory. If you memorized the songlines--which mention where to find waterholes, landmarks and food sources--you could have navigated throughout all of Australia. They also had a rite of passage called the Walkabout, in which adolescents would have to prove they could survive in the outback on their own. It is this emphasis on the act of walking in their culture that people find interesting. Sometimes, owning too many material possessions can be exhausting and tie us down. We are drawn to adventure because we want to escape. The desire to wander is one of our most suppressed instincts, and it’s something that has been passed down to us from our earliest nomadic ancestors. Perhaps it can be the explanation for why some people are natural thrill-seekers who search for experiences that can bring them out of their comfort zone, and wilt when faced with a boring routine.
The idea that some people carry this explorer gene certainly is a romantic one, but can it be backed by scientific evidence? The answer may lie in the research of Dr Richard Paul Ebstein, Professor of Psychology at the National University of Singapore, who believes that a gene variant known as DRD4-7R causes more risky behaviour in people. Carriers of DRD4-7R are less sensitive to dopamine, a chemical that controls the brain’s ‘pleasure system’, so they are more likely to seek out extreme pleasurable experiences. This not only includes travel, but also impulsive financial risks like gambling. Further research from the University of California found that the gene variant was more commonly found among migratory cultures than in settled ones. Of course, no gene variant can explain someone’s entire pattern of behaviour, but the idea of a wanderer gene carries an irresistible appeal. Some of us suffer from homesickness, but there are others among us who suffer from quite the opposite and will forever yearn for distant places.