When Lévi-Strauss at last reached the Nambikwara after an 800-mile trek, the encounter shattered his romantic expectations. ‘I had been looking for a society reduced to its simplest expression,’ he wrote, and ‘that of the Nambikwara was so truly simple that all I could find in it was individual human beings.’ The men of the tribe greeted him laughing; the women tried to steal his soap as he washed in the river. Malnourished, and on the brink of a breakdown, he nevertheless started to gather the material he would use to shatter a generation-old consensus in anthropology. Whereas functionalist anthropologists following Bronislaw Malinowski believed the social lives of indigenous peoples were determined by basic needs like sex and hunger, Lévi-Strauss found something close to the opposite in the tribes he encountered: even in the most dire conditions, they were driven above all by an intellectual need to understand the world around them. When Amerindians chose animals for their totems, it was not because they were ‘good to eat,’ Lévi-Strauss argued, but because they were ‘good to think.’ The Nambikwara were every bit as scientifically minded as the ethnographers who studied them (their mental inventory for honey, for instance, included thirteen different varieties). The only major difference, Lévi-Strauss claimed, was the ‘totalitarian ambition of the savage mind,’ which operated on the assumption that if you couldn’t explain everything, you hadn’t explained anything. Lévi-Strauss witnessed this rage for order in everything from their face-painting to the layout of their camps, and most especially in their myths, which they pieced together with borrowed scraps of older ones in the same way a computer programmer might patch together code.