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Anthropological View


An Anthropological View
by Kirk
W Huffman

Thinking about the World


Last Friday week I made one of my very rare visits over to Vila (Ibiza town) and by accidental invitation ended up at a rather plush bankers' buffet lunch at the 'exclusive' 'Las Trebedes' restaurant in the Avenida Isidor Macabich. Pilar Costa, the head of the local government was there, as well as Abel Matutes (whose last post was Spain's Minister for Foreign Affairs), the presidents of both the Ibiza and Formentera banking associations and many others from the local banking and business communities. It is a world away from rural peasant Eivissa/Ibiza, and I was certainly the odd person out there, but that is rather normal when one is an anthropologist - one is usually the only 'outsider' with some sort of 'tribe' or other. The event set me to thinking again about 'our' world and how different the whole world really is from what most people in our 'modern' societies seem to think it is. In spite of modern media - TV, radio, newspapers, etc - most people in the 'developed' world have very little in-depth idea of what really exists 'out there'.

It reminds me of an academic discussion I was sitting in on in New York in 1998 where one scientist, borrowing a theme taken from, I think, an article in 'Scientific American' was going on about how computers had now reduced the world to one interconnected village and that by the year 2025 all knowledge would be available on computer. The strange thing was that most people there seemed to agree with him, but then most of those present were either bankers or in big business. The speaker paused at one point and asked if anyone wanted to bring up any particular points. Well, by then I thought I should say something, and mentioned that to run a computer one really needed electricity and that as probably well over half (or more) of the world's population had no access to electricity then we were probably a long way from really being a 'global village as even the percentage of those with access to electricity and a computer was infinitesimal in the world scale of things. There was sort of an embarrassed silence and some of those present started looking around at me with the sort of look that one recognises - the 'how did that get in here?' look - but then wearing my old Oxford University blazer, a Brooks Brothers shirt and an old college tie can get one into some interesting tribes. "Look, I don't want to spoil your fun or mess up the debate", I continued, "but it is probably rather premature as well to say that all the world's knowledge will be available on computer in 2025, especially as most of the world's languages haven't even been written down yet". Well, one could easily see that such points of information were not really the kind that was wanted in this discussion and they very quickly moved on to other topics. During the coffee break, though, a small group cornered me near the massive biscuit tray (gotta take your chance for 'freebies' when you can!) and said, basically, that they thought the points were valid at a theoretical level but that maybe I wasn't talking about the 'real' world. Well, I said, for further discussions you are welcome to come visit me where I am staying in Harlem (some great facial expressions appeared here) or to the talk I am giving at the Metropolitan Museum next week about certain traditional cultures. No one came to Harlem but some turned up at the 'Met', seemed interested by the talk, and rang later to ask me for dinner, etc. Some were very nice - and I am still in contact with a few - and explained later that they had literally no idea that the world could be like that.

Yes, the 'real' world is rather different from what most people in 'modern' Europe or the US imagine it to be. Take the point about languages. There are approximately 6000 different languages spoken in the world today, and probably nearly two thirds of those are 'tribal' languages, most with no indigenous written form. The fact that most of these are non-written languages does not mean that they are 'primitive' languages: many are a lot more complex than, say, English, French, Spanish or German, although they will not, of course, have words for 'rocket control system', 'computer' or 'electricity', etc. Languages are a product of a culture's history and develop accordingly: English is said to be a very good language to do business in, and this may reflect the fact that over the last few centuries, and until very recently, England has been the world's trading nation par excellence. It has thus developed special linguistic concepts and vocabulary for this purpose. French is slightly different: for the French, their language does not necessarily reflect their culture, it is their culture, and Francophones have a much greater psychological attachment to it than English-speakers do to English. French is an extremely beautiful language, but as one French colleague (one of the very few that I know who actually has a sense of humour regarding the national language) has been at pains to point out to me, it is also a language useful for giving beautiful-sounding lengthy speeches which actually don't mean anything: it is therefore, this colleague says, an ideal language for politics and love. Think about that.

Each language around the world has its 'forte' and differing cultural concepts, and it is for this reason that translation is often very difficult. Certain indigenous languages in Vanuatu in the southwest Pacific contain cultural concepts that are completely foreign to 'European' languages and therefore make translation into, e.g., English, sometimes extremely difficult or even impossible without changing the meaning. A common mistake in the 'European' world is the US press reaction to Sadam Hussein's declaration of the US as 'the great Satan'. If we say that phrase in English, we know what it means, but it is slightly different in the original Arabic, where the term 'Satan' keeps it original real meaning of 'opponent' or 'adversary'. But then the Iraqi leader calling the US the 'great adversary' does not have the same 'headline' quality for Euro-American journalists who have preferred to take it as it stands without bothering to explain what it really means.

We are straying a bit here. Back to basics. Linguistic transcriptions of hundreds of these 'tribal' languages have been done, mainly by Christian missionaries, with the aim of introducing literacy and translating sections of the Bible into them. Over the last 50 years the great bulk of this arduous task has been done by the US-founded Wycliffe Bible Translators, a dedicated fundamentalist missionary organization that also goes under the name of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. The latter name is used by the organization if they are approaching a government that might possibly be wary of more fundamentalist missionaries but who might be more sympathetic to dedicated linguists evincing an interest in local cultures and the introduction of literacy. That is how the organization tried to get into Vanuatu in the early 1980s, evincing an academic interest in languages and indigenous cultures. As things turned out, of course, they have shown no interest whatever in neither the local cultures nor the incredibly rich oral traditions - anything associated with the 'traditional life' is looked upon as 'associated with the devil'. Of course the organisation is careful now not to use these kinds of terms in its published literature, but I have actually heard some of its representatives speaking in that vein in Vanuatu in the 1980s.

A very sad situation. Many of these cultures - like so many traditional societies around the world - have extremely complex and profound ritual and belief systems and associated oral, song and story traditions that are of a beauty and depth to equal or surpass almost anything the 'West' can try and impose on them. But they are disappearing fast, and each time that one of these languages and cultures disappears it is as if a unique and vastly rich library disappears too, forever. Most people in the 'West' seem to assume that such traditional peoples don't exist any more, but they do: at the moment there are possibly 150 million of them spread over at least 60 countries. Their numbers may not be great, but they possess more of the world's languages and cultures than all the rest of the world put together. It is their story, their worlds, their cultures which will not be available on the computer by the year 2025 - only a small portion of it may be, and it will not be written by them. They are under threat, beset on all sides, usually despised by the governments of the ruling countries who look upon them as backward peoples unwilling to change or adapt. In many cases 'change' or 'adaptation' basically means letting giant logging, oil or mining companies despoil your traditional lands whilst you receive nothing but abuse. But they are the real survivors, the real adapters, perfectly adapted to their traditional environments over millennia without the assistance of 'gadgets' from the modern world. They are the ones the 'West' almost never hears about, except on exploration or anthropological documentaries on the better television channels. Most of them survive without modern money - some of the more isolated may never have even heard of it - but if they are still living their traditional lives on their traditional territory, they are not poor, and in richness of culture and real life they are probably richer than most people in the 'Developed World'. Yet 'our' world seems bent on destroying them and in fact is actually destroying our planet's rich cultural diversity: we are culturally impoverishing the earth.

Yes, to an anthropologist, it is laughable that one could even consider that 'the entire world's knowledge will be available on computer by the year 2025'. Admittedly, there will of course be a lot of information on the web, but most of it will be from the 'Developed world' and therefore relatively lop-sided. Believe it or not, there are still human groups that have not yet had the 'honour' of being 'discovered' yet. There are estimated to be around 50 still-as-yet 'uncontacted' tribal groups in remote regions of the Brazilian Amazon and 'unknown' peoples are still being contacted each year in remote areas on the vast island of New Guinea. The numbers though, are small: the Nukak-Maku forest nomads 'discovered' only 500 kilometres southeast of Bogota in Colombia in the early 1990s were thought to number only between 1500-5000, but European diseases, against which they have no resistance, are thought to have wiped out most of those over the age of around 40 within the first year. It is only four years since relatively regular contact has been made with the Jarawa Negrito pygmies in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, but they are thought to number only about 300. Groups such as these, however, do not, of course, look upon themselves as isolated or 'uncontacted': they are at the centre of their worlds and it is our modern world that is unknown and isolated. It is extremely sad, though, that our 'modern enlightened cultures' have, in general, an absolutely abominable record throughout history in dealing with indigenous peoples. Neither the British, nor the Spanish nor the French nor the Belgians nor the Americans, to take a few examples, have blameless records, in spite of the fact that generations of white schoolchildren have been brought up with the idea that somehow or other 'we' brought 'civilization' to certain peoples of the world. The truth is, of course, very different. The Spanish conquest of the Americas brought death to millions of Indians, and this was continued by white Americans in the US. Violent echoes of this tragic history continue today in areas of Central and South America. The British forced opium on the Chinese populace through the infamous Opium Wars of the 1840s. During the 1980s the French were still killing indigenous Kanakas in New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific. An investigation, due to finish in 2004, was begun this month in Belgium, to look into the real history of that nation's role in the former Belgian Congo: most Belgian schoolchildren are brought up with the idea that Belgium brought 'civilization to the Congo'. However, one author in a 1999 publication has said that the population of the Congo dropped by approximately 50% between 1880 and 1920 and indicated that because of this colonial intervention '10 million people were the victims of murder, starvation, exhaustion induced by over-work, and disease'. The investigation is to look into these claims.

What 'our' societies were doing physically to indigenous peoples around the world from the late 15th century or so up until practically the present day, our 'modern' economic system of 'globalization', with the IMF, the World Bank and now the WTO, continues economically with the 'Developing' world. Aspects of the negative sides of these institutions have been mentioned in this column over the last year. We should all be either out in the streets non-violently demonstrating, or haranguing our local members of parliament to try and get some ethics put back into our own system. But wait a minute, isn't that exactly what President Bush is saying at the moment? Well, maybe we are safe then (!). You can almost hear him saying the following patriotic words: "This American system of ours, call it Americanism, call it Capitalism, call it what you will, gives each and every one of us a great opportunity if we only seize it with both hands and make the most of it". Stirring words, and worthy of a business president to use as his own in 'this time of need', but they were actually spoken by…. Al Capone (quote taken from p.183 of Anita Roddick's excellent Take it Personally: How Globalization affects you and Powerful Ways to challenge it", published in London, 2001, by Thorsons/Harper Collins, ISBN 0 0071 2898 3 - go out and buy it!).

The remaining 'tribal' societies are not really mentioned specifically in comparative studies relating to population statistics worldwide. If the world's whole population, keeping in mind population variations, etc, were reduced to one small village of 100 people, this is what you would find (based upon the 2001 work of Phillip Harter from the Stamford University School of Medicine): 57 would be Asian, 21 would be European, 14 would be from 'the Americas', 8 would be African. 52 would be female, 48 would be male. 70 would be 'non-white', 30 would be 'white'. 70 would be non-Christian, 30 would be Christian. 6 would possess 59% of all the world's wealth and all these 6 would be from the US. 70 would be illiterate, 50 would be suffering from malnutrition, 1 would have tertiary education, 1 would be near death, 1 would be pregnant and 1….would own a COMPUTER. Which brings us back basically to where we started?

The still traditional isolated 'tribal' societies hardly figure in this study of Harter's at all - their numbers are too small. If the study were based, though, upon languages and cultures, they would occupy more than half of the village! They are not 'primitive', unsophisticated societies without laws; they are ancient, complex cultures, with intense and profound religious and spiritual depths, highly structured and adapted to their environments. They are whole worlds in which the intensity of song, ritual, oratory and dance provide much more complete lives than all our modern gadgets and… they are still FREE. They are not slaves to money and 'time'. They are the REAL world. But they are going. 'Our' world is rapidly destroying them. When they are all gone, 'we' will have stopped the Song Sung since the Beginning of Time; 'we' will have killed the Dance of Life.

And where are 'we' going? Think about it.

Kirk W Huffman