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'.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
'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
. Al Capone (quote taken from p.183 of Anita
Roddick's excellent Take it Personally: How Globalization affects
you and Powerful Ways to
published in London, 2001, by Thorsons/Harper Collins, ISBN 0 0071 2898 3 - go out and buy
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?
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.
where are 'we' going? Think about it.
Kirk W Huffman