Friday, June 24, 2011

Among the Savages

"So we may well call these people barbarians, in respect to the rules of reason, but not in respect to ourselves, who surpass them in every kind of barbarity."
                      - Michel de Montaigne, Essays, Bk. I, Essay 31, "Of Cannibals"

I invariably feel a wave of sympathy and vicarious trepidation for those increasingly rare groups of indigenes who are suddenly "discovered" - most generally living quietly, unaware that they were even lost, somewhere in the Amazon drainage (where according to my sources at Al Jazeera, the latest discovery resides), or in the green fastnesses of Borneo or the mountains of New Guinea. On the intermittent occasions when they are stumbled upon, their places of habitation have generally been proof against the witless incursions of extreme rock climbers, skateboarders, unicyclists and the unshorn survivalists whose sponsors send them into the Third World to film them living off venemous snakes and plankton.

"Dude, this Amazon is gnarly."

The Val do Javari, a corner of Brazil snug against the backsides of Peru and Ecuador, has given up its secrets to a satellite image that detected heretofore undocumented agricultural clearings in remote jungle. Helicopter sorties earlier this month confirmed a village with four longhouses and roughly 200 inhabitants, with nary an iProduct or a hair dryer to their name.

 Aerial view, April 2011

Clearly this small population doesn't represent a windfall for Apple or Coors Lite sales, and to its credit the Brazilian government is keeping civilization at bay, for now at any rate. Brazil's policy is to avoid contact with uncontacted tribes so as not to disrupt their natural habitat or breach their immunity by introducing strange diseases. The people belong to the Korubo, an extended tribe in that region of the Amazon drainage, the same group who starred in a 1996 video of a government work party making first contact with a village in the same neighborhood.

There is in their faces - and in our cultural imaginations that interpret their faces - a happy innocence that may or may not be there in fact. "So many authors have hastily concluded that man is naturally cruel, and requires a regular system of police to be reclaimed," Rousseau famously remarks; "whereas nothing can be more gentle than him in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man. . . ."  This we may call "sentimental anthropology."

In fact, the Amazon tribes have always shown their credentials - as typically murderous as any other primates, equally fractious and warlike (if not quite so effective) as their modern counterparts. I still recall a story from childhood, in one of my monthly issues of "Natural History" magazine, about five missionaries who made contact with a notably truculent Ecuadoran tribe, landed a light plane along the river, and were summarily skewered to a man by the residents. At the time, of course, I was horrified and not a little tittilated, but in the intervening years, without wishing anyone such a fate, I have learned to appreciate the opposing point of view and the fervent wish to preserve a status quo. The perpetrators had no idea what a dose of religionizing they were in for, though they have learned in the interim -  evangelical zealots and relatives of the five casualties made a point of, first, inundating them, and then converting them, not entirely to their improvement. One of the ironies of the whole tragedy, if not part of the tragedy itself, is that several of the principal spear-wielders are still extant and long since turned into good converts.

Anticlericism in the New World.

The Brazilian government monitors but makes no further contact with indigenous groups that lack exposure to the rest of the world, having learned that there's not much either capitalism or evangelical outreach have to offer them. Illegal logging and gold and oil exploration are already pushing into uncontacted Indian lands and pose a lethal threat, since the residents may be living atop what somebody else wants. In the face of the loss of their accustomed habitat and cultural bonds, learning double-entry bookeeping  (the 19th century version of "Xcel Workbook") or sitting through PowerPoint sales and marketing presentations from representatives of interested extraction industries seem frivolous.

 "No, no - just want to talk."

Capitalism is a rational pursuit, if by 'rational' we mean a suiting of means to ends. In this, the Korubo are barbaric. But their barbarisms are not in the league of those more rational barbarisms practised by large-scale industrial capitalism. Slash-and-burn jungle farming isn't much of a living, but for some few it's not a bad life. They've done it for milennia and yet here they are, still with us in the modern world eating manioc or whatever they eat, having adapted, and persisting intact into an utterly alien epoch.

Montaigne published his essay "Of Cannibals" in 1580, based on the reports of a simple fellow in his employ who had been to the New World on an expedition, but (as Montaigne remarks) has no education and so "is wedded to no theory."  "Their buildings are very long, with a capacity of two or three hundred souls," he notes, as though he were describing the recent photographs of the village; "they are covered with the bark of great trees . . . . "

Montaigne records that three indigenes transported from Brazil had an audience with the French king, and comments that they remained "ignorant of the price they will pay some day, in loss of repose and happiness, for gaining knowledge of the corruption of this side of the ocean; ignorant also of the fact that of this intercourse will come their ruin (which I suppose is already well advanced: poor wretches, to let themselves be tricked by the desire for new things, and to have left the serenity of their own sky to come and see ours!)"

He is willing to sentimentalize the newly discovered citizens of Brazil, but he makes a point that has a bearing on this most recent uncovering of a "lost" tribe. The Korubo seem better off without the benisons of modern technology - maybe they don't require medicine, or longer lives, or asparagus and strawberries in the winter. Maybe we don't either. Is their culture better than modern Western culture because it's simpler? It's doubtless better for them.

The culture we've created in the 21st century doesn't seem to have advanced us much beyond the Amazonians who still eat, procreate, get drunk and go to war over it all. Whatever modernity has to offer won't improve them. We can't save their souls in any sense - better to leave them in peace.

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