The Uniqueness of The Human Race
The Uniqueness of the Human Race
Subjects Covered: Cultural & Physical Anthropology, Ancient Peoples, Ancient Customs
The decision to either eliminate their barbaric manners and preserve the tribe, or do we get them out of the Stone-Age and improve their lives?
Have you really ever wondered about stone-age people that live on the planet today? As a member of Survival International, I have photographed and written of my experiences with stone-age peoples who have had very little contact with civilization. The world has a surprising number of tribes that have had little-to-no-contact with anyone from the modern world. For instance, I have studied many tribes and we are still discovering that peoples indigenous to their environment are being discovered for the first time.
The Agda people in the Philippines and the Mursa of Ethiopia are just two of the ancient and virtually stone age people who still walk on this planet. I have studied these two tribes as well as the Yanamamo of the Amazon and the remnants of the ancient Maya in Mexico. Their customs are fascinating.
The Agda are a very peaceful nomadic tribe that live along the beach in Luzon. No one is sure where they originated, but they look like a cross between Polynesian and Australian Aborigine. Their peaceful nature is rather rare amongst stone-age peoples. Having seen the Indians of South and Meso-America, you would think that violence is simply a way of life.
For instance, the Yanamamo are among the most violent of all the natives in South America. They have a bloody past and are known cannibals. Because they have no written language, they have no way of really measuring their own history. So when one tribe raids another tribe and takes their women and children, the other tribe will fight to the death until the feud is resolved. Sometimes these can go back centuries, but no one is sure where any of this violence began.
We first heard of the Yanamamo when a young ethnic anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon stumbled upon them in 1964. Today he is the head of Anthropology at Columbia University in Missouri. In 1988, he came to the University of Houston and discussed his work with these indigenous peoples. At the time it aroused my curiosity enough to make a journey to Venezuela myself. I was left a little disappointed by the ideology that I was expecting against the reality of their condition.
Chagnon was among the very first westerners to ever visit these people. And for that, he got criticized heavily for bringing a measles epidemic to them. At the time, Chagnon really hadn’t considered the diseases he would potentially transmit, but was very concerned about the diseases he and his crew might acquire. This created a huge controversy amongst his peers. In addition, Chagnon dealt with the contradiction within their own cruelty. How could he sit back and watch children being beaten and abused? It was in an effort to make these children as mean as they could so they could be strong warriors. Chagnon watched and took notes, but could do little when infants were dashed on the ground and drowned on purpose if they were seen to have flaws.
The Yanamamo seized the opportunity to acquire metal axes from Chagnon’s team. It was a calculated effort in order to derive information but the unforeseen results of giving one tribe mastery over the others greatly upset the balance of Amazon power. But he cracked the language code and won the trust of the Indians which greatly increased our understanding of indigenous peoples.
According to Chagnon, the success of men in violent interaction and even killing, was directly related to how many wives and children they had. They are mean to the core, beating their children, encouraging violence, and raping their own women if they feel up to the task. But perhaps their most surprising set of beliefs is that they are a suicide cult.
Tribal customs are usually designed to preserve the people. Yet the Yanamamo desire to be with their ancestors. By the time they reach 35 years of age, they will take a potion of deadly poison and walk out into the jungle, to be with their ancestors.
The Catholic Church has been a great help to reaching out to the children of the Yanamamo Indians. But there are some who think the intervention of modern man is a bad thing. Depending on who you ask, securing the native customs of these ancient peoples is more important than taking care of their diseases, improving infant mortality, and helping them in times of drought.
In addition, Cultural Anthropologists disagree over how much involvement from the west is too much. This is especially true amongst the Liberal Left that are found within the university culture. But the question must be asked regarding our obligation to other humans. We can treat their diseases but we cannot stop their violence. And therein lies the problem we face today. Where is our moral compass when it comes to the survival of stone-age peoples? Is it okay for an anthropologist to record a child beating without intervening?
The Mursa and Ubangi have a rather unique tradition of putting huge plates in their bottom lips and extracting their bottom teeth. It is said that they deliberately did this to be unattractive to slave traders in the 1700s, but no one is too sure. Only the women use these plates where the Awa tribe in Brazil, it is the men. Such a rare practice, and yet carried out by two different tribes on two different continents. As for my chance meeting with the Ubangi, it was actually a chance event. Now, keep in mind, with the exception of the !Kung Bushmen, I didn’t go to their homelands. I happened to see several members that were a visiting delegation to the Central African Republic. Several African countries were meeting for a conference when I was there and one of the topics was the intervention of modern peoples into their homelands. So it was a treasure trove of local Bantu, Ubangi, !Kung and Swazi’s were all in one place at one time.
Ubangi Big Lip People
Their biggest threat is the spread of Islam. Throughout Africa, violent and bloody sects of Islam are arising. From the Arab Spring in Libya and Egypt, to Sharia and Boko Haram in West Africa, and now to Al-Qaeda on the east and southern portions of the continent. These native tribes would not stand a chance against a Muslim Army and in some parts of Africa they are acquiring arms to defend themselves. So, imagine the scene….you have peoples who are completely dependent on their nomadic lifestyle, harvesting honey from bee-hives, eating insects and porcupines, carrying AK-47s that they trade for land. The intervention of modern arms into a stone-age peoples does a lot more damage than a missionary church at the basin of the Amazon and the Orinoco rivers.
I enjoyed seeing the reactions of these stone-age peoples when we met them. A mixture of curiosity and deliberate caution meets me whenever I meet them for the first time. The images of this village in the Central African Republic (formerly the Belgian Congo) were taken amidst a series of protests and unrest. In an environment as chaotic as this, it is extremely dangerous for anyone, let-alone an American with a lot of camera equipment. Nonetheless, I set about to learn a little of the languages local to the area, and that is the ultimate equalizer. When they see an American (or anyone for that matter) picking up their own language, it is the ultimate compliment. They are truly surprised and honored that I even tried to say the right things in their own language.
The last night I was in Bangui, the government responded to the unrest by launching tear-gas at the protesters. The windows from our hotel were open and we got a good dose of it. By morning, the natives were completely back in the African jungle and the city was back to normal. But, what normal actually is and what it should be is not clear to anyone – even the most intelligent of us.
IF you want to learn more about indigenous tribes of the world, you can reach out to http://www.survivalinternational.org Some of my photographs are there as well.
Eakin, Emily (13 February 2013). "How Napoleon Chagnon Became Our Most Controversial Anthropologist". New York Times. Retrieved 19 February 2013.
"Napoleon Chagnon, '61, MA'63, PhD'66". Alumni Authors Series. Alumni Association of the University of Michigan. Retrieved 20 February 2013.
Ritchie, Mark Andrew. "Pulling His Eye Down", Spirit of the Rainforest, Island Lake Press, Chicago, 1996