Humanity's Survivors: My Journey To Meet The Worlds Most Unknown Peoples
I didn't intend to travel like I did. I wanted to do the things a twenty-something likes to do. But I wanted to go to the ends of the earth too. That desire began thanks to an atlas my mother got me at the Alvin State Fair in 1969. I was just five years old and the post WWI atlas captivated my imagination. There were pictures of peoples from all around the world, in their traditional clothing, in their traditional setting. I couldn't wait to get old enough to leave home and see these things for myself, and in color too. My first journey was with my best friend to Mexico. Of course, I had pretty much one thing on my mind, but those pictures etched inside my brain kept banging away. I knew i had to at least see Chichen Itza. Once having accomplished that, we set out for more remote places just south of the Mayan city. While there, I met descendants of the Mayan indians and the Olmecs. But I knew almost nothing about them. And, I didn't have the time to really comprehend the peoples i met. Sadly, I came home feeling unfulfilled, and i vowed to never let my own ignorance keep me from learning about unique peoples of the world. How it all unfolded is told in the story below. Enjoy!
What if everything you knew about history turned out to be wrong? The only way I could think to correct it would be to ask people about their pasts. Historians call this primary evidence and it puts history in a place relative to our own.
I have been on a quest to excavate the human saga. Amidst all of our own chaos snd confusion, I seek to find a window to our past. What do historians attach themselves to when trying to solve a mystery? It can be anything - an inscriprition, a book, a cultural legend, or tale from ancestors before us. But nothing is better than hearing it with your own ears. And so I traveled, on a quest to meet people and hear their stories. But most of all I am passionate in my search for how we became, well, who we are!
Anthropologists have covered the development of humankind through our earlier ancestors. We have taken a journey back to our earliest beginnings, a back-road in time. In the ever-so controversial viewpoint, many incredible landmarks dot the way as we climbed out of the trees and onto the savannah and grasslands. It was slow but very natural. The fact that the answers don't always agree with one another, or don't agree with our beliefs, causes great conflict where it need not be. Some of the greatest theologians and scientists have refused to see a conflict in either theory.
It can be perfectly natural not to feel as it you must make a choice. Quoting part of Winston Churchill's quote, the history of our existence is not written in a clear and concise way. In fact, ''it is a mystery that is wrapped in a riddle that is inside an enigma.'' As a result, We insist on answers that we don’t always get. It becomes a faith to buttress insecurity.
Only recently have we stopped believing in historical and anthropologic myth building. Turkana Boy and Lucy take us back four million years into the distant past. And yet here on earth, today, 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 and indigenous tribes 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. Others that I have met are living in the modern world with technology but they keep their towns and villages deeply tied to their culture. (Not unlike meeting Native Americans on their tribal lands)
The Agda Peoples
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.
Cannibalism is seen in history throughout the tropics. In Fiji, the Ratu Ubre-Ubre who won a war in the islands by eating 870 people. They commemorate the event even today. They laid down stones to commemorate the feat of human dining. But Fijians refer to this period as the ‘Ngona Natumboro’ or the ‘’Time of the Devil.’’ Clearly it was not a taboo to dine on human flesh. It was also a social punishment that we would find abhorrent today. For instance, if you got caught stealing a neighbor’s fruit, you were sent to the village ‘’spirit-house’’ and were made to eat your own flesh.
The missionary Thomas Baker went to Fiji to change this. But the city of Nabutautau with eight Christian disciples in 1867 arrived to teach peace. Tribes were at constant war with one another and Baker was wanting to stop the practice. But the ‘’Cannibal Isles’’ as they would be referred to an late 19th century English textbooks was a lure to most adventure-minded Brits who were colonizing the continents of Africa and Asia.
Baker was murdered and eaten. The Fijians exiled Nabutautau for killing Baker and they refused to have anything to do with the village. It wasn’t until 2003 that the curse was lifted and the village was allowed to rejoin the others. The story behind Baker’s death was that he touched the hair of the high-priest. Fijians hold their hair to be sacred and Baker was no different.
Despite the fact that he was attempting to stop the practice, he and his eight disciples were feasted upon. The atrocities on Fiji were well documented and made the subject of many stories in early 20th century Britain.
But even today, strict protocol is a must. If you were to go to Fiji and head out to Nabutautau you would pay a visit to the chief of the village. You are not allowed to wear shoes, glasses, and certainly not hats. You cannot walk down the center of the path heading into his home, and you had most certainly bring an offering, called a Sebu-Sebu and it is a Fijiam tradition even amongst tribes. Clapping is a way of showing appreciation. Kabaa is the drink of the day, and as it is offered, you clap once. To say thank you, it is three claps.
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. As a result, 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?
Central Africa and the Ubangi
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, with the exception of the !Kung Bushmen, I didn’t go to the Ubangi 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.
This was one custom that I just couldn't get out of my mind
The Ubangi of Central Africa and their ''beautiful'' lip-plates
In the Congo, one can take the long drive from Goma to Kinshasha up National Road 4. The road is a little more than a mud trail that cuts through the jungle. In a nation three times the size of Texas, there is less than 2% paved roads. The mud trails aren't for the feint of heart either. They are riddles with pot-holes and craters and clay and mud. Insects with a ravenous appetite for blood swarmed around you as you sat in a virtually stationary truck making small talk with the other peoples who were simply making a month long journey in an effort to fed their families. So - for a mere $20 US, you can hitch a ride for and see Africa the way it has pretty much always been. Being a poor student, I would get the richest of all educations.
But, oh, these roads. I never got motion sickness from a ride before, but this one caused headaches, back-aches, vertigo, indigestion and nausea and general misery throughout the trip. Everyone feels it, but only the foreigners complain about it. I was determined to suck-it-up and not complain but when the temperature hit 94-96 degrees with 90% humidity and no breeze whatsoever, even I found myself a little testy. When it finally rained for all of three-five minutes, the road became a muddy prison with no one able to advance through the thick clay.
Despite being a paying passenger, you are expected to help dig the vehicles out of the mud. They are weighed down with thousands of pounds of wood and other raw materials that can be sold in Kinshasa. And when stuck in the mud, it seems to be a completely last resort to unload the goods, get the vehicle out of the mud, and then reloaded it again. Thus, a trip that should have taken about a day and a half stretches to seven and eight days.
But the people you meet along the way turn heartache into happiness. I don't think I saw a single person complain about the hardships. Zaire, (also known as the Congo) could very well become the wealthiest nation on the planet if it can ever extricate themselves from dictatorship and corruption. The natural resources found only in this geography are abundantly everywhere. When one thinks of mineral resources in this part of the world, they correctly think of diamonds, gold, uranium, copper, manganese, and quartz. But a new resource is rapidly changing The Congo and bringing badly needed money into the country. It is called Colten, and it wasn't even on the radar until it became a a resource of demand.
Mining is huge business here. The locals have managed to eek out a living digging for diamonds, copper and colton. But many of the mines aren't new. In fact, several are tens of thousands of years old, indicating that early homo-sapiens discovered its natural wonders. In some of these mining towns, you will see scores of people walking through the dust with huge bags on their head, They will pour them out at their homes and sift it looking for precious colton. It is a mineral used in almost every higher-end electronics made today.
Butembo is a little town that I remembered because we were so happy to finally get there. What an adventure! The town soon became a crowded and polluted shanty with a level of noise I was not accustomed to. The locals speak a dialect of Nande which is centered around the Konjo peoples. (And, where the word Congo derives from)
There is almost no electricity throughout Zaire. Charcoal is a big seller because it is essentially what is needed to live everyday life. But as I would learn, there is a price to be paid for charcoal. The Mountain Gorillas are being quickly isolated into smaller and smaller areas. Harvesting charcoal is against the law, but it is rarely-if-ever enforced. Truck after truck of loaded charcoal makes their way out of the Kingali Forest, the refuge of the Mountain Gorillas and a more recently discovered Ape, the Bili.
Charcoal is one of those things that show just how dependent on the planet we really are. In a world where one nuclear power plant can light up most small towns, The Congo has a 1950s-era electrical system. I imagine that in the thirty years since i have been there that things have changed, at least in the capital city. This country is one of only a small handful of places that can mine and produce Uranium, a key component in creating a nuclear power plant. But The Congo just exports its precious uranium to other nations and leaving an amount far too small to build anything meaningful with. The peoples are in a death-spiral with civilization, too far behind to break even. On the road to Kinshasa, the rains began to fall again. The ruts in the road made from all the trucks make driving nearly impossible. But along the way a small village appears and a small but indigenous group of people are having a festival of some sort.
These are the Luba peoples and I had no idea that these people even existed. They look genetically different from surrounding tribes and their language is truly distinctive. It almost has a melody that mimics the countless varieties of wildlife in the area.
The Luba people greet you along the road with a cacophony of song
1987 - Shot on Infrared Black and White film
Their heritage takes them back as far as 500 A.D. and they have changed very little since then. The tribe is divided into clans, much like the tribes in South America. Each clan has a clan leader, a magician (also a doctor) and a spirit guide. The clan I met were the Bakwa Kikonja and they were among the most unique and positive group of people that you could ever meet in the heart of Africa.
The clan is a smaller subset of the Bantu people, which make up a large number of the overall population, But the Luba have been singled out for persecution and their village was repeatedly raided and burned to the ground up until 1900. There may have been a valid reason for this persecution as it turns out.
Much like the Efik peoples of Nigeria and Cameroon, the Luba were involved in the European slave trade, mainly with Portugal. They were constantly being sought after by the Swahili-Arabs who with the support of other Muslim nations brought guns into the equation in 1799. The Luba needed allies and thus worked out an arrangement with Portugal to supply them with slave labor in exchange for ammunition and guns of their own. The war finally reached a stalemate in 1905, but the Luba were now surrounded on all sides. They resorted to selling each other to the Portuguese because it may have been their only chance at surviving. The few that remained hold stubbornly to their ideas and culture, which is something that we will only read about in text books in the upcoming twenty years.
Theirs is a culture of music and dance, and ethnically speaking they have survived everything from Civil War and enslavement to Colonialism and the fight for independence.
On the dusty roads out of town, the sounds of village life fade away until we get to the next place. And such is our journey through life --- going places you never thought you were going to go and meeting people along the way you never could have dreamed of meeting otherwise.
Luba Performance, 1987, Black and White
Like much of Sub-Saharran Africa, these unique and diverse cultures are as endangered as many of the animal species around them. Their biggest threat is the spread of Sharia Law amongst many tribes who have not even made the conversion yet. 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, ISIS - and now to Al-Qaeda on the east and southern portions of the continent. None of these tribes were in such peril when I visited and in a way, I am happy that I didn't get to see the conflict and suffering that it all brings.
Sometimes the conflict can be brought on thorough intertribal wars. In 1994, the Hutu of neighboring Rwanda committed an act of genocide on the Tutsi people. Both had shared a common ancestor but that was about all they shared, The Tutsi had the prime real-estate and the Hutu's were being mistreated throughout their history by them. So they planned and successfully executed one of the most brutal mass murders in modern history. Needing only a pretext for invasion, the Rwandans provided it when they broke out into a civil war. When the conflict finally ebbed, 800,000 of the 825,000 Tutsi's were left alive. Their method of dealing with females and children were especially brutal. The Hutu almost single-handedly wiped out an entire tribe that was amongst the few known to the outside world in the 1800s.
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 and indigenous 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 Bangui 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 to the most intelligent of us.
1200 miles south south-east of Kolkut (Calcutta) lie a remote group of islands called the Andamann. It is believed that the oldest humans on the planet live here. These islands were once connected to the mainland some 60,000 years ago. The people of the islands do not look anything like their Indian counterparts. In fact, they have the appearance of Africans and their language is even an ancient one that has no roots even with Sanskrit or Hindi.
Jarawa Children: Anthropologists believe these people are at least 55,000 Years Old – Making them the oldest surviving humans
The Indian government does not allow photographers or journalists into the areas that the Jarawa live. It is hardly for humanitarian reasons. Instead, they want to keep the journalists away because they might learn of the truth. Many of the Jarawa are exploited by the newcomers.
Prior to their initiating contact with settled populations in 1997, they were noted for vigorously maintaining their independence and distance from external groups, actively discouraging most incursions and attempts at contact. The Jarawa are an example of the oldest continuous ancient peoples on the planet. If you ever wondered what life was like 55,000 years ago, the endangered peoples of the Andamann Islands are a perfect example.
And as if Darwinism principles hold true, a second island fewer than fifty miles away called he Sentinel Islands, has a different group of peoples. Although the differences are slight, they appear in language and in adaptation to the landscape. The last census was done in 1901 and it would appear that there are fewer than 125 Sentenelese natives even today. Although we are not sure what is keeping the population down, there is reason to believe that loggers and adventurists are inadvertently spreading disease.
These natives are not welcoming of foreign visitors. In fact, they will more-than-likely kill anyone who makes the trek out there. In fact, In 2006, Sentinelese archers killed two fishermen who were fishing illegally for mud-crabs within range of the island. Their boat's improvised anchor failed to prevent it from being carried away by currents while they were asleep. The boat drifted into the shallows of the island, where they were killed. The Sentinelese buried them in shallow graves. A Coast guard helicopter from India that was sent to retrieve the bodies was driven off by Sentinelese warriors, who fired a volley of arrows.
What little we know is intriguing. They are a very small people but otherwise healthy. They exhibit no real signs of agriculture and continue to be hunters and gatherers. It is a common trait, but without a written language the population cannot really grow. Despite the eons of advancement, they are not unlike the Neanderthals that the first modern humans encountered them.
But there is an intriguing mystery as to how these Andamann people got to where they are, and furthermore, how their DNA signature interjects itself in the indigenous peoples of Brazil.
According to a Livescience.com article, ‘’… Most genetic studies have suggested that all Native Americans analyzed to date can trace much or all of their ancestry to a single common origin — a population from Eurasia that probably migrated to the Americas more than 15,000 years ago, back when lower sea levels exposed the Bering Land Bridge known as Beringia that connected the continents. Some Native Americans from North America and the Arctic may also trace other parts of their ancestry to more recent waves of migration.
However, a number of prior studies of skull shapes hinted that two distinct groups entered the Americas. While one Asian type is similar to the vast majority of modern Native Americans an earlier type seen in skeletons in Brazil and elsewhere resembled modern people from Australasia — a region that includes Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea and neighboring Pacific Islands — and even some African groups.’’ *
With advancements in DNA studies and our knowledge of our early walk in this world, we have now come to a real tipping point for humanity. We were evolved to get stronger and to live longer, and yet we are indiscriminate in our violence and our thirst for blood and power. Where will we go from here?
I believe we can learn a great deal from the world of innocence that these peoples come from. They have managed against all odds, to survive, but not to thrive. I would like to believe we are headed to a higher sense of consciousness, where war and fighting is not a first resort, but a non-existent resort. I would like to believe that we are going to use the lessons we have learned about survival to make for a better civilization. I would like to believe that all of this will come without a terrible price, but that's not what I fear will happen.
I made many of these trips before I could really appreciate the peoples I met along the way. I was young and dumb. I wanted to spend more time at night-clubs than in some village far away form everything i had ever known. I missed countless opportunities to meet many other peoples and to see many other things the planet has to offer. But I did enjoy myself just enough with all of these peoples that I could reach back and tell my story. And if you made it this far, thank you for obliging me the time. If it simply makes us think upon these things, maybe we can head into our next epoch with a head-start. Mankind could use the break. ****
At a Yoruba School in Nigeria
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.