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1 February 2010

Until recently, anthropology has been a decidedly one-way street. Scientists would travel to foreign places to sit down in the middle of the foreigners and write pithy assessments while they gawked at a bevy of activity, hopefully being done rather swiftly by a bevy of topless native women. When a sizable-enough stack of journals had been filled with poignant and award-worthy observations of the local color, the observer would pack up and go home to a crusty, homogeneous audience ready with congratulatory cognac, and tell strange tales of gourded primitives.

That is until a TV company from Britain brought a group of such tribesmen from the island of Tanna, at the southern tip of the pacific archipelago that comprises the island nation of Vanuatu,  to London, in 2007. Meet the Natives is a fascinating show on The Travel Channel that documents this turn of the tables. These unsophisticated, unscientific, stone-aged men are kindly given the chance to see the real world and experience what real life is like in the 21st century. They are shown cities, and culture, and technology. They are fed flavored food, and candy, and they get to use toilets. And if all this were not enough generosity, the anthropologists filming them also turned on the sound.

But one of the more fascinating things about the show is that the islanders are better anthropologists than the anthropologists. They quickly and concisely dissect western civilization. They seem to understand the creation and the ecosystem better than we do, too; they warn a rancher that cattle can’t be raised on corn, or it will die, and before it does, produce bad meat. The rancher just chuckles like a dipwad.

This made us sad. These primitive men eat better (or maybe we should say eat smarter), provide for their society better (or maybe we should say provide at all), include people better, but don’t necessarily live longer. They live primitively, and it’s hard. They live in the land, in the dirt, and it may seem to us like they are not advancing or making life better, but they can’t imagine a man living in the streets.

Would you be willing to live like they do? Would you be willing to give up technology to live in a society that has no homeless people? What technologies should we abandon, because they are killing us, and what sorts should we pass to these men to improve their lives? Or do their lives need to improve at all? Is technology so unstoppable, and warrants that we just shut up and go with it, or can and should we say enough is enough?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. John Eckley permalink
    1 February 2010 10:43 pm

    So….I don’t have but a second. I’m currently in Haiti for those of you who don’t know, and I think we need to be specific as to what type of primative living we are talking about. I’m a man who loves simplicity and practicality. I like to camp, and would probably be o.k. with living in a tent for the rest of my life. However, the ballgame changes when you talk about living next to an endless trashheap, getting your water from litter-infested water source that pigs eat from, and have no ability to accumulate anything because you literally have no walls for protection. Tribal primitive living is not always the case. Sometimes it’s just primitive living, which means you don’t get the perks. That’s all I got right now. Just wanted to steer the ship away from generally romanticizing primative living.

    • 1 February 2010 11:32 pm

      The problem for me is the problem you’ve pictured…some technology, or evidence of it, but not enough to clean the bad parts of it. Like having the technology to produce plastic trash, but not the technology to clean it. Like having trucks in Uganda, but not the technology to fix the roads. I realize this comes down to money, but if there is no money to see it through, then technology seems to hinder. Or worse, tease.

  2. 1 February 2010 10:47 pm

    Part of me certainly knows that they are living better and happier than the majority of us living “in the real world.” We have a lot to learn from them about how to care for the world around us and not just ourselves. Probably the only things they really could benefit from us would be small changes in medicine and hygiene.

    However, another part of me knows that even though we maybe would LIKE to say “enough is enough,” as a society it’s just not possible. There is no stopping technology, there’s no stopping population growth, and there’s no stopping the greed of men. This people group is able to feed their cattle on food other than corn because they only have a few hundred people to feed. That’s not possible when there are millions of people demanding to have meat with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

    However, as an individual, you can say “enough is enough.” It would be possible to escape as well as you could and go live like they do. Or you could just make small changes. Maybe become a vegetarian. Part of your question is would I be willing to do this. I think that yes, I would. No way to really know, but if my Oceanic flight crashed on an island and my life was instantly reverted to primitive means, I think that I would be perfectly happy.

    • 1 February 2010 11:36 pm

      Man I hope you’re wrong. I choose to believe you are wrong. I choose to believe that I–we–can eat meat for life that has nothing to do with damned, worthless corn.

  3. 2 February 2010 12:05 am

    what i’d leave behind, besides those annoying LaHaye and Jenkins fellows, that i think would make the First World as first rate as the Third (of 4th) World the above cats hail from? Three things, from least important to most”
    Public Enemy #1: Fat Food, err, my b, FAST FOOD. that stuff is an abomination. I wanna burn down Hamburger Row in Charleston as bad as Tyler Durden wanted to ‘splode those banks. Hey, Matt, think i can turn the Baptist Bball game into an anti-fast food Fight Club? i abhor, though my penchant for hyperbole and hippocrisy has allowed me to consume many, the Big Mac as much as Tyler Durden hates khakis.
    Public Enemy #2: media-relayed sports. when did SportsCenter turn into some kinda TMZ/police blotter combo? i don’t give a hot damn if Gilbert Arenas is packing heat, Cheatah Woods’ infidelity, or the size of Lane Kiffin’s last bowel movement. I wanna play ball and watch ball be played. when i see the American attention to the toystore that is sports i feel like i am sitting front row at the Coliseum, in Rome and the Emporer has called for weeks of games so i won’t notice the fact i have no bread in my belly and there are elephants encircling the city, and that my society doesn’t know, doesn’t care and couldn’t do anything about it if they did. next to me in the Coliseum sits a slothful man with a Super-Sized something. when i watch my once-beloved sportscenter i feel like i have a front row seat to the fall of rome.
    Public Enemy #3: the TV, naturally. parts of the same reasons as above. i am scared to death by the comfortably numb feeling i get about the American condition when i hear how many people watched the Grammy’s. Was it more than voted? Lobbyist have power because people don’t use theirs. And that is high-brow, high IQ, high character, high quality entertainment compared to the vast majority of stuff i hear about. Jersey Shore? really? oh, there is a Situation all right man. turn off the TV and join the revolution! or start your own! if Rome is gonna burn on my watch ima burn down the part i loathe most first and stand guard and make y’all maul me to get to my favorite part and i cain’t do none of that from in front of no tv. last thing worth watching on TV? Neil Armstrong.
    so, my brothers from another mother, lets encourage each other and the world to turn off the tube, get in the game as opposed to watching it on tv, and when we’re hungry from ballin outrageous then go all hunter-gatherer.

    Best and Peace, Nick McCarley

  4. Danny permalink
    2 February 2010 1:26 am

    Yes, I think we all have an inner yearning to return to the original. Aside from a perfect Companion we were made for a perfect Garden. I’m guessing they are just as dissatisfied as we are with our culture sometimes, unless they somehow escaped the fall…perhaps from a line of aliens that arrived later.

  5. Seth permalink
    2 February 2010 2:30 am

    I know I would. Not all the way back to scratch, but to a simpler, less-populated time, a la Mayberry. Or better yet, M.N.S’s The Village. Though without that scary bird-guy.

  6. Iceman permalink
    2 February 2010 6:04 pm

    I think we’re talking about primitivism, not nativism, which is something else altogether.

    I agree with John Eckley that primitive cultures are here being romanticized. For instance, the idea of the noble savage that respected his environment and was aware of the ecosystem, etc. is largely a myth. Easter Island, the Anasazi, the mound builders of Ohio are all thought by many to have over-exploited their resources. Many primitive cultures altered coastal ecosystems due to overharvest, many North American megafauna are thought to have been driven to extinction by humans well before Europeans arrived. The reason we tend to associate environmental degradation with Western culture or “modern man” is because primatives were (relatively speaking) LOUSY at hunting, agriculture, etc. Same with weaponry and so on. Lack of scientific and technological prowess meant that they were inefficient at attacking their neighbors, increasing their numbers, harvesting resources.

    More specific to the show about the Tanna Island folks, remember it’s TV so the picture of the culture is likely to be slanted to make a better story (differences made extreme). The fact that homelessness is unheard of there probably has more to due with tiny population size and everyone knowing each other more than it does technlogy. I grew up in a small American town and we didn’t have homeless people either. Mobilization and urbanization, not technology, may be the problem here. Also, those factors that lead to homelessness in the US (lazy, crazy, disabled, catastrophic bad luck) historically would have resulted in death in most primitive cultures. Arguably worse than homelessness.

    What’s so bad about corn? Fritos come from corn.

    • 2 February 2010 6:22 pm

      Good thoughts. Two things: the play on the title is the suggestion that by eliminating some of our technology, or our reliance upon it, we might somehow a) actually preserve our culture, or b) revive a better one. (Or another play might be that perhaps technology is a relentless “foreign invader” against which we must set policies to protect ourselves.)

      And nothing is wrong with corn if it is left as corn and not genetically modified into 95% of the food in our grocery stores. (Except Fritos. I forgot about Fritos.) And still, even then, not fed to cattle.

  7. Shu Shyne permalink
    3 February 2010 3:35 am

    This is exactly the topic we start with in World History. Farmers vs. Foragers, how do we define progress? And is farming a natural and inevitable outcome for early civilizations?
    We (Americans) live in an intensive farming society, or more precisely we are the product of intensive agriculture. But some civilizations, like the tribe from Tanna did not transition to intensive farming because a) their land did not support it b) geographic isolation or c) they lived a life (foraging and hunting) that met their basic needs. What we see in the video are the drastic different results between the two ways of life — farmers vs. forages.
    There are positives to the forager (non-intensive agriculture) lifestyle — a family-like community, most likely a diverse and healthier diet, little political or class conflict, and seemingly less stress. On the other hand, intensive agriculture frees people to pursue vocations outside foraging and hunting for food, but it also requires great organization. Who are the farmers, who are the leaders, who supplies the security, etc? Ironically, intensified agriculture is also more prone to disaster (over-reliance on a few staple crops). Although outside vocations may lead to class conflict, they also foster advanced technology — computers, airplanes, zombie cell phone games. But once a civilization transitions from hunter/gatherer to intensive agriculture there is no going back.
    A great book on the differences between the two groups is Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. It’s also a National Geographic Special available on DVD.
    I think there is a lot to learn from these men from Tanna. If I had to pick the better lifestyle I’d pick the people of Tanna, but if I had to choose one life to live I’d choose the technology, or maybe I just couldn’t go back.

    • 3 February 2010 3:32 pm

      I’m with you. I gave up my TV. I don’t have the internet at home. I want to cultivate my 1/2 acre backyard into a victory garden. But I don’t want to go so far back that I can’t enjoy my peppercorn rare roast beef sandwich with coriander honey mustard and Seminole horseradish from Five Loaves every couple weeks. Or listen to The National while I wash the dishes. (Or dare I say even Jay Z when I feel like it?) Nor do I want to have to stoop over the river to wash the dishes. I like sinks.

      I like the idea of oral tradition, too, but I like books and the written word more, and more has been accomplished because the printing press spread ideas everywhere quickly. And I am glad those ideas are bound up and at our tips, sitting conveniently on our shelves.

  8. Grady permalink
    9 February 2010 1:19 am

    Great question and discussion Matt, and I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. It all depends on your perspective. I think Eckles has a unique perspective however, in that he’s been involved in a country that has a similar history to Vanuata, and that’s a history of unstable governance. I just read a book entitled “Three Cups of Tea” about Greg Mortenson’s work with the Central Asia Institute in Pakistan and Afghanistan. To sum it, before he became involved with CAI, he was an ER nurse and rock climber. While on a mountain climbing expedition in the Karakoram Mountains in northern Pakistan (he went to climb K2, the second highest mtn on earth), he became lost, and wound up in an extremely remote village. The village folks took care of him, and he promised to come back and build a school for them. Working with the locals, he’s managed to build over 120 schools in Afghan and Pakistan. Anyways, he noted that many Westerners tend to romanticize poverty. He notes in the book that “in every home, at least one family member suffered from goiters or cataracts. The children, whose ginger hair he had admired, owed their coloring to a form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor… the nearest doctor was a week’s walk away in Skardu, and one out of every three Korphe children died before reaching their first birthday.”

    There are so many factors that go into why these people aren’t more advanced than they are, and who knows if and when they would become more advanced technologically, but due to geographic isolation (much like northern Pakistan), and the lack of economically valuable resources (oil, gold, etc), they haven’t. If you look at the reason the US has been so successful with technology, etc, look no further than the massive influence Alexander Hamilton had on the monetary policy of the US. Thomas Jefferson wanted an agrarian society, but Hamilton argued for a strong, balanced central bank among other things, and that’s what we have. That opened the door to innumerous examples of “creative destruction” in the technology marketplace.

    Anyway, if any of y’all want to live on the island of Tanna, here’s a real estate website with land for sale – For 42,250,000 vatu (or ~$413,000 US bucks), you can get 18 hectares (45 acres) of beachfront property. That’s a lot cheaper than Sullivan’s Island.

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