May 30, 2008

Amazing images of lost South American tribe

Anthropologists recently conducted a fly-by over a tribal village in the Envira rain forest near the Brazilian-Peruvian border. It is strongly suspected that these Amerindians have never made contact with the modern world.

Assuming this is not a hoax or error of some sort, the captured images are nothing short of incredible -- as if the anthropologists had traveled back in time. During the course of the fly-by (done by plane) the team was able to observe living arrangements, work areas, gardens, and even behavior.

After its first pass, when the plane returned an hour later, the tribe was ready having painted their bodies red and brandishing their weapons. Some were painted in black. The aboriginals were undoubtedly confused by the plane, probably figuring it was some sort of large creature or spirit.

Direct contact with the tribe was never a consideration; a number of anthropologists hope that tribes like this one remain untouched.

According to Miriam Ross of Survival International, a group that works to protect the world's remaining indigenous peoples, "These tribes represent the incredible diversity of humankind. Unless we want to condemn yet more of the earth's peoples to extinction, we must respect their choice. Any contact they have with outsiders must happen in their own time and on their own terms."

Aside from the fear of tampering with a primitive society, the risk of transmitting diseases is significant; these people have virtually no immunities and would likely be hit hard.

"These pictures are further evidence that uncontacted tribes really do exist. The world needs to wake up to this, and ensure that their territory is protected in accordance with international law. Otherwise, they will soon be made extinct," says Ross.

This discovery brings to mind a number of ethical issues and considerations:
  • What if some of these people need medical help and medicine?
  • Is it ethical for us to not let them know about the greater world around them?
  • How could we ever have consent for contact and/or cultural uplift? Should it be assumed? Why? Why not?
  • Are we sufficiently justified in keeping this tribe in a zoo-like scenario?
  • If eventual contact is unavoidable, why wait until then? Would contact with the modern world ever be 'on their terms?'
  • How would we feel if we discovered that we were being observed and purposefully held-back by a more advanced civilization?
  • Is this the kind of cultural diversity that we want to preserve? If so, why? To what end? Does cultural diversity benefit the lost tribe?
  • What does it mean to say that we risk their "extinction?" Is it accurate to equate the extinction of a culture with that of a species? What are the consequences of a lost cultural mode for a) those who used to participate in it and b) for those who will never be a part of it? What are the consequences relative to the benefits of adopting a new culture?
  • While I don't have all the answers to these questions, I did (peripherally) address a number of them a couple of years ago in my paper, "All Together Now: Developmental and Ethical Considerations for Biologically Uplifting Nonhuman Animals."

    Here's the relevant excerpt:
    Nature versus nurture

    Biological uplift is one of two major ways in which an organism can be endowed with superior or alternative ways of physical or psychological functioning. Memetic uplift, or cultural uplift, is distinguished from biological uplift in that it typically involves members of the same species and does not require any intrinsic biological alteration to the organism. While biological uplift is still set to happen at some point in the future, cultural transmission and memetic uplift have been an indelible part of human history.

    Memetic uplift can be construed as a soft form of uplift. Memes are by their very nature rather ethereal cultural artifacts, whereas biological uplift entails actual physical and cognitive transformation. That’s not to suggest that inter-generational non genetic transfer of information is subtle. Society and culture have a significant impact on the makeup of an individual.

    That said, human psychology is powered by genetic predispositions that function as proclivity engines, endowing persons with their unique personalities, tendencies and latent abilities. This is why the environment continues to play an integral role in the development of the entire phenotype. How persons are socialized and which memes they are exposed to determines to a large part who and what individuals are as sentient, decision-making agents. Consequently, people are constrained and moulded in a nontrivial way by their culture-space. Humans have moved beyond their culturally and phenotypically primitive Paleolithic forms owing to the influence of an advanced culturally extended phenotype and the subsequent rise of exosomatic minds and bodies.

    An Example of Memetic Uplift

    One of the most striking examples of memetic uplift was the colonization of the Americas by the Europeans. From a macrohistorical perspective, the clash of European and indigenous American civilizations was one between a post-feudal monarchist society and a Stone Age culture. The wide technological and cultural gap separating the two societies gave the Europeans a considerable edge in their ability to successfully wage an invasion that resulted in the embedding of their political, economic, and religious institutions on the continent. The Europeans were also proactive about “civilizing” aboriginal peoples -- in some cases forcing them to attend English schools or converting them to Christianity. Today, very few aboriginals, if any, are able to maintain a lifestyle that even modestly resembles life in pre colonial times. The colonization of the Americas resulted in the emergence of an entirely new set of cultures.

    This period of history was traumatic in a real sense and it is often considered one of the more regrettable periods of human history. Yet the episode raises considerable food for thought and the opportunity for some thought experiments. Would it have been ethical to allow the aboriginals to continue living a Stone Age life? Assuming this is truly an example of cultural uplift, in which ways was it a success and in which a failure? These are difficult questions with complex answers. However, as history has shown, the intermingling and assimilation of disparate cultures was and is an indelible part of the human condition. Information swapping is a developmental reality that has been largely unavoidable.

    Conceptions of progress and the rise of cultural relativism

    The European colonization of the Americas, along with other similar episodes, is an extremely sensitive area of debate, often leading to discussions that skirt the fringes of acceptability in terms of political correctness.

    Part of the problem is the rise of cultural relativism, particularly as it as it pertains to the assessment of ancient life and how it compares to modernity. Objective assessment is often difficult, in part the result of the romantic perceptions many people carry of pre-civilizational existence and the cynical take some have in regards to modern life. Factors contributing to this sentiment include the disruptive nature of technological advance on individuals and cultures, the failed totalitarian experiments of the 20th century, the two catastrophic world wars, the rise of apocalyptic threats, and the calamitous effects of modern society on the environment.

    Driving this negative view of modern society even further is the prevailing pseudohistorical romanticization of primitive life evident in popular culture and perpetuated by a number of intellectuals. What the biblical "Garden of Eden" and Rousseauian "noble savage" myths often fail to take into account, however, is how nasty, brutish and short life used to be. A strong case can be made that social and technological progress happens for a reason, namely the steady improvement of conditions and the pursuit of a more dignified and fulfilling life for individuals. Humanity is a self-domesticating species. Virtually all episodes in which primitive cultures are influenced by more advanced ones represent precursors to the biological uplift of highly sapient nonhuman species.
    Read the entire paper.


    Just another technical blogger said...

    I think the very fact that they have been found means they are doomed as a culture.

    Anonymous said...

    Great post -- I do think all the points you listed are very valid and many people do prefer some kind of cultural zoo for these tribes. If you're interested I have argued the same here.

    I would say they are doomed as a culture if by culture you mean something unrealistically static. They need not be doomed in a greater sense -- but of course given the history of such things in S America I'm not too optimistic.

    Anonymous said...

    This, indeed, is a dilemma. I agree that there is nothing romantic about primitive cultures, especially in the lives of their women. At the same time, the issues of immunity and homogenization are very real. Regarding the former, it is better if first contact is made by people bearing vaccines than loggers or oil prospectors. I'm not sure if there is a remedy for genetic and cultural monoculture.

    Athena Andreadis said...

    Postscript: Your posted link no longer works. Is there another way of seeing the All Together Now essay?

    George said...

    Thanks for the head's up, Athena. Links are now fixed.

    Anonymous said...

    This is not a zoo.

    It's the world. It's the wild. It couldn't be more different from a zoo. Animals in zoos are transported from their natural environment into an extremely confined cage, where they are fed processed food and monitored round the clock. If anyone's in a zoo, it's us out here in the "uplifted" world.

    Furthermore, we have NOTHING to offer them (ethically or otherwise) that they haven't done a fine job of providing for themselves for the last 6,000 years right were they are. They aren't about to step into tech jobs and start sipping lattes - no, what's more likely is getting swept up in the sprawling slums of Brazil's cities.

    It's unbelievably condescending to think that, just because the "modern" world has been kind to you, that it has been/would be kind to everyone. Sure, living in the jungle is hard. But it's a life. They look strong and stood up and defended themselves against invasion. I think that's all the sign we need to keep a wide path clear of their land.

    Anonymous said...

    I think it is almost certain that they have encountered the 'civilized' world at one point or another, and made the conscious decision that they didn't want to be part of it. The same decision has been made by the Mennonite and Amish communities in North America.

    Geist said...

    Werner Herzog made a short documentary lament, of sorts, about the consequences of a first, then second and so forth contact.
    It's in 3 parts on youtube, part one is here


    PhrenicGermal said...

    I'd like to point out to Athena that while the primitive roots of many of the dominant cultures don't treat women well, we have no way of knowing how this culture is organised. There are matriarchal societies, some of them 'primitive' societies that are around today.

    Nato said...

    Sir Thom, what are the genuinely matriarchal societies to which you refer? Many that certain anthropologists initially reported as matriarchal proved to not be so much.

    Regarding statements like "Furthermore, we have NOTHING to offer them (ethically or otherwise) that they haven't done a fine job of providing for themselves for the last 6,000 years right were they are." I can only presume that davidg is not proposing that the individuals in the society are up to six millenia old, so I suspect davidg views their ethical significance is as a society, not as individuals. Perhaps, per anonymous' curious asseveration that "it is almost certain that they have encountered the 'civilized' world at one point or another, and made the conscious decision that they didn't want to be part of it," those individuals are not interested in what the rest of the world has to offer, but this seems dubious at best. Travelers throughout history have found local people highly willing to trade, and frequently even excited to take on aspects of foreign cultures. The problems have largely occurred once coercion entered the picture, whether direct or indirect. Right now, of course, these people probably do not have any choice between aspects of their own culture and those of any other. The questions are: 1)is it incumbent upon us to provide one? 2) is there any way to do this in a way that won't spiral out of the control of those to whom we intend to offer a choice?

    Jennifer Eli said...

    Looking at the pictures what strikes me is their obvious awareness they are being watched. It almost seems cruel to be doing the "observational flyby". What myths, and thoughts are being created by these flyby's? These acts influence the culture anyway. At that point the step of offering help/medical assistance is a small and, at least, beneficent step. It alters the scenario from airborne stalking/confusion raising to a situation of opening health opportunities.

    Anonymous said...

    I think I'd prefer to have my culture destroyed than to paint myself black or red to keep the bugs away. No one would prefer to live the life of a pre-bronze age savage. Anyone how disagrees can shut down their computer and do so instead of looking at these folks as 'something else apart from the rest of us'. Advanced civilization happens because people want a better life.