Out of Eden

Pre-modern lifestyles were fraught with violence, disease, and uncertainty. We should be happy that indigenous societies are increasingly leaving them behind.

By , the director of technology and development and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development.
DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images
DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images
DESHAKALYAN CHOWDHURY/AFP/Getty Images

The image of the innocent indigene, unsullied by the coarsening traffic of civilization, has a long history. When Christopher Columbus returned from the New World, he reported his interaction with peaceful natives living the life of Adam and Eve in a new Eden. His descriptions were part of a ploy to snatch success out his failure to reach the Spice Islands of the East Indies. And the image remains a powerful advertising tool to this day.

A recent full-page advertisement in a glossy magazine showed a picture of a smiling woman from the Jarawa tribe in the Andaman Islands off the coast of India. The accompanying text read, "No war, no poverty, no drug abuse, no corruption, no pollution, no overpopulation, no prisons -- and we call them primitive?" Their 55,000-year, isolated, self-sufficient and sustainable existence is at threat, the ad suggested. Luckily, Survival International "is helping the Jarawa protect their land and defend their lives."

The image of the innocent indigene, unsullied by the coarsening traffic of civilization, has a long history. When Christopher Columbus returned from the New World, he reported his interaction with peaceful natives living the life of Adam and Eve in a new Eden. His descriptions were part of a ploy to snatch success out his failure to reach the Spice Islands of the East Indies. And the image remains a powerful advertising tool to this day.

A recent full-page advertisement in a glossy magazine showed a picture of a smiling woman from the Jarawa tribe in the Andaman Islands off the coast of India. The accompanying text read, "No war, no poverty, no drug abuse, no corruption, no pollution, no overpopulation, no prisons — and we call them primitive?" Their 55,000-year, isolated, self-sufficient and sustainable existence is at threat, the ad suggested. Luckily, Survival International "is helping the Jarawa protect their land and defend their lives."

The Jarawa have lived on the Andamans for thousands of years, but only a few hundred are left, dislocated from their original lands, encroached upon by new roads, poachers, and tourists. Until recently, they were frequent victims of violent raids and kidnapping by officials trying to ensure the tribe would peacefully accept its fate. It is great that Survival International — an international nongovernmental organization the presents itself as "the movement for tribal peoples" — wants to advocate for those who remain. Somebody surely should. The NGO was part of a successful attempt to prevent local authorities forcibly resettling the Jarawa in 1990, the kind of move that rarely turns out well for indigenous populations (think of Native Americans). Elsewhere in the world, Survival International has played a similarly important role, highlighting the suffering of tribal peoples from the Amazon to Siberia and spotlighting (as it says on its website) "uncontacted peoples" who "offer today’s world alternative values and ways of successful living."

But therein lies the problem. The glorification of the Jarawa and in general of tribal life, with its supposed freedom from violence, poverty, drugs, crime, and overpopulation, is part of a dangerous denial of the huge benefits that modernity has brought to the vast mass of humanity. It is easy to get emotional about a supposedly idyllic Stone Age existence when we’re staring at elegant photographs on a computer screen while sipping our Starbucks chai latte. But if we decided to actually return to the lifestyle of uncontacted peoples, the vast majority of the planet would die off from starvation, and those who remained would face nasty, brutish, and short lives. Romanticizing that lifestyle provides no insights into how we can better run a planet of 7 billion people on a sustainable basis — and does little to illuminate the challenges and needs of tribal people themselves.

To start with, how about the claim that indigenous peoples are ignorant of war? Over the last century and a half, many Jarawa have been shot at and killed by poachers and officials alike — but they have also carried out numerous attacks of their own, to the extent that there is a standard government payment of $350 made to the family of each settler they kill. And the Jarawa are far from the exception among tribal peoples when it comes to war. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker suggests that somewhere between 5 and 30 percent of deaths in most pre-agricultural societies are caused by violence (although his estimates are disputed).

As to the absence of poverty, it is hard to understand how the Jarawa — or any other forest tribal group — could be seen as wealthy under any definition of the term. And we know from other cases of limited-contact societies that the number of children who die before their first birthday is often higher than one in five. Along with deaths from violence, disease is one way Stone Age populations are kept within sustainable levels; some communities have practiced infanticide as well. It was common in the highlands of Irian Jaya in Indonesia, for example, site of the last significant "first contact" between the Western world and another culture. These gruesome traditions are needed because of the incredible inefficiency of Stone Age methods of acquiring food. It’s no coincidence that, before the invention of agriculture, the global human population was only five million — considerably less than one one-thousandth of today’s population.

Finally, and despite Survival International’s suggestion, "isolated and self-sufficient" are relative terms worldwide. The organization recently caused a stir with a video of uncontacted people in the Amazon — who were holding factory-made machetes. It is great that such groups find benefit in some of the fruits of industrial society, but if they have access to traded goods, that also suggests they could be exposed to infectious diseases. While Survival International highlights the violent dislocation of many of these groups from where they used to live, slaughter, rape, and dispossession are not signs of a type of isolation that might keep people safe.

It should be up to the Jarawa — and the 100 uncontacted tribes Survival International lists worldwideto decide how much they want to interact with the outside world. But their current limbo of semi-engagement may be the worst possible place to be. It exposes them to disease and violence without proximity to vaccines, hospitals, or real security. Yes, the record of paternalist integration is grim, but it is difficult to make the case that the record of paternalist exclusion and glorification is better. The committed experts who work for Survival International surely understand the complexities of these situations, but they shouldn’t allow their advertising department to dumb down the story quite so far.

The noble savage in a pristine Eden was a great marketing ploy for Columbus — but it’s no model to use when trying to help some of the world’s most vulnerable people. And it is an even worse model for thinking about how we are going to sustain the huge benefits brought by modernity to the 99.99 percent of the world’s population that would rather remain "contacted." It is well past time to find a less insidious approach to raising awareness and resources to help some of the world’s most fragile societies.

Charles Kenny is the director of technology and development and a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development and the author, most recently, of The Plague Cycle: The Unending War Between Humanity and Infectious Disease. Twitter: @charlesjkenny

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