Lost Tribes, Lost Knowledge

by Eugene Linden, Time, September 23, 1991, pp.46-54.

One horrible day 1,600 years ago, the wisdom of many centuries went up in flames. The great library in Alexandria burned down, a catastrophe at the time and a symbol for all ages of the vulnerability of human knowledge. The tragedy forced scholars to grope to reconstruct a grand literature and science that once lay neatly cataloged in scrolls.

Today, with little notice, more vast archives of knowledge and expertise are spilling into oblivion, leaving humanity in danger of losing its past and perhaps jeopardizing its future as well. Stored in the memories of elders, healers. midwives, farmers, fishermen and hunters in the estimated 15,000 cultures remaining on earth is an enormous trove of wisdom.

This largely undocumented knowledge base is humanity's lifeline to a time when people accepted nature's authority and learned through trial, error and observation. But the world's tribes are dying out or being absorbed into modern civilization. As they vanish, so does their irreplaceable knowledge.

Over the ages, indigenous peoples have developed innumerable technologies and arts. They have devised ways to farm deserts without irrigation and produce abundance from the rain forest without destroying the delicate balance that maintains the ecosystem: they have learned how to navigate vast distances in the Pacific using their knowledge of currents and the feel of intermittent waves that bounce off distant islands: they have explored the medicinal properties of plants: and they have acquired an understanding of the basic ecology of flora and fauna. If this knowledge had to be duplicated from scratch, it would beggar the scientific resources of the West. Much of this expertise and wisdom has already disappeared, and if neglected, most of the remainder could be gone within the next generation.

Until quite recently, few in the developed world cared much about this cultural holocaust. The prevailing attitude has been that Western science, with its powerful analytical tools, has little to learn from tribal knowledge. The developed world's disastrous mismanagement of the environment has somewhat humbled this arrogance, however, and some scientists are beginning to recognize that the world is losing an enormous amount of basic research as indigenous peoples lose their culture and traditions. Scientists may someday be struggling to reconstruct this body of wisdom to secure the developed world's future.

A Voluntary Crisis

Indigenous peoples have been threatened for centuries as development encroaches on their lands and traditions. What is different about the present situation, however, is that it goes beyond basic questions of native land rights into more ambiguous issues, such as the prerogative of individuals to decide between traditional and modern ways. Indigenous knowledge disappears when natives are stripped of their lands, but in many parts of the globe, knowledge also disappears because the young who are in contact with the outside world have embraced the view that traditional ways are illegitimate and irrelevant.

The most intractable aspect of the crisis is that it is largely voluntary. Entranced by images of the wealth and power of the First World, the young turn away from their elders, breaking an ancient but fragile chain of oral traditions. For the elders, it is difficult to persuade an ambitious young native that he is better off hunting boar with blowpipes than reaching for the fruits of "civilization," even if those fruits might translate into a menial job in a teeming city. For the well-fed, well-educated visiting scientist to make that argument can seem both hypocritical and condescending.

The pace of change is startling. According to Harrison Ngau, a member of the Malaysian Parliament concerned with the rights of tribes on the island of Borneo, as many as 10,000 members of the Penan tribe still led the seminomadic life of hunting and gathering at the beginning of the 1980s. But the logging industry has been destroying their woodlands, and the Malaysian government has encouraged them to move to villages. Now fewer than 500 Penans live in the forest. When they settle into towns, their expertise in the ways of the forest slips away. Villagers know that their elders used to watch for the appearance of a certain butterfly, which always seemed to herald the arrival of a herd of boar and the promise of good hunting. These days, most of the Penans cannot remember which butterfly to look for.

The number of different tribes around the world makes it impossible to record or otherwise preserve more than a tiny percentage of the knowledge being lost. Since 1900, 90 of Brazil's 270 Indian tribes have completely disappeared, while scores more have lost their lands or abandoned their ways. More than two-thirds of the remaining tribes have populations of fewer than 1,000. Some might disappear before anyone notices.

A recent study by M.I.T. linguist Ken Hale estimates that 3,000 of the world's 6,000 languages are doomed because no children speak them. Researchers estimate that Africa alone has 1,800 languages, Indonesia 672 and New Guinea 800. If a language disappears, traditional knowledge tends to vanish with it, since individual language groups have specialized vocabularies reflecting native people's unique solutions to the challenges of food gathering, healing and dealing with the elements in their particular ecological niche. Hale estimates that only 300 languages have a secure future.

The Price of Forgetting

The most immediate tragedy in the loss of knowledge and traditions is for the tribes themselves. They do not always die out, but the soul of their culture withers away. Often left behind are people "who are shadows of what they once were, and shadows of what we in the developed world are," as one Peace Corps volunteer put it. The price is real as well as psychological when native peoples lose their grip on traditional knowledge. At the Catholic mission in Yalisele in equatorial Zaire, for instance, nurses and missionaries have encountered patients brought in with burns or perforations of the lower intestine. Investigation revealed that those afflicted had been treated for a variety of ailments with traditional medicines delivered in suppository form. The problem was not the medicines but the dosages. As the old healers died off, people would try to administer traditional medicines themselves or turn to healers who had only a partial understanding of what their elders knew. This problem is likely to get worse because Western medicines and trained nurses are becoming ever more scarce in Zaire's economically beleaguered society.

In the island nation of Papua New Guinea, in the Coral Sea, jobless people returning to highland villages from the cities often lack the most rudimentary knowledge necessary to survive, such as which rot-resistant trees to use to build huts or which poisonous woods to avoid when making fires for cooking. Many of the youths, alienated from their villages by schooling and exposure to the West, become marauding "rascals," who have made Papua New Guinea's cities among the most dangerous in the world.

The global hemorrhage of indigenous knowledge even fuels the population explosion as people ignore taboos and forget traditional methods of birth control. In many parts of Africa, tribal women who used to bear, on average, five or six children now often have more than 10.

The Young Drift Away

It is difficult for an outsider to imagine the degree to which novel ideas and images assault the minds of tribal adolescents moving into the outside world. They get glimpses of a society their parents never encountered and cannot explain. Students who leave villages for schooling in Papua New Guinea learn that people, not the spirits of their ancestors, created the machines, dams and other so-called cargo of the modern world. Once absorbed, this realization undermines the credibility and authority of elders.

Father Frank Mihalic, a Jesuit missionary in New Guinea since 1948, views with sadness the degree to which education has alienated the young from their "one talks," as kinsmen are called. "They don't like history because history is embarrassing," he says. "They wince when I talk about the way their dad or their mom lived." Mihalic and other members of his order have intervened to prevent the government from burning spirit houses, used during tribal initiation rites. But other missionaries often tell the young people that their customs are primitive and barbaric. Relatives who have left villages for the city and return to show off their wealth and status also influence the young. Girls encounter educated women who work as clerks and are exempt from the backbreaking hauling done by their mothers' generation. How can these youngsters resist the allure of modern life? How can they make an informed judgment about which of the old ways should be respected and maintained?

John Maru, who works in Papua New Guinea's Ministry for Home Affairs and Youth recalls how during his schooling he came to see the endless gift exchanges and other traditions that marked his youth in the Sepik region as a waste of time and money and a drag on individual initiative. Now, however, he sees that such customs serve to seal bonds among families and act as a barrier to poverty and loneliness.

Sadly, tribal peoples often realize they are losing something of value too late to save it. In the village of Taï, in the Ivory Coast, three brothers from a prosperous family have tried to balance respect for the practices of their Guéré tribe with careers in the modern economy. Yet their mother, an esteemed healer, has not been able to pass on her learning. One brother said he wanted to know about the plants she used but was afraid to ask because she would think he had foreseen her death--the traditional time to pass on knowledge. Another brother would go into the forest with her but hesitated to ask what she was doing because he feared the power of her medicines; while the third, pursuing a successful engineering career, assumed that others would acquire her learning. Now with each passing year, it is more likely her knowledge will die with her.

Western Contempt

If the developed world is to help indigenous peoples preserve their heritage, it must first recognize that this wisdom has value. Western science is founded on the belief that knowledge inexorably progresses: the new and improved inevitably drive out the old and fallible. Western science also presumes to be objective and thus more rigorous than other systems of thought.

Guided by these conceits, scientists have often failed to notice traditional technologies even, for instance, when they are on display in the U.S. Several Andean artifacts made the rounds of American museums in the 1980s as examples of hammered gold. Then Heather Lechtman, an M.I.T. archaeologist interested in ancient technologies, examined the metal and discovered that it represented a far more sophisticated art. Lechtman's analysis revealed that the artifacts had been gilded with an incredibly thin layer of gold using a chemical technique that achieved the quality of modern electroplating. No one had previously suspected that these Indians had the know-how to create so subtle a technology.

Nor is it only the West that has scorned traditional learning. When communist China imposed tight control over Tibet in 1959, the aggressors tried to eradicate the captive country's culture. In particular, the communists denounced Tibetan medicine as feudal superstition, and the number of doctors practicing the 2,000-year-old, herb-based discipline shrank from thousands to 500. But since the Chinese began to relent on this issue in recent years, Tibetans have returned to their traditional medicines, which they often find more effective and less harsh than Western drugs.

Even in the Third World, governments have tended to look at their indigenous cultures as an impediment to development and nationhood. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, European administrators, influenced by colonial practices in Africa, sought to discourage tribalism by consolidating power and commerce in cities far away from the villages that are the centers of tribal life. According to John Waiko, director of Papua New Guinea's National Research Institute, this decision has fueled instability by making government seem remote and arbitrary. Among dozens of nations and regions with substantial native populations, only Greenland and Botswana stand out for their efforts to accommodate the culture and interests of these people.

Growing Appreciation

Attitudes are beginning to change, however. Scientists are learning to look past the myth, superstition and ritual that often conceal the hard-won insights of indigenous peoples. Sometimes the lessons have come in handy: during the gulf war, European doctors treated some wounds with a sugar paste that traces back to Egyptian battlefield medicine of 4,000 years ago.

Michael Balick, director of the New York Botanical Garden's Institute of Economic Botany, notes that only 1,100 of the earth's 265,000 species of plants have been thoroughly studied by Western scientists, but as many as 40,000 may have medicinal or undiscovered nutritional value for humans. Many are already used by tribal healers, who can help scientists greatly focus their search for plants with useful properties.

Balick walks tropical forests with shamans in Latin America as part of a study, sponsored by the National Cancer Institute, designed to uncover plants useful in the treatment of AIDS and cancer. The 5,000 plants collected so far, says the NCI'S Gordon Cragg, have yielded some promising chemicals. If any of them turn out to be useful as medicines, the country from which the plant came would get a cut of the profits.

In the past decade, researchers in developed countries have realized that they have much to learn from traditional agriculture. Formerly, such farming was often viewed as inefficient and downright destructive. "Slash and burn" agriculture, in particular, was viewed with contempt. Following this method, tribes burn down a section of forest, farm the land until it is exhausted and then move on to clear another patch of trees. This strategy has been blamed for the rapid loss of tropical rain forests.

Now, however, researchers have learned that if practiced carefully, the method is environmentally benign. The forests near Chiapas, Mexico, for instance, are not threatened by native Lacandon practices but by the more commercial agricultural practices of encroaching peasants, according to James Nations of Conservation International in Washington. Many indigenous Farmers in Asia and South America manage to stay on one patch of land for as long as 50 years. As nutrients slowly disappear from the soil, the farmers keep switching to hardier crops and thus do not have to clear an adjacent stretch of forest.

Westerners have also come to value traditional farmers for the rich variety of crops they produce. By cultivating numerous strains of corn, legumes, grains and other foods, they are ensuring that botanists have a vast genetic reservoir from which to breed future varieties. The genetic health of the world's potatoes, for example, depends on Quechua Indians, who cultivate more than 50 diverse strains in the high plateau country around the Andes mountains in South America. If these natives switched to modern crops, the global potato industry would lose a crucial line of defense against the threat of insects and disease.

Anthropologists studying agricultural and other traditions have been surprised to find that people sometimes retain valuable knowledge long after they have dropped the outward trappings of tribal culture. In one community in Peru studied by Christine Padoch of the Institute of Economic Botany, peasants employed all manner of traditional growing techniques, though they were generations removed from tribal life. Padoch observed almost as many combinations of crops and techniques as there were households. Similarly, a study of citified Aboriginal children in Australia revealed that they had far more knowledge about the species and habits of birds than did white children in the same neighborhood. Somehow their parents had passed along this knowledge, despite their removal from their native lands. Still, the amount of information in jeopardy dwarfs that being handed down.

Lending a Hand

There is no way that concerned scientists can move fast enough to preserve the world's traditional knowledge. While some can be gathered in interviews and stored on tape, much information is seamlessly interwoven with a way of life. Boston anthropologist Jason Clay therefore insists that knowledge is best kept alive in the culture that produced it. Clay's solution is to promote economic incentives that also protect the ecosystems where natives live. Toward that end, Cultural Survival, an advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass., that Clay helped establish, encourages traditional uses of the Amazon rain forest by sponsoring a project to market products found there.

Clay believes that in 20 years, demand for the Amazon's nuts, oils, medicinal plants and flowers could add up to a $15 billion-a-year retail market--enough so that governments might decide it is worthwhile to leave the forests standing. The Amazon's Indians could earn perhaps $1 billion a year from the sales. That could pay legal fees to protect their lands and provide them with cash for buying goods from the outside world.

American companies are also beginning to see economic value in indigenous knowledge. In 1989 a group of scientists formed Shaman Pharmaceuticals, a California company that aims to commercialize the pharmaceutical uses of plants. Among its projects is the development of an antiviral agent for respiratory diseases and herpes infections that is used by traditional healers in Latin America.

An indigenous culture can in itself be a marketable commodity if handled with respect and sensitivity. In Papua New Guinea, Australian Peter Barter, who first came to the island in 1965, operates a tour service that takes travelers up the Sepik River to traditional villages. The company pays direct fees to villages for each visit and makes contributions to a foundation that help cover school fees and immunization costs in the region. Barter admits, however, that the 7,000 visitors a year his company brings through the region disrupt local culture to a degree. Among other things, native carvers adapt their pieces to the tastes of customers, adjusting their size to the requirements of luggage. But the entrepreneur argues that the visits are less disruptive than the activities of missionaries and development officials.

There are other perils to the commercial approach. Money is an alien and destabilizing force in many native villages. A venture like Barter's could ultimately destroy the integrity of the cultures it exhibits if, for example, rituals become performances tailored to the tourist business. Some villages in New Guinea have begun to permit tourists to visit spirit houses that were previously accessible only to initiated males. In Africa villages on bus routes will launch into ceremonial dances at the sound of an approaching motor. Forest-product concerns like those encouraged by Cultural Survival run the risk of promoting overexploitation of forests, and if the market for these products takes off, the same settlers who now push aside natives to mine gold might try to take over new enterprises as well.

Still, economic incentives already maintain traditional knowledge in some parts of the world. John and Terese Hart, who have spent 18 years in contact with Pygmies in northeastern Zaire, note that other tribes and villagers rely on Pygmies to hunt meat and collect foods and medicines from the forests, and that this economic incentive keeps their knowledge alive. According to John Hart, the Pygmies have an uncanny ability to find fruits and plants they may not have used for years. Says Hart: "If someone wants to buy something that comes from the forest, the Pygmies will know where to find it."

Restoring Respect

Preserving tribal wisdom is as much an issue of restoring respect for traditional ways as it is of creating financial incentives. The late Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy put his prestige behind an attempt to convince his countrymen that their traditional mud-brick homes are cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter and cheaper than the prefabricated, concrete dwellings they see as modern status symbols.

Balick has made it part of his mission to enhance the status of traditional healers within their own communities. He and his colleagues hold ceremonies to honor shamans, most of whom are religious men who value respect over material reward. In one community in Belize, the local mayor was so impressed that American scientists had come to learn at the feet of an elderly healer that he asked them to give a lecture so that townspeople could learn about their own medical tradition. Balick recalls that this healer had more than 200 living descendants, but that none as yet had shown an interest in becoming an apprentice. The lecture, though, was packed. "Maybe," says Balick, "seeing the respect that scientists showed to this healer might inspire a successor to come forward."

Such deference represents a dramatic change from past scientific expeditions, which tended to treat village elders as living museum specimens. Balick and others like him recognize that communities must decide for themselves what to do with their traditions. Showing respect for the wisdom keepers can help the young of various tribes better weigh the value of their culture against blandishments of modernity. If young apprentices begin to step forward, the world might see a slowing of the slide toward oblivion.