Saturday, November 29, 2008

Undiscovered Peoples

On August 29, 1911, a filthy, emaciated, half-naked wild man was found huddling in the corner of a cattleman's corral near Oroville, California. He was the last surviving Yahi--the last of the Yana people. He had grown up hiding in the mountainous forests of the upper Feather River with a dwindling band of friends and family, carved down again and again by the rifles of horseback-riding miners and ranchers--a score, a dozen, a few at a time--until there were just three. Then when his mother and sister were killed, he was alone. He spent several years hunting, fishing, hiding in the mountain forests--seeing no one (no other human being even spoke his language)--awaiting, but eluding, death from the savage white men who encroached ever closer, year by year, on his wild sanctuary. He believed--with good reason--that he was the last and only civilized human being on Earth.

Finally in August, 1911, harried and starving, near death, he heroically faced up to his fate, prepared to die, and walked out of his world and into the clutches of the insane and savage half-humans who hated him. But good fortune--of a sort--was with him. He was "adopted" by an anthropologist; given a "home" in a corner of a museum in Berkeley. He learned a lot of English and spent his days entertaining museum visitors by sitting in an "authentic" Indian village site and carving "authentic" arrow heads. He came to be called "Ishi" which means only "man" in his native language--he was forbidden by his culture and customs from ever pronouncing his own real name. He died after five years--in 1916--of tuberculosis, one of the many white-man's diseases (like measles, small pox, and influenza) that have regularly decimated or annihilated aboriginal populations who carry in their genes no resistance to them.

As the small circle of anthropologists and their friends got to know him, Ishi turned out to be a remarkable man--a deeply intuitive philosopher, a patient teacher; a man who loved animals and children and had great knowledge of and respect for the ways of nature. When he died--his deep and bloody tuberculous cough had wracked his body down to under 90 pounds--he looked up peacefully from his hospital bed at the small group of friends who had gathered to be with him, and he said simply, "It is time. I go; you stay."

Ishi is believed to have been the last isolated (or "uncontacted") aborigine in North America. But there are, even today, some 200 known tribes around the world--perhaps several thousand individuals--living in small cultural groups totally cut off from the civilized world, They are known from aerial photographs, from reports of indigenous neighbors, and from occasional encounters (often violent) with outside groups. Most are in the Amazon River jungles of Brazil and of bordering Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador. Some are in comparably deep jungles of Bolivia, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Several in the lush tropical rain forests of New Guinea. A few elsewhere.

They are in constant threat both from invading, exploiting loggers and miners, oil-field developers, and poachers-hunters, but also from well-meaning tourists, even anthropologists. In addition to losing their lands to logging, road building, and farming, they have no resistance to diseases that are common in European-derived and long-exposed cultures--they have not spent centuries dying from and gradually developing genetic immunities to measles, small pox, tuberculosis, or even the common cold. When visitors inadvertently bring exposure to these diseases, native populations die off in hordes--a 50% death rate is not uncommon; 90% or even total annihilation is well known.

Several countries such as Brazil have set aside wild and uncivilized areas as "parks" or "reservations" for uncontacted peoples, areas where loggers, miners, and hunters are forbidden to go. Anthropologists have reluctantly learned to keep their distance; and tourism is discouraged both by laws and by the wildness of the land.

But the threats continue. And just as polar bears, great apes, and jungle cats--along with thousands of lesser species--are gradually being exterminated, so we civilized humans are losing the diversity of human languages and cultures with which the Earth was once blessed.