To Show they Exist

I posted this originally in June 2008. It’s interesting to look back on this encounter, in the light of recent murders of Amazon people campaigning against deforestation, and also since hearing Melanie Challenger talk at the Uncivilisation festival about her new book On Extinction, which deals with the inextricable links between extinctions of biodiversity and extinctions of words and ways of knowing:

I was intrigued by the story about the photographs of the ‘uncontacted’ tribes of the Amazon. It feels terribly intrusive to be looking down on them, obviously from a noisy plane. It’s no wonder they are aiming at ‘us’ with bow and arrow. The National Geographic reportsays that the dyed orange and black skin of the people signals aggression, underlining the point they make that these tribes may not be as ‘uncontacted’ as is thought. They (or their ancestors) may have had some unfavourable encounters with modern people such as rubber tappers in the 19th and 20th centuries and have maintained a defensive stance, resisting integration and the possible loss of their habitat or of their whole tribe due to exposure to diseases they are not immune to. There are debates about what ‘uncontacted’ means, and how many uncontacted tribes remain, in the context of the need to protect them as the rainforest is rapidly depleted. The photos were taken “to show they are there, to show they exist” in response to doubts that were previously expressed by a leader of the Peruvian oil industry. Some say that it is inevitable that they will be contacted just as it is inevitable that the pipelines and loggers will need to go through. Is photographing them and showing that they exist the first step in contacting them?

There are echoes of Edward Curtis making thousands of photographs and sound recordings of native North Americans hundred years ago, to preserve their heritage at least in documentary form while they rapidly died out. Curtis said: “The information that is to be gathered … respecting the mode of life of one of the great races of mankind, must be collected at once or the opportunity will be lost.” The project has been criticised for portraying native tribes as tragic, the loss of their heritage inevitable. They are fascinating records and it is far better that they exist than that they don’t, but it would be far better if America hadn’t lost 90% of its wilderness.

The financier J.P.Morgan gave Curtis $75,000 to do this job in 1906, which was a fortune then (although Curtis was not without money troubles in later life). It’s a little like the multi million pound budgets spent on films aiming to move and educate us to care more about the environment and our fellow creatures, but meanwhile the great behemoth of capitalism munches on and little changes.

Last summer, Bob Geldof and the BBC announced their plans to make the Dictionary of Mankind, or the ‘Domesday book for humanity’, a vast online social network and archive of mankind’s evolution, our natural and cultural history.

The press release contains this story of how Geldof’s vision came about: “He recalled sitting on a tree stump, gazing out over a “moonscape”, and being told by a regional governor in northern Niger that more than 300 languages had disappeared in just two years during the famine that prompted Live Aid in the mid-1980s. “I thought, why don’t we compile a record of every single culture that exists?” ”

I can’t find any evidence of this project since the press release so it’s difficult to know how it’s coming along. It’s a pretty massive project so plans are probably being hatched still. It can’t be easy to scope. It is just possible that the power of the crowd could help to pull this off as we have seen happen with Wikipedia, but how will it be possible to gather and capture knowledge about those past and declining ways of knowing from the people way on the other side of the digital divide (so far over many of them are long dead)? One way is for the project to make multiple complex connections with cultural organisations so that their collections can fill those gaps. I wonder if anyone in the cultural heritage sector is talking to Bob?



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