بناء السلام في عقول الرجال والنساء

Last frontiers of civilization

Civilization today is literally dropping out of the sky on "primitive peoples" (we use this term for want of a better one). With the aeroplane we have now succeeded in breaching the last frontiers which once completely protected aboriginal ways of life.

Up until not so long ago, though, most contacts between our civilization and primitives meant long-drawn-out journeys and were rarely accomplished except by slow progressive stages.

In 1880, Karl von den Steinen required months of tedious river navigation to reach the tribes of central Brazil. When he did reach them, his discovery was one of the outstanding events in the world of science at the end of the 19th century.

Ever since 1948, these same tribes can be reached within six hours by an airliner leaving downtown Rio de Janeiro and landing at the very threshold of their villages. The first pilots who met these Indians brought home stone axes as souvenirs; today, they fly in illustrated magazines whose circulation seems to have soared among the tribesmen.

This sudden and abrupt contact of the modern world with the frail native cultures is, as a matter of fact, the last act of a drama which has been staged in different settings since the end of the Middle Ages. Until now, nearly every scene has been a cruel one; it is up to us to brighten the final curtain.

The meeting of the white man and the primitive has always followed the same script. It can be summed up in a few lines. First, the romantic idyll of discovery with enchantment and tenderness on one side and, on the other, surprise and curiosity. Then, still under the charm of this first encounter, the primitive becomes an enthusiastic fan for all the novelties spread before him.

But the first disillusions follow as the pioneer begins to exploit land and the people who had lived on it before him. The decline of the native way of life coincides with a steep drop in population, for new diseases are among the "novelties" of civilization.

Often, just when native traditions are on the verge of disappearing, there is a last wave of revolt. Prophets or messiahs spring up and preach a return to the past or the building of another culture harmonizing old and new for better or worse. These attempts to turn back thé clock are usually doomed to failure. They usher in the final annihilation of a culture or resignation to an inevitable fate.

Up until the end of the last century the crushing of primitive peoples in the path of our civilization was accepted as a natural state of affairs. Darwinism served as a legitimate excuse for the extermination of weak, backward tribes. After all, didn't this prove the law of the survival of the fittest?

Frankly, there was no need of scientific theories to put consciences at ease. From the earliest days of European expansion, primitives all too often were placed in the same category as wild animals to be destroyed as if they were vermin or dangerous beasts.

Poorly armed and incapable of putting up a fight, these hapless victims of "civilization" rarely found defenders except among the ranks of missionaries sent out to save their souls and transform their cultures. Unfortunately, the loss of a culture can be as fatal as an epidemic. The Polynesians lost their will to live in the 19th century and as a result their islands were soon sharply depopulated all because of the mass despair of a people confronted with the collapse of its values.

During the last 50 years, anthropologists and psychologists have done an excellent job of analyzing these contacts between different civilizations or cultural groups. The question is: will we take advantage of their work?

Although the rapid expansion of our modern industrial civilization is a potential deadly danger for primitive peoples, the errors of the past are now known. Several governments have awakened to their responsibilities and are now endeavouring to spare their indigenous populations the hard lot of other peoples in the same situation in the past.

A good many scientists and philanthropists sincerely believe that primitives should be placed in a sort of quarantine so that they may be sheltered from the evils which our civilization seems to insist upon bringing them. However, the idea of a "national park for human beings" does not seem feasible.

Whether we like it or not, there is not a single tribe on the face of the earth today which can hope to escape from the effects of our civilization. True, this contact is harmful, but it is the primitives themselves who demand the tools and the knowledge which they believe can make life easier for them. New diseases threaten their health and only our science can save them.

The problem consists in finding an intelligent way of integrating them into modern life without destroying what is valuable in their way of life and, above all, without destroying their self-respect. Of course, there are some who will ask what is the use of saving people who seem to belong in the dark ages of early man.

The answer is that these primitives number in the millions and that humanity cannot condemn them to death and degradation. Our indifference would not only be a crime, but a foolish policy as well. These men are now being called upon to play an important role in harnessing the resources of their virgin lands. The transition will be a difficult one, but it can be carried off if it is tackled with intelligence and with a deep sense of the innate dignity of man.

What is the nature of Unesco's role in the face of. the responsibilities towards primitive peoples which the civilized world must assume? Firstly, it can ease the process of passing from one type of life to another, a transition apparently inevitable. Unesco's long experience in fundamental education can prove invaluable in this respect. And, secondly, these "savages" have the right to preserve their artistic traditions, for the loss of these traditions would be a loss for all of mankind.

Unesco is not blind to this danger. It has already begun to participate in the long task of salvage being undertaken by many scientists, all too aware that this is our last chance.

Alfred Métraux

Read our online article What is a “Primitive”? by Claude Lévi-Strauss

Fo the other articles in this issue, download the PDF.

August-Septembre 1954