Thursday, February 03, 2005

Stone Age Legacies?

Today's LAT has a front page article on the Onge tribe's struggles to survive in the wake of the Indian Ocean Tsunami, which is commendable, but the Times staff writer falls into the old rhetorical trap of assuming that hunter-gatherer societies encompass an unchanging glimpse into the paleolithic past:

The Onge are one of five endangered hunter-gatherer tribes that have lived for tens of thousands of years in the forests of India's far-flung Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where the pressures of modern development have threatened to wipe them out.

But wait, further on the author gives us some more background on assimilation pressures, alongside a pathetically romantic retort to a wall "against time's advance" (spare me).

Experts on the tribes say the government's help was the kind that could do more harm than good. They have become familiar with the risks through the archipelago's history of intrusions, beginning with a British penal colony 150 years ago and, a decade later, the first logging of the islands' hardwood.

For centuries, the rain forest was the Onge's provider and protector. It fed them wild boar, hunted with poison-tipped arrows, as well as jackfruit and the honey of giant rock bees. The trees shielded them against time's advance.

For decades, Indian governments sought to bring the tribes into what officials called the mainstream. Critics say the policy was intended to remove the tribal people and their reserves, as obstacles to logging.When India opened a third of the Onge's rain forest reserve to logging in the early 1970s, it also launched an ambitious effort to change thousands of years of Onge tradition.

Over twenty years ago the late Eric Wolf put to rest notions that indigenous hunter/gatherer groups were untouched by colonial expansion prior to European recognition in his influential book Europe and the People Without History. Thomas Headland and other participants in the "Great Foragers Debate" of the 1990s concluded that hunter/gatherer groups were able to maintain their existence through contact and trade with surrounding groups, including state-level societies. Rather than mere anachronistic models of Holocene humanity, such groups were actively adapting to ecological and political developments in their immediate vicinity. While most anthropologists recognize the damage that modern development can have on the survivability of such groups (see Cultural Survival for examples), I wince whenever people assume that such societies are somehow less "developed" than our own, with all the subtextual hierarchies that entails.

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