I, Science Winter 2011 | Issue 19
I think your article, and quite possibly the academic quoted, on ‘uncontacted’ tribes is a bit confused. Since when did ‘uncontacted’ mean ‘unknown’ or ‘unaware of the outside world’?
An entire article about semantics, and confused ones at that, is a bit disappointing. Especially when so many people have used skepticisms over these peoples’ existence as a pretext to wipe them out.
Hi Richard. Thanks for the comment. Sorry to hear you were disappointed. It was absolutely not the intention of the article to take a sceptical position on the existence of remote, reclusive – and, of course, vulnerable – peoples still living in many parts of the world. That such people exist is not in question.
Nor was the intention to play with semantics: uncontacted does not imply unknown, I agree, thus ‘uncontacted’ seems the more specific (and less melodramatic term).
Rather, the point of the article was to call into question the romantic fantasy that there are whole tribes of people out there utterly hidden from the rest of the world – the kind of fantasy that is often peddled in popular culture and trades on Western mythologies of innocence and escape etc. It’s important to note – and the article mentions this – that we’re not talking about small groups or family units, but entire peoples with a shared way of life and cultural identity. Thus, the claim is that there are no undiscovered cultures, if you like – though of course there is so very much still to learn about those cultures – not least those (sub)cultures in our midst.
Removing the fantasy that there are uncontacted peoples out there, who have somehow survived undetected, forces us to confront the reality of how most of these indigenous peoples are treated – again, something the article highlights.
Thanks for the reply, Douglas. I can’t agree with all, or much, of your response though. I hope I’m not splitting hairs.
Firstly, I think there’s a heck of a lot of evidence that there *are* uncontacted peoples out there!
To say in one sentence that it’s ‘not the intention of the article to take a sceptical position on the existence of remote, reclusive – and, of course, vulnerable – peoples still living in many parts of the world,’ and in a following one that you’re ‘removing the fantasy that there are uncontacted peoples out there’, just doesn’t stack up. If we can all agree that ‘uncontacted’ quite obviously doesn’t mean ‘unknown’ then the two statements just don’t jive.
And while you might be talking of ‘cultures’ in the comments, the article – somewhat ridiculously – quotes an academic saying ‘it’s all fantasy, the idea of an uncontacted tribe’.
I do realize it was off the cuff and provocative. And anyway, perhaps I’m flogging a dead horse and precision is overrated. But if we’re going to cling to the idea that we can be at all ‘scientific’ about anthropology then I think it’s got to be worth an attempt to challenge these kinds of mix-ups – especially when they’re coming from UCL of all places!
Akk – talking of mixups, sorry, Imperial, not UCL. Of course.
Hi Rich. Thanks for the clarifications and for taking the time to put across this viewpoint. Stephen Corry of Survival International has made similar criticisms about the use of ‘uncontacted’ over on my personal website where I also posted this article. Please feel free to join the discussion there!
(Yes, we’re an Imperial magazine and Dr Stewart is at UCL.)
Readers of this comment thread may be interested in Dr Stewart’s recent response to similar comments made by Stephen Corry here.
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