Saturday, October 2, 2010

The ecologically noble savage

The Hadza appeared in the December 2009 issue of the National Geographic. In the wonderfully scripted article, Michael Finkel writes about one of the surviving hunter-gatherer tribes in Tanzania, the Hadza. This is a group that lives in the present. They do not have words for numbers greater than three, they "work" (i.e. hunt for food) four to six hours a day, and sleep when they want to. Finkel contends that they haven't adopted agriculture because it is so contrary to their present state of mind. Agriculture requires planning, and is inherently future-oriented. Yet, this group has survived for tens of thousands of years, and the Hadza speak an "isolated" language, Hadzane, one that has no relationship to any other language that exists in the world. Everyone eats the catch, and so the group can support no more than thirty or so members. The group is non-hierarchical. Members are free to leave and join other groups, and members of other groups are free to join theirs, but there seems to be population control as a function of the catch. Below are photos (by Martin Schoeller) I grabbed from the National Geographic's website. First is Onwas, the eldest member of the group. Next are some women working with baobab fruit, more important than the catch that men get. Last is Sangu, a young girl in the group. It seems to me that if these so-called "living fossils" are still surviving, tens of thousands of years on, eating bountifully and diversely (more so than say the average American), they have an understanding of their landscape, not only ecologically, but also as conservationists. The Hadza seem to fit almost all of the characteristics of a non-impactful people, or should I say a "non-trashing" people. Without a worry in the world, they don't have control over tomorrow, and don't want to think about tomorrow. If they want honey, they get honey from the beehives. If they want to eat a baboon, they find one, and make full use of it. They have resisted attempts by the government to "educate" them, and give them housing and "normal" jobs. Indeed, people from outside the bush have come to spend time with them during times of famine in Tanzania.

While having a conversation with Melissa last summer, I wondered out loud whether people of the past (or even of the present, like the Hadza) conserve the nature around them. Melissa mentioned that these people, that are potentially a figment of our imaginations, are termed "noble savages." Of course, it is clear these noble savages are/were more in tune with a particular landscape than a non-native, but does this understanding of their complex ecosystem compel them to make sure future generations enjoy the same bounty? We would all like to think so, and think of days when humans were one with nature. However, in the case of Native Americans, it seems like there is no evidence that they were any more conscious of conservation than the Europeans that killed them off. Krech claims that Native Americans were ecologists, but not conservationists. Indeed, the only conservation that did happen was "epiphenomenal," or conservation because people didn't have the means to not conserve. Since natives know (or knew) more about their surroundings, they used less of more, while non-natives used more of less. Yet once technologies from Europe, including guns, were introduced to Native Americans, they started over-harvesting, decimating local animal species, excluding beavers.

What do you think?

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