First, check out this incredible series of photographs, published by Wired magazine, of uncontacted people (or indigenous people who live in voluntary isolation, to use the correct term), some taken at the very moment they first make contact with the outside world. The variety of responses is fascinating – from curiosity and bewilderment, to utter delight, to terror. There are apparently around 100 groups, most living in the Amazon.
Second, track down a copy of Wade Davis’s The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World, a fantastic book about what we can learn from indigenous cultures that, when compared to 21st century living, seem disconcertingly primitive.
It’s generally agreed that we, Homo Sapiens, sprung up around 200,000 years ago, and that we co-existed with other hominids (including Neanderthals, who – like us – were descended from Homo Erectus). The earliest ‘human’ (in a fairly loose sense of the word) dates much earlier, to 3.3m years ago, and was discovered only recently, in 2006: the skeletal remains of a three-year-old Ethiopian girl. Anyway, until about 60,000 years ago all of humanity lived in Africa. But for one reason or another – most likely changing climate and ecological conditions that led to desertification – a small group of men, women and children, possibly as few as 150 (!), left. They walked out of the cradle of humanity, and set about colonizing the world. First, travellling via the shoreline of Asia, they reached Australasia in about 50,000 BC; then north through the Middle East and then further east to India, Southeast Asia and China by around 40,000BC; finally to Europe (30,000 BC), Siberia (20,000 BC) and, some 12,000 years ago, the Americas.
I read this and couldn’t help but wonder how those first 150 pioneers lived. Imagine if you could go back and see them, the Founding Fathers of humanity! Fortunately, you don’t need a time machine, as using genetic tracing anthropologists have been able to find a people living in Africa who are genetically identical to the ones who lived there 60,000 years ago: the ones who never left. They live in the searing sands of the Kalahari desert, straddling Botswana, Namibia and Angola, as nomadic hunter-gatherers, having rejected the ways of successive agriculturists and pastoral herders. There is no standing water for ten months of the year, meaning it has to be found in the hollows of trees, sucked from beneath the mud with reeds, or squeezed from the guts of animals. The sun is not a source of life, but a symbol of death – in the worst months of the dry season, they scrape hollows in the ground, moisten the earth with urine, ‘then lie beneath a sprinkling of sand, tormented by flies, as the wait out the heat of the day’. Their language is dazzling – in everyday English we use 31 sounds; the language of the San uses 141, ‘a cacophony’, Davis writes, ‘of cadence and clicks that many linguists believe echoes the very birth of language’. He goes on to evoke the breathtaking precision of their hunting techniques: ‘Nothing escapes their notice: a bend in a blade of grass, the direction of the tug that snapped a twig, the depth, shape and condition of a track. Everything is written in the sand’. And it works – plus these people can literally run down an antelope.
I realise I’m reeling here, and I should end by making Davis’s wider argument clear: half of the world’s 7,000 languages will disappear within our lifetimes, but these are ‘merely the canaries, in the coal mine’: think of the songs, the stories, the knowledge, the cultures that will also be lost.