The image of the innocent indigene, unsullied by the coarsening traffic of civilization, has a long history. When Christopher Columbus returned from the New World, he reported his interaction with peaceful natives living the life of Adam and Eve in a new Eden. His descriptions were part of a ploy to snatch success out his failure to reach the Spice Islands of the East Indies. And the image remains a powerful advertising tool to this day.
A recent full-page advertisement in a glossy magazine showed a picture of a smiling woman from the Jarawa tribe in the Andaman Islands off the coast of India. The accompanying text read, "No war, no poverty, no drug abuse, no corruption, no pollution, no overpopulation, no prisons -- and we call them primitive?" Their 55,000-year, isolated, self-sufficient and sustainable existence is at threat, the ad suggested. Luckily, Survival International "is helping the Jarawa protect their land and defend their lives."
The Jarawa have lived on the Andamans for thousands of years, but only a few hundred are left, dislocated from their original lands, encroached upon by new roads, poachers, and tourists. Until recently, they were frequent victims of violent raids and kidnapping by officials trying to ensure the tribe would peacefully accept its fate. It is great that Survival International -- an international nongovernmental organization the presents itself as "the movement for tribal peoples" -- wants to advocate for those who remain. Somebody surely should. The NGO was part of a successful attempt to prevent local authorities forcibly resettling the Jarawa in 1990, the kind of move that rarely turns out well for indigenous populations (think of Native Americans). Elsewhere in the world, Survival International has played a similarly important role, highlighting the suffering of tribal peoples from the Amazon to Siberia and spotlighting (as it says on its website) "uncontacted peoples" who "offer today's world alternative values and ways of successful living."
But therein lies the problem. The glorification of the Jarawa and in general of tribal life, with its supposed freedom from violence, poverty, drugs, crime, and overpopulation, is part of a dangerous denial of the huge benefits that modernity has brought to the vast mass of humanity. It is easy to get emotional about a supposedly idyllic Stone Age existence when we're staring at elegant photographs on a computer screen while sipping our Starbucks chai latte. But if we decided to actually return to the lifestyle of uncontacted peoples, the vast majority of the planet would die off from starvation, and those who remained would face nasty, brutish, and short lives. Romanticizing that lifestyle provides no insights into how we can better run a planet of 7 billion people on a sustainable basis -- and does little to illuminate the challenges and needs of tribal people themselves.
To start with, how about the claim that indigenous peoples are ignorant of war? Over the last century and a half, many Jarawa have been shot at and killed by poachers and officials alike -- but they have also carried out numerous attacks of their own, to the extent that there is a standard government payment of $350 made to the family of each settler they kill. And the Jarawa are far from the exception among tribal peoples when it comes to war. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker suggests that somewhere between 5 and 30 percent of deaths in most pre-agricultural societies are caused by violence (although his estimates are disputed).