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The Disappearance of Man

Among the many cherished recollections that I have retained of the years I spent in the United States, one remains outstanding because it is associated with what, due to my inexperience, appeared to me as something of a discovery. Indeed, it embodies for me to this day the unfathomable wealth and mystery of the city of New York.

This apparent discovery took place quite casually one day on lower Broadway, when I stumbled upon a bookstore which specialized in second-hand government publications and where could be bought for two or three dollars apiece most of the Annual Reports of the Bureau of American Ethnology.

I can hardly describe my emotion at this find. That these sacrosanct volumes, in their original green and gold bindings, representing most of what will remain known about the American Indian, could actually be bought and privately owned, was something I had never dreamed of. To my mind, they belonged rather to the same irredeemable past as the beliefs and customs of which they spoke. It was as though the civilization of the American Indian had suddenly come alive through the physical contact that these contemporary books established between me and their time. I felt somewhat akin to a sixteenth-century scholar who, finding in what must have corresponded to our second-hand bookstores, old manuscript copies of the works of Homer, Plato, or Virgil, is struck by the evidence that these great men had actually existed since someone had seen and transcribed their written word. Although my financial resources were less than scant and three dollars represented all I had to spend on food for the same number of days, this sum seemed negligible when it could pay for one of those marvelous publications, more alluring to the eye than any costly art books, such as Mallery’s Pictographs, Matthew’s Mountain Chant, Fewkes’s Hopi Katcinas, or such treasure troves of knowledge as Stevenson’s Zuni Indians, Boas’s Tsimshian Mythology, Roth’s Guiana Indians, and Curtin and Hewitt’s Seneca Legends.

Thus it happened that volume after volume and at the cost of some privations. I built up an almost complete set (there is still one volume missing) of the Annual Reports 1 to 48, which belong to the “great period” of the Bureau of American Ethnology. At that time I was far from imagining that a few months later I would be invited by the Bureau to become a contributor to one of its major undertakings: the seven-volume Handbook of South American Indians.

Notwithstanding this close association and the years that have since elapsed, the work of the Bureau of American Ethnology has lost for me none of its glamor, and I still feel toward it an admiration and respect which are shared by innumerable scholars the world over. Since it so happens that in the same year that marks the 200th Anniversary of James Smithson, the life of the Bureau has come to an end (though its activities are carried on under a new guise), the time may be fitting to pay tribute both to the memory of the founder of the Smithsonian Institution and to the Bureau which has been one of its greatest achievements and certainly a unique one of its kind.

EVER SINCE IT WAS FOUNDED in 1879 (which, incidentally, meant the emancipation of ethnology from geography and geology with which it had until then been merged), not only did the Bureau avail itself fully of the amazing opportunity provided by the presence of scores of native tribes at a few hours or days travel from the great cities, but also, as a distinguished anthropologist, Dr. Godfrey Lienhardt, puts it in a recent book* : “The accounts of custom and culture published by the Bureau compare in thoroughness and quality of reporting with modern ethnographic studies.” We are thus primarily indebted to the Bureau for instituting standards of scholarship that still guide us, even though we but rarely succeed in attaining them.

Above all, the collection of native texts and factual observations contained in the forty-eight major Reports and certain of the subsequent ones, in the two hundred or so Bulletins and in the Miscellaneous Publications, is so impressive that, despite the use they have been put to for nearly a century, it is safe to say that only the surface has been scratched. This being the case, one can only wonder at the neglect in which this invaluable material has temporarily fallen; as if the far less rich material with which we must content ourselves concerning the beliefs and customs of Greece and Rome were not still laden with as yet unexploited and occasionally unnoted data!

The day will come when the last primitive culture will have disappeared from the earth, compelling us to realize only too late that the fundamentals of mankind are irretrievably lost. Then, and for centuries to come, as happened in the case of our own ancestral civilizations, hosts of scholars will devote themselves to reading, analyzing, and commenting on the publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology, which preserve so much more than has been preserved of other bygone cultures (not to mention the unpublished manuscripts placed in the Bureau’s custody). And if ever we succeed in enlarging our narrow-minded humanism to make it include each and every expression of human nature, thereby, perhaps, ensuing to mankind a more harmonious future, it is to undertakings such as those of the Bureau of American Ethnology that we shall owe it. However, nothing could be further from my mind than the notion that the work of the Bureau belongs to the past. I believe, on the contrary, that all of us, together with its legal successor, the Office of Anthropology, should seek in these achievements a living inspiration for the scientific task ahead of us.

IT HAS BECOME THE FASHION in certain circles to speak of anthropology as a science on the wane, on account of the rapid disappearance of its traditional subject matter: the so-called primitives. Or else it is claimed that in order to survive, anthropology should abandon fundamental research and become an applied science, dealing with the problems of developing countries and pathological aspects of our own society. I should not want to minimize the obvious interest of these new researches, but I feel nevertheless that there is, and will remain for a long time to come, much to be done along the more traditional lines. It is precisely because the so-called primitive peoples are becoming extinct that now, more than ever, their study should be given absolute priority.

And it is not too late for hundreds of anthropologists to set to work. As early as 1908, almost sixty years ago, Sir James Frazer, in his inaugural lecture at Liverpool University, stated that classical anthropology was nearing its end. What have we witnessed instead? Two great wars, together with scientific development, have shaken the world and destroyed physically or morally a great many native cultures. But this process, however disastrous, has not gone in one direction entirely. The First World War gave rise indirectly to Malinowski’s new anthropology by obliging him to share the life of the Trobriand Islanders in perhaps a more durable and intimate manner than he might otherwise have done. And as a consequence of the Second World War, anthropologists were given access to a new world: the New Guinea highlands, with a population of 600,000 to 800,000 people whose specific institutions are now changing our traditional outlook on many theoretical problems. Likewise, the establishment of the new Federal Capital of Brazil and the building of roads and aerodromes in remote parts of South America have led to the discovery of small tribes in areas where no native life was thought to exist.

Of course, these opportunities will be the last, and there is no future ahead. Moreover, the compensation they afford is small indeed, compared with the high rate of extinction afflicting primitive tribes the world over. There are about 40,000 natives left in Australia as opposed to 250,000 at the beginning of the nineteenth century, most, if not all of them, hunger-stricken and disease-ridden, threatened in their deserts by mining plants, atom bomb test grounds, and missile ranges. Between 1900 and 1950, over ninety tribes have been wiped out in Brazil; instead of a hundred tribes there are now barely thirty still living in a state of relative isolation. During the same period, fifteen South American languages have ceased to be spoken. Scores of similar examples could be given.

YET, THIS IS NO REASON to become discouraged. It is undoubtedly true that we have less and less material to work with. But anthropological methods and procedures having made considerable progress in the meantime, we are able to compensate to some extent for this diminishing volume by putting it to better use, thanks to our greater theoretical and factual knowledge and more refined techniques of observation. If I may put it this way, we have not much left to work with, but we will manage to “make it last.” We have learned how to look for the cultural “niches” in which traditional lore finds refuge and where it offers the strongest resistance to the impact of civilization: language, kinship, ethnobotany, ethnozoology, and the like.

But although the physical disappearances of populations that remained faithful till the very end to their traditional way of life do, indeed, constitute a threat to anthropology, curiously enough a more immediate threat comes from an evolution that has been taking place in such parts of the world as Asia, Africa, and the American Andes, which also used to be considered as falling within the realm of anthropological studies. These regions were always highly populated and they show no signs of decreasing. Quite the contrary, physically speaking, the subject matter is still there, as rich as ever, if not richer still. The new threat to our studies is not then so much of a quantitative as of a qualitative nature, and this proves to be doubly true. In the first place, these large populations are changing fast, and their culture is resembling more and more that of the Western World. Like the latter, it tends to fall outside the field of anthropology. But this is not all, for the mere fact of being subjected to ethnographical investigation seems distasteful to these peoples. By studying the ways in which their old beliefs and customs differed from our own, we may seem to them to be granting to these differences an absolute status and conferring upon them a more enduring quality.

CONTEMPORARY ANTHROPOLOGY thus finds itself in a paradoxical situation. For it is out of a deep feeling of respect toward cultures other than our own that the doctrine of cultural relativism was evolved; and it now appears that this doctrine is deemed unacceptable by the very people on whose behalf it was upheld. Meanwhile, those ethnologists who favor unilinear evolutionism find unexpected support from peoples who desire nothing more than to share in the benefits of industrialization, and prefer to look at themselves as temporarily backward rather than permanently different.

  1. *

    Social Anthropology, Oxford University Press, 1964, p. 24

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