Should we be concerned at the prospect that half of the world’s 6,500 or so languages will be lost within the current century? Is it a tragedy that the ancient world’s greatest library at Alexandria, Egypt, disappeared without a trace? What should be done about the Great Sphinx of Giza, as the very rock it is made of fractures and crumbles in the acrid atmosphere of Cairo? Does it matter that Trobriand Islanders have lost the art of building elaborately ornamented seagoing canoes? And does conserving endangered lemurs in Madagascar justify the loss of economic opportunities for local villagers?

These are the kinds of unanswerable questions addressed by Alexander Stille in his fragmented collection of essays. His accounts leap from the prehistoric to the contemporary and the settings are as diverse as the earth itself—Somaliland, Sicily, India, China. Each chapter tells the story of a passionate person driven by conviction to create continuity between the past and the future. Stille has traveled widely and has done much careful research. Many of his chapters tell fascinating stories; but the whole fails to add up to the sum of the parts, and the author does not resolve many of the questions he poses.

The past has been described as a chimera, so what good is knowledge of it? Are our efforts to document and conserve it mere hubris? Perhaps so, because many such efforts by our forbears have come to nothing as cities have been reduced to rubble, monuments destroyed, and libraries burned. To invest in the restoration and perpetuation of knowledge, one has to be an optimist and believe the future will be less tumultuous and destructive than the past.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort of all time to gather and conserve knowledge was the Great Library of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Alexandria was founded by Macedonians, who conquered Egypt in the fourth century BC under Alexander the Great. The conqueror’s appointed regent, Ptolemy Soter, conceived the ambitious plan for a center of learning, calling it the Mouseion, the Temple of the Muses. When its collection was at its largest, the library reputedly contained 490,000 papyrus scrolls copied and collected from the entire literate (Western) world.

Alexandria flourished under the Macedonians, becoming an active intellectual center as it grew into the world’s first metropolis. Far ahead of its time, the Mouseion was, in effect, the world’s first think tank, with a staff of researchers who dedicated themselves, as Stille puts it, to a systematic evaluation of “different forms of kingship, legislation, and governance” in all parts of the then known world. How wonderful it would be to read their ruminations today. We might discover, indeed, that there is nothing new under the sun. But when Napoleon reached Alexandria in 1798, it was a glamourless fishing port of 7,000. No trace remained of the ancient city or its remarkable library.

Stille describes our society as being in the midst of a fundamental rupture with the past. With more knowledge of the past than any previous society has possessed, we are losing, he argues, not so much knowledge as ways of thinking, expressing, and behaving. How different life was, he points out, before writing. Cultures evolved and knowledge proliferated, but at a vastly slower pace than today. The expan-sion of knowledge was largely propelled by the diversification of cultures as human beings spread around the globe. Today, countless cultures are withering under the homogenizing influences of TV and global trade, besieged by information to which more and more people have easy access.

In the preliterate past, information was committed to memory, not to paper. The total amount of information a culture could transmit to the future was limited by the memory of the village sage, and was thus more or less a fixed quantity. It is a system that worked well for thousands of years, but it was also fragile, demanding unbroken continuity. With the distraction of a single generation, all could be lost.

Stille describes how radio, television, and the written word brought about the death of oral traditions in contemporary Somaliland, a nation that did not possess a written language until 1972. Exposure to modern communication opens the deepest gap between the generations that human beings have ever experienced. Fascinated by exciting images of urban life, the young forsake traditional ways without so much as a backward look. Like Towitara, the Trobriand Island canoe maker whose story Stille recounts, the old die disillusioned and dispirited. The artistry that won them pride and status in traditional society is rejected as meaningless by a younger generation intent on acquiring radios and stylish clothes.

Last summer I had a particularly revealing glimpse of this process. As a biologist, I spend several months each year at a remote research site in the Peruvian Amazon, where my nearest neighbors are Machiguenga villagers. At a way station on the journey, the tiny river port of Boca Manu, I was surprised to meet Misael, a Machiguenga of legendary skill with bow and arrow, able to fell a spider monkey barely visible on the top branch of the tallest tree. “Hola, Misael, que haces aca?” (What are you doing here?) “Paseando” (fooling around), he replied. We chatted a minute, exchanging polite remarks about his family, whereupon I excused myself to continue my journey.


On my return, about six weeks later, I was even more surprised to find Misael still in Boca Manu. “Hola, Misael, estas todavia aquí.” (You’re still here.) “Si.” “Pero que haces? Has estado largo rato sin moverte.” (What’s up? You’ve been here for a long time.) It took a few rounds of questions before he overcame his reticence and explained that he was working at odd jobs while his two children attended school. The school, he said, was better than the missionary school at Tayakome, the remote upstream village where he lives. He wanted his kids to get the best education possible, he explained. It was clear that he was willing to pay a high price to see that they did. In Boca Manu, he was an illiterate Indian, a target for swindlers and bigots. With none of the skills that command good wages in the local economy, he had to take whatever menial work he could get, while suffering the indignities of second-class status.

When they grow up, Misael’s children will speak Spanish, not Machiguenga. They won’t be skilled with a bow and arrow, but the boys will be expert at navigating the river with an outboard-powered canoe, and the girls will be skilled at managing money and conducting small-scale business. At that point they will cease being Nativos (Indians) and will be integrated into the multi-ethnic, brown-skinned population that makes up Boca Manu.

Here culture is being lost. Are Misael and his wife unhappy about it? If they have misgivings, they still realize that their children’s future welfare depends on education. To achieve that end they are willing to sacrifice their own comfort. Do their children experience pangs of regret at not learning the skills and lore of their parents? I suspect they hardly give it a thought. They are too absorbed in learning Spanish, playing soccer, and watching TV. For Machiguenga like Misael’s children, the loss of their ancestral culture is compensated for by the acquisition of another culture, one that offers the vision of a better life. The balance is clearly positive from the perspective of the people involved; yet, in the process there is an undeniable loss, even if it is one not felt by the participants themselves.

When Machiguenga culture finally disappears, which it will in another generation or two, that will be it. There will never be another Machiguenga, any more than there will ever be another living dodo. When that time comes, what knowledge of the Machiguenga will we moderns want to retain? A dictionary? A grammar? These already exist. Audiotapes of their legends and ceremonies? Numerous such tapes also exist. Their knowledge of medicinal plants? A Ph.D. dissertation has fully documented that. Physical examples of their artistic and cultural expression? Hundreds of Machiguenga artifacts are on exhibit in museums and conserved in anthropological collections. So are photographs of individuals, groups, houses, village layouts, and agricultural plots.

Anthropologists and missionaries have written books about the Machiguenga and translated the Bible into their language. The famous Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa chronicled Machiguenga life in his novel The Storyteller. We moderns have documented nearly everything about Machiguenga culture that can be captured in written, visual, and aural media.

But what is it to be a Machiguenga? That is something that can’t be captured by any medium. The essence of being a Machiguenga cannot be preserved. What it is to think like a Machiguenga, to be part of the tribe’s intimate social life, to sit around the smoldering fire recounting legends, to be escorted by a “guide” through the central rite of Machiguenga spiritualism—the fantasies induced by ayahuasca, the Amazon’s famed hallucinogen? None of this can be preserved: thoughts, attitudes, feelings, sensations, all given a distinct enunciation in a tongue no one else speaks, all distinctively flavored by a cultural legacy extending back thousands of years. These are really the ingredients that make a Machiguenga, and none of these can be conserved. The collected items are merely curiosities and data for anthropologists to analyze and compare.

Thousands of cultures like the Machiguenga have already vanished, and thousands more will vanish in the current century. Will anyone remember the Machiguenga a millennium from now, when it will be only one among thousands of lost cultures? There may be some artifacts stored in a museum, some tapes, videos, and books carefully archived in a future repository, but will there be living human beings who care enough about who the Machiguenga were to learn their language so as to understand the tapes, and through the tapes acquire the ability to interpret the videos? Probably not. So, what is the value of learning about them now, of making collections of their productions, sounds, and activities? It enriches us who live in the contemporary world and puts our lives in perspective. It informs us about our origins and how we became what we are. But no matter how we try, we shall never know what it is to be a Machiguenga.


Just as the modern world, through no deliberate plan, but merely as the consequence of its overwhelming force and presence, is crushing our last living links to the human past, so is it destroying the evolutionary continuity of life itself. The human juggernaut is steamrolling the planet, spewing wastes into the water and air, while burning, plowing, and paving over the land itself.

As Stille points out, great blocks of limestone, the very substance of monuments built for eternity—the Great Sphinx, the Parthenon, the Colosseum of Rome—are dissolving in acid precipitation emanating from the cities near or in which they stand. The Holy River of the Ganges, lifeblood of India and source of water for 500 million people, is burdened with a coliform bacteria count 340,000 times the acceptable level. And nature in Madagascar teeters on the brink of oblivion.


The least satisfying chapter in a book devoted largely to human cultures, the arts, and archaeology addresses one of the most pressing issues of our generation. How can mankind ensure that the organic life of the planet enjoys the same continuity between past and future that the author hopes can be preserved for ruins, ancient manuscripts, and dying languages?

The question is posed in the setting of Madagascar, an island minicontinent in the Indian Ocean, sometimes described as a planet within a planet for the uniqueness of its rich flora and fauna. Madagascar broke away from Africa some 160 million years ago as plates of the earth’s crust diverged, carrying with it plants and animals of the age of dinosaurs. Of course, dinosaurs and most other life disappeared from Madagascar, as elsewhere, in the earth’s cataclysmic collision with an asteroid. Emptied of much of its fauna, Madagascar then offered open-ended ecological opportunities to plant and animal colonists from Africa and Asia. Genetic evidence suggests that successful colonizations occurred only every several million years. Descendant species diverged and radiated in bursts of evolutionary exuberance.

Notable among these evolutionary success stories are Madagascar’s plants—some ten thousand are unique to the island. Among the animals are all of the world’s twenty-odd species of lemurs, relics of the earliest emergence of primates, along with an astonishing assortment of viverids, distant relatives of the mongoose. One also finds the world’s largest and smallest chameleons, along with other, differently sized, and extraordinary specimens of these comical lizards. With good reason, international conservation organizations have declared Madagascar to be the world’s highest priority for conservation.

The world’s conservation hotspot also happens to be one of the world’s poorest countries. When I was there in 1984, I was shocked to see farmers using rudimentary hand-forged tools. Even axes and machetes, ubiquitous tools of the third world, were too expensive for the Malagasy. Rural life was the poorest I have seen anywhere. People dressed in rags and ate little more than rice topped off with a few of the tiny fish that grow in their paddy fields. Stille raises the question of why people who have so little should bear the burden of conserving nature in Madagascar. The question begs for an answer, but Stille leaves us hanging.

Stille’s question raises complicated issues that can’t be evaluated without some larger perspective. Madagascar is an environmental horror story. A thousand years of using fire to push back the forest for agriculture and to expand cattle production has deforested all but a tiny fraction of the island. Parts of the central plateau have eroded to bedrock, huge slabs of which glisten in the sun when seen from a passing airliner. Rivers belch plumes of soil into the sea; these are so richly colored and expansive that astronauts describe them as among the most conspicuous features of earth as viewed from space. What is left of Madagascar’s natural vegetation, nothing more than bits and pieces really, adds up to less than 10 percent of the island’s surface. All that remains of Madagascar’s unique evolutionary legacy is to be found in these scattered remnants.

Must human beings appropriate these last surviving fragments of wild nature in Madagascar? If so, thousands of forms of life will disappear in the greatest mass extinction yet carried out by man. That is the cost side of the equation. What about the benefits? The tiny part of Madagascar that remains under natural vegetation consists of land so poor that no one ever wanted it before. Nearly all of it is too dry, rocky, or steep for permanent cultivation. Under the practice of tavy, Madagascar’s slash-and-burn system, the forest is cleared and the land is subjected to a one-time use for a crop of upland rice. After that, it is abandoned to scrub. I well recall the distress I felt on passing mile after mile of wasteland in the island’s coastal lowlands. Cultivation had long ago drained the land of its lifeblood of nutrients, and recovery was minimal. The entire region was depopulated, its human inhabitants having moved on in search of new frontiers.

This will be the fate of Madagascar’s last natural habitat if the external world fails to apply more imagination and resourcefulness to conserving it than it has so far. The meager harvest that could be grubbed out of the land would amount to less than one ton of rice per hectare. In strict economic terms, the cost of foregoing the destruction of Madagascar’s last forests—the “opportunity cost” as it is called—would be roughly equal to the value of forest products extracted before deforestation plus the value of the rice that could be harvested after the land was cleared. One thousand dollars a hectare would be a generous estimate of net benefits.

In relation to the amounts being spent on conservation globally (in the billions annually), the opportunity cost of saving nature in Madagascar is almost trivial. Yet the seemingly straightforward task of compensating the right people in the right places for giving up their designs on Madagascar’s last forests has so far stumped the entire conservation profession.

Stille gives a telling example of the ineffectiveness of current approaches by chronicling a $6 million USAID-sponsored effort to strengthen a Malagasy national park. Misunderstanding, faulty judgment, and simple human failings undermined the objectives at every turn. Unprecedented sums were injected into a few impoverished villages, causing havoc with local social structures, accomplishing little to alleviate poverty, and causing intense resentment. Surely there are better ways than this of carrying out conservation.

Unless we can discover how to relieve the plight of the poor rural people who see the forest as their only hope of survival, the last bits of wild nature in Madagascar will soon be converted to wasteland for a few tons of rice. And after the last hectare has been cleared, what will become of the poor slash-and-burn farmers? They will do as millions of others have already done in countries throughout the world: they will migrate to the city to work at odd jobs or beg. The farmers and their families, inescapably locked in poverty, will somehow carry on, but the forest and its animals will be gone forever.

Can nature in Madagascar be saved? Perhaps it can. I am not wholly pessimistic, for a strong conservation ethic is growing among the country’s educated elite. The major obstacle is not financial. There are willing international donors ready to foot the bill. The obstacle is conceptual. With all the sophistication of modern economics, we have yet to discover a way of turning the intangible concept of opportunity cost into something tangible that would benefit the rural populations that would be affected by conservation.

The mystery may lie no deeper than understanding the motivation that brought Misael and his family out of the forest to live in Boca Manu. Misael did not move for economic reasons; it was the hope of providing opportunity for his children that inspired him. Hope can be a powerful motive for taking action. Conservationists need to learn how to use it to save nature.

Just as there are tangibles and intangibles in economics, so are they also to be found in history and in life. Cultures, memories, personal experiences, wild nature, and its component species cannot be stored in a museum. They account for the richness of life, yet none of them can be reduced to binary code. What can be packaged, put on a shelf, and crated in museums are only things, sounds, and images. Things can interest and inform us, but they do not enlighten us unless we are inspired to find meaning in them. Inspiration is one of the great intangibles of the human experience, crucial to prosperity, art, and the enjoyment of life.

By comparison, information is dull. Ninety-nine percent of it is junk. Yet we compulsively accumulate it the way the pack rat accumulates trinkets. Are we like the pack rat in doing it for our own edification, or do we do it out of an enlightened responsibility to posterity? If it is only for our immediate edification, then it hardly matters for others what information we collect. But if it is for posterity, then judicious selectivity becomes an imperative. What will the civilization of a thousand years from now want to know about us?

For perspective it helps to look back. The barest scraps inform us about the ancients, but in a wholly capricious manner. Scholars have been able to learn about early Egyptian civiliza-tion because, among other reasons, the Egyptians had no wood and were obliged to build in stone. Their contemporaries the Phoenicians, who built in wood, left hardly a trace.

One solid principle is that a little bit of information is infinitely better than none. Archaeologists conjure up mental reconstructions of vanished civilizations from the merest scraps of evidence, a few shards of pottery, bits of worked stone, an outline of foundations. Only nine of the 120 plays of Sophocles have survived, yet those nine plays inform us that the ancients understood eloquence and human nature no less well than we do.

With writing, photography, and audio at our disposal, we should be able to do far better in communicating with the future. But will we? In his final chapter, Stille confronts us with an irony of the technological age: the better we become at processing and storing information, the poorer we become at preserving it, because digitized systems tend to become obsolete. Meanwhile, information is increasing much faster than the number of potential users. Unless we envisage a vast growth in the number of historians in future societies, the current rate of accumulation may lead to a glut so paralyzing as to render it useless.

The durability of the stone inscriptions left by the Egyptians and Mayans is measured in millennia. Medieval illuminated parchments have lost little of their luster in half a millennium. But Stille tells us that new forms of electronic information storage can render previous forms obsolete every three to five years, posing a quandary for administrators. Already, for example, the record of the 1960 US Census has, according to rumor, become almost inaccessible. The data are consigned to obsolete storage media operated by a software language deader than Latin. Whereas each new generation of storage technology is capable of greater compression (soon to the atomic level), stability and durability have not improved. The lifetime of data stored with current technology is estimated to be only twenty years.

Eventually, science will produce more permanent forms of storage, but in the meantime, what is going to happen? Certainly all information will not be transferred to new storage media every twenty years. The predicament recalls the situation that prevailed through the Dark and Middle Ages when manuscripts were copied by monks. The labor needed to produce a copy served to screen out all but the most beloved and revered works. It might be hard to devise a better system.

This Issue

December 19, 2002