Letter: Tribal peoples are just like us

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Tribal peoples

are just like us

Sir: Reading your piece about the Dayaks in Saturday's "Letter From the Editor" (14 June) was a bit like being cornered by a saloon bar philosopher. With its bluff-good-sensical tone (Hell's Teeth ... "cultural practices" as I should apparently call them ... political correctness carried far beyond satire) it neatly exemplified the unconsidered prejudice that Stephen Cory (letter, 13 June) was criticising.

You say: "Where once ignorant Europeans thought tribal peoples little better than monkeys, some breast-beating campaigners are now close to an inverted error, thinking of surviving indigenous peoples as ecological angels, more virtuous than fallen, corrupt or `civilised' peoples." In fact, both these apparently contradictory views are part of the same European tradition, which goes back at least as far as the late Middle Ages, when European explorers regularly reported encountering "gentle" people in an "earthly paradise" as well as "men living like beasts". The link between these two images of the "savage" is that they both see tribal peoples as versions of our (European) past - either a Golden Age from which we have lapsed, or a bestial state from which we have risen.

The most recent incarnation of this notion is the anthropological belief, first expressed by Edward B Tylor in the 1880s, that the "savage state in some measure represents an early condition of mankind, out of which the higher culture has gradually been developed or evolved". It is this evolutionary model which you seem unquestioningly to accept, with your references to archaeology and your assertion that "there is such a thing as progress. And it does involve giving up cannibalism."

If "there is such a thing as progress" it doesn't seem to have prevented us outdoing our ancestors in brutality during the 20th century. Arguably the cruellest and most destructive regimes in history, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, both emerged in "advanced" Europe during the past 80 years. Both of them, moreover, used evolutionary ideologies - one racial, the other historical - to justify the murder of millions of biological or social "undesirables".

Our tendency to see tribal peoples simply as anachronistic remnants of our own past (either idyllic or bestial) is unhealthy both for us and for them. It is infantile projection to say that we are behaving like "sadistic tribal killers" when we are brutal - all we are really doing is behaving like ourselves - or, conversely, to think that we are tapping into some timeless ancestral nature-wisdom when we join Greenpeace. are not emblems of our lost innocence or our suppressed savagery: they are our contemporaries (and among the most peaceful and least destructive communities in the world). Like us, they are full, complex human beings, acting according to their experience and understanding of the universe and capable of cruelty and generosity, stupidity and hatred, genius and heroism.