Nukak-Maku Leave the Forest:

The Nukak Maku have always lived a nomadic life in the Amazon jungle, foraging for berries and hunting monkeys with blow guns. One group of Nukak recently decided it had enough of this life (and the increased competition with guerillas for territory). They've left the rain forest and set up camp in southern Colombia, the NYT reports.

While it is not known for sure why they left the jungle, what is abundantly clear is that the Nukak's experience as nomads and hunter-gatherers has left them wholly unprepared for the world they have just entered. The Nukak have no concept of money, of property, of the role of government, or even of the existence of a country called Colombia.

The transition from jungle to civilization is clearly difficult, but it is one this groups seems determined to make.

Are they sad? "No!" cried a Nukak named Pia-pe, to howls of laughter. In fact, the Nukak said they could not be happier. Used to long marches in search of food, they are amazed that strangers would bring them sustenance — free.

What do they like most? "Pots, pants, shoes, caps," said Mau-ro, a young man who went to a shelter to speak to two visitors.

Ma-be added, "Rice, sugar, oil, flour." Others said they loved skillets. Also high on the list were eggs and onions, matches and soap and certain other of life's necessities.

"I like the women very much," Pia-pe said, to raucous laughs.

One young Nukak mother, Bachanede, breast-feeding her infant as she talked, said she was happy just to stay still. "When you walk in the jungle," she said, "your feet hurt a lot."

Now they are learning how to plant crops, and want to send their children to local schools. "We do want to join the white family," one said, "but we do not want to forget words of the Nukak." However tough their transition, it seems clear that modern civilization offers this group of Nukak the prospects for a better life -- even if they insist on still eating monkeys.

TechieLaw (mail) (www):
Before deciding that this is a "good" thing, people should take a close look at what's happened to aboriginal Australians who left the bush -- either forcibly or otherwise -- and the resulting social problems when a group tries to move from the stone age into the modern age in just a generation. There are lessons to be learned there.
5.11.2006 10:42am
Next thing you know, the Amish will announce, "this sucks, we quit!"
5.11.2006 10:50am
Joshua (www):
TechieLaw: I was just about to comment that it would be interesting to see how long it takes these people to embrace this thing called the Internet.
5.11.2006 10:56am
nc_litigator (mail):
Fascinating. When the first hunter-gatherers settled down, I wonder if it was the same kind of group decision.
5.11.2006 11:02am
Houston Lawyer:
A friend of mine believes that the only reason our ancestors gave up the nomadic life was to tend crops from which they could brew beer. These men and women need to be taught how to do some kind of useful work. Otherwise, they will soon end up as drug addicts.
5.11.2006 11:20am
Alan P (mail):
I don't know whehter or not it is a "good" thing either but it appears to be their choice to make. Too often we idealize the simple rustic life lived by some oher aboriginal group and complain about the corruption of modern life on that idylic life.

The problem is, as the lady says, her feet hurt in that life and it is time to move on.
5.11.2006 11:38am
Trade Monkey (mail) (www):
Our own experiences with Native Americans could serve as a model of what works and what doesn't work - mostly what doesn't. It sounds like the Nukak Maku is already splitting into what the Lakota called "the Traditionalists and the Hang-Around-the-Forts."

We should all wish the Nukak Maku success in balancing the competing concepts of integration and preservation.
I hope the Traditionalists have the success of the Cherokee's and the HATFs, well,...let's hope they make history and don't suffer too much.
5.11.2006 11:48am
dan g:
I understand that Rod Dreher has met with this group and is writing a book about the lost pleasures of sore feet, vitamin deprivation, starvation, and traditionalist cooking and clothes (i.e., no pots, pans, shoes or caps).
5.11.2006 11:59am
Abdul (mail):
This reminds me of the old joke about why Columbus was the worst man in American history. Before Columbus, all the men in America got to hunt and fish all day while women did the work. After Columbus, men had to work all day to feed the family and had no time to hunt or fish.

The joke may not be funny, but it's politically incorrect on at least three levels.
5.11.2006 12:07pm
Preferred Customer:

Fascinating. When the first hunter-gatherers settled down, I wonder if it was the same kind of group decision.

It's been out for almost ten years and has its detractors, but I just finished "Guns Germs and Steel" by Jared Diamond, which has an interesting discussion of how the first hunter gatherers might have come to be farmers (and has many other fascinating insights--it is well worth the read, as is his more recent book "Collapse").

The short answer is that they probably did it gradually, mixing increasing crop cultivation with a semi-nomadic existence. Diamond describes the process of settling down as autocatalytic; the more you farm, the more population you need and the more population you can support, which means you need to farm more, etc. It probably wasn't a single, concious choice for the first, since they didn't have an example to follow. Later tribes (like the ones in the story) probably did make the switch conciously.
5.11.2006 12:15pm
I've always been annoyed by those who get upset by the extinction of traditional aboriginal ways of life. It is selfish in the extreme to think that others should suffer through a primitive existence so that the world is a more interesting and picturesque place for me. Best of luck to the Nukak, and I hope there's a Wal-Mart nearby.
5.11.2006 12:34pm
Trade Monkey (mail) (www):
I just received a rather 'snarky' email regarding my comment," I hope the Traditionalists have the success of the Cherokee's." The trail of tears was obviously mentioned as was some other...choice words.

Here is a defense of my statement:

The Cherokee split into two groups early-on in their integration with the whites, the traditionalist and the non-traditionalists.

The traditionalists went into the Appalachians. There they maintained traditional dress, religious customs and ceremonies, as well as the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The non-traditionalists integrated very successfully with white society -- initially. In fact, the Cherokees, just before their removal in 1838, were the wealthiest demographic in Georgia. They had western-style schools, clothes and they also spoke English exclusively. They built Christian churches, modern houses, even a newspaper printed in the only Native American alphabet. Their view of property was identical to that of the whites, they surveyed their territory and cut it up into transferable deeded acres.

However, there fate changed soon after the discovery of gold on their land. Settlers began encroaching, and fights broke out. Soon the government's position became a desire to remove the Cherokee to frontier land in the Oklahoma territory.

Here we have the unique tragedy of the Cherokee; they were not a group of 'primitives' who were displaced because of cultural differences regarding the concept of property. They were fully integrated US citizens and westernized Christians who were removed from land to which they held legal title. As an aside, if memory serves me correctly, the Cherokee chief at the time of their removal, John Ridge, was a Harvard educated lawyer.

The traditionalist however fared much better. The land they occupied was of little interest to the US government. The few sorties made to claim it were US defeats at the hands of a Cherokee Guerillas who held the advantage in rough terrain. They were allowed to stay put on the land that had been their birth-rite. Their integration into white society after all this was slow and relatively uneventful.

This is why the modern Cherokee nation is divided into two distinct regions. The Oklahoma Cherokee (the descendants of the removed non-traditionalists and the North Carolina Cherokee (the descendants of the traditionalists.)

Therefore I maintain that the traditionalist Cherokees did fare relatively well.
5.11.2006 12:57pm
RSH (mail):

I too get annoyed when people (often Westerners) cry about the spread of McDonald's and Coca Cola. You're right that such bemoaning of "lost" cultures rest on a selfish desire to keep the cultures of others static so that we can stare at them with wonderment as we would a sideshow act. But you take the argument to the other extreme in declaring that people who have these cultures "suffer through a primitive existence." This assertion seems founded on the belief that people of a minority cultural group who give up their "traditional aboriginal ways of life" by adopting the culture of a dominant and more technologically advanced society necessarily leads to happiness. Sometimes retention of "traditional" culture promotes group stability, growth, prosperity and happiness by providing group members with a shared history and set of values. Loss of such culture, even though the group may have access to "caps" and even computers, could be devastating. So I hope,rather then having their culture become "extinct", they find a way to keep their society together and happy in these first few tough generations in a new environment.
5.11.2006 12:59pm
Shouldn't there be a tree hugging, western civilization hating liberal there to shoo these people back into the jungle? to tell them its wrong to let their superior culture die out?
5.11.2006 1:14pm
They probably will not get shooed back (although many will want to do this). What will kill their culture will be the liberal welfare state. That I will bet on. I've watched it happen in the USA.
5.11.2006 2:28pm
They eat monkeys?

However often we tell these people, "don't eat the bushmeat!" they just can't help themselves.
5.11.2006 2:58pm
TechieLaw (mail) (www):
Those speaking for or against the Nukak culture are missing the point.

This isn't about whether or not a person should be permitted to maintain a "traditional" lifestyle or assimilate into "modern" society. It's also not necessarily about the "liberal welfare state." The original NYTimes article discussed the fear among local authorities that the Nukak will become dependant on aid.

The more important question is asking what the likely result of the culture clash will be, and if any steps can be taken to smooth the ride into their new society. There are plenty of examples around the world of what can go wrong (for example) when a society which doesn't even have a concept of property is thrust into a society which depends on property as a way of life. Australia's a great example of how *not* to do things.

Before anybody jumps in with a simplistic solution, look around the world and see what's happened in the past. For governments, it's a situation of pay me now or pay me later. Dealing with this in the wrong way may create larger social problems, which the police and military may have to handle later. Would you like the Nukak to learn how to cultivate coca leaves? Join a revolutionary brigade? Become dependant on the state for food? There are no easy answers. But any solution needs to deal with the reality of what's happened before.
5.11.2006 2:59pm
Jonathan Adler wrote:

The transition from jungle to civilization is clearly difficult, but it is one this groups seems determined to make.

On the general subject of that interface and transition, John Boorman's 1985 The Emerald Forest provides great entertainment, some tragedy, some wonderfully humorous insights, and superb cinematography.

Much of the cast is a tribe of forest dwellers speaking their native language, with subtitles of course. The dramatic vehicle is a classic "child kidnapped by savages" story.

Some negative reviews cite it as too "preachy" or ideologically driven, but it needn't be seen that way, especially the obvious delight the forest dwellers take in acting out the story line. They deliver plenty of lines that really don't need translation.

The Gods Must Be Crazy, from a few years earlier, covers similar issues in a very entertaining way.
5.11.2006 3:13pm