I wonder while I wander

…musings about this wild and wonderful world


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Authentic culture?

I’ve recently been writing about the theme of Otherness and in a couple of previous posts I mentioned the work of photographer Jimmy Nelson and his beautiful and thought-provoking Before They Pass Away photo documentation of the world’s last indigenous tribes.

As I’d hoped, my own reflections have sparked the beginnings of some interesting conversation on Otherness! I hope it continues because it is a fascinating topic and one that is incredibly relevant in our increasingly inter-connected and globalized world.

One idea I’ve seen crop up a couple of times now is that of authenticity. Both Jimmy Nelson, in his TED talk and other writings, as well as a friend of mine, have commented on the fact that tribal societies have an authenticity that we in the developed world have lost. Their cultures are more authentic than ours, and consequently their lives seem to be more meaningful.

I find this to be an interesting concept – one worth discussing and defining further.

First of all, what do we mean by ‘authentic’ in the context of cultures?

I, for one, take it to mean something that is ‘real’, ‘not a copy,’ ‘genuine’, perhaps also the opposite of ‘fake’.

So, is it accurate to say that tribal cultures are more ‘real’ than developed, first-world cultures? For example, is US culture or British culture or Japanese culture less ‘authentic’, meaning ‘less real’, ‘less genuine’, ‘more fake’?

I am coming from a Western perspective myself, and I think may of us in the West look to cultures around the world – particularly in developing countries, and perhaps most especially in tribal cultures – as being more authentic and a sort of remnant of an idealized past that we can no longer access in modern North America and Western Europe. But if that is the case, then when did North American and Western European cultures cease to be ‘real’ and ‘authentic’? How could we define the shift from authentic to inauthentic when discussing the history and culture of the West?

Maasai family - authentic culture?

Maasai family – authentic culture?

tv family

1950s American family – inauthentic culture?

My first thought in response to these questions is that we may consider Western culture as being less authentic because we see so much of our culture being heavily influenced by modern materialism, advertising and marketing, by machines, industry, and all sorts of advanced technology. Most of us watch TV, we drive cars, we eat processed food, we might not spend much time in nature, probably don’t grow our own food or raise farm animals. There are chemicals and preservatives in much of what we eat. Because of these characteristics of our Western modern culture, we may feel we live in a more ‘artificial’ and ‘less authentic’ way.

A friend of mine wrote an interesting comment to some of my previous questions about why we are attracted to images and information about Others, particularly those who live in tribal societies. Here she mentions the view that tribal cultures are more authentic as a reason why we are interested in Others. Now I’ll let her speak for herself and quote her in full here:

Personally I think [we are interested in learning about Others because of] the desire for meaning and seeing worlds where things are made by hands. We have destroyed our connection to every aspect of living. We don’t make things, our tools, our food… even the milk westerners feed their babies is a powdered manufactured chemical. We don’t go on hikes, we watch strangers hiking on TV. To see people who have meaning and authenticity in the things they do, the way they dress… it’s become the stuff of legend in the west. It’s loved and loathed equally. If I knit a hat from fiber I spun myself people are either amazed or they laugh and say ‘why? Go to Walmart and buy a hat for a dollar!” We live in a manufactured meaningless world, we look at these cultures with a desperate longing like an orphan sees a complete family (functional or not).

I have so much more to say on this topic, but it certainly won’t fit all into one blog post. So, I’ll leave you with some questions to consider instead.

How do we define what is ‘authentic’ in human culture? What do we consider to be the essential elements of a true and meaningful culture?

Is it true and fair to say that modern Western cultures are no longer authentic?

Is it true that tribal cultures are essentially different from developed world cultures, or are all humans everywhere just doing the same sorts of things, albeit in different ways, and with different materials, in both tribal and developed-world cultures?

Have modern cultures irreparably lost something essential, or are the elements of tribal cultures that we value still available to us in our modern lifestyle?

Is it possible to fully live in the modern, technologically advanced, increasingly urbanized world and still have an ‘authentic’ culture?

If you’d like to join in the conversation, please leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!

 

*NOTE: I find it difficult to chose terminology to use when discussing a topic like this. How do we chose between terms like ‘indigenous’, ‘tribal’, ‘traditional’ to describe cultures? I feel like all are a bit inadequate, and also are loaded with stereotypes, value judgement and assumptions – and they probably also have different meanings for different people. The problem is the same with trying to write about the ‘opposite’ of tribal cultures – we can use terms like ‘developed” or ‘first-world’ (as opposed to ‘developing’ or ‘third world’), or we can talk about ‘modern’ cultures (although in reality, any tribal society in existence today is also ‘modern’ and has been evolving just as long as any other non-tribal culture!). And here I also talk about Western culture as being sort of synonymous with ‘modern’ or ‘developed’, but obviously, there are many other countries that are modern and developed but not Western, such as Japan and South Korea, just to name a few. So, I’d just like to point out the flaws in my own use of terminology and bring up the fact that all the terms we use to discuss cultures in this way are loaded with biases, generalizations and assumptions. I’m just trying to do the best I can to be understood while discussing an incredibly complex topic, so please forgive my shortcomings!
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I thought this was a story about white people!

For thousands upon thousands of years, with a few exceptions, Europeans stayed in Europe, Africans in Africa, Asians in Asia, etc. The journey of Cristóbal Colón (a.k.a. Christopher Columbus) to the New World changed all that forever.

His voyages set off a complete reshuffling of the human population around the globe, and this movement was dominated by the African slave trade. According to Charles Mann’s epic book 1493, around 11.7 million captive Africans were shipped to the Americas between 1500 and 1840 – the ‘heyday of the slave trade’. In comparison, during the same period, around 3.4 million Europeans emigrated to the New World. That’s about 3 Africans for every 1 European!

I’ll quote Mann at length here because he says it better than I could anyway!

‘The implications of these figures are as staggering as their size. Textbooks commonly present American history in terms of Europeans moving into a lightly settled hemisphere. In fact, the hemisphere was full of Indians – tens of millions of them. And most of the movement into the Americas was by Africans, who soon became the majority population in almost every place that wasn’t controlled by Indians. Demographically speaking … America was an extension of Africa rather than Europe until late in the nineteenth century.’

‘In the three centuries after Colón , migrants from across the Atlantic created new cities and filled them with houses, churches, taverns, warehouses, and stables. They cleared forests, planted fields, laid out roads, and tended horses, cattle and sheep – animals that had not walked the Americas before. They stripped forests to build boats and powered mills with rivers and waged war on other newcomers. Along the way, they collectively reworked and reshaped the American landscape, creating a new world that was an ecological and cultural mix of old and new and something else besides.’

‘This great transformation, a turning point in the story of our species, was wrought largely by African hands. The crowds thronging the streets in the new cities were mainly African crowds. The farmers growing rice and wheat in the new farms were mainly African farmers. The people rowing boats on rivers, then the most important highways, were mainly African people. The men and women on the ships and in the battles and around the mills were mainly African men and women. Slavery was the foundational institution of the modern Americas.’

‘Two migrations from Africa were turning points in the spread of Homo sapiens around the globe. The first was humankind’s original departure, seventy thousand years ago or more, from its homeland in Africa’s eastern plains. The second was the transatlantic slave trade.’

~ Charles C Mann | 1493: How Europe’s Discovery of the Americas Revolutionized Trade, Ecology and Life on Earth | pages 286-287

This completely changes the way I understand the history of colonization in the Americas. Coming from the US, the view we have is of an immigration story dominated by white Europeans, with some Africans and a tiny scattering of Asians, and of course, a few native Americans lurking on the fringes. Now all that seems like a complete misrepresentation of reality. It’s a clear example of how power dynamics drastically change the way history is recorded, taught and interpreted. White people dominated the political and economic sphere, so they were the ones who wrote the American story… a story centred around them; a story in which brown and black people were marginal characters, side-notes in history, the supporting actors in an epic white drama.

But it appears that the story of the centuries following Columbus’s journey to the Americas were much different than I was taught. While the living and working conditions that Africans (as well as Native Americans) suffered under in the Americas were truly horrendous, they made a huge and indelible mark on the New World, despite everything. Many of them went through hell on earth, but the world I come from (speaking as an American) was to a large degree shaped by those African men and women. It is strange to think of the contrast between the way most of us in the US are taught about the history of Africans in America and what the reality of the situation was. We are taught about Africans as a ‘minority’, as an outside group on the edge of mainstream white society, slowly and painstakingly making their way closer to the centre, towards equality. They are a part of the population many white Americans only recognize on certain days of the year or during Black History Month, or only read about in supplementary chapters in school textbooks. We completely overlook the fact that for hundreds of years, they were actually a majority, and while oppressed, managed to shape the New World that white people like me, and people of all races and ethnicities, now live in.

In an upcoming post, I’ll share more I’ve learned from Charles Mann’s 1493, about communities of Africans who fought for and gained freedom from slavery on their own terms – those who resisted and won against the oppression of white slave societies in both North and South America. It’s incredible stuff, a side of American history I’d never learned about until recently, and it’s been a real eye-opening experience.

More coming soon…!


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Everybody wants a piece of King Tut

I came across this interesting and incredibly well-woven article about King Tutankhamun and the quest to figure out his bloodline and ethnic origins, and all the pit-falls, road-blocks and challenges those studying this ancient king have dealt with along the way.

Here’s a true story intertwining ancient history, biblical mythology, cutting-edge technology, Mormons, British colonial history, genetics, Egyptian revolution, forensics, international politics… this story’s got it all!

If you have any interest in Egyptology, or just love a well-told tale, this is definitely worth a read!

Tutankhamun’s Blood: Why everyone from the Mormons to the Muslim Brotherhood is desperate for a piece of the Pharaoh | MEDIUM