Spoken history: the modern importance of indigenous cultures

Our information-rich civilisation is not superior or inferior to the pre-literate world of Brazil’s indigenous peoples, just different.

Brazilian Kayapo and Xerente indians prepare to set fire on the Holy Pyre using a traditional method during the Kari-Oca opening ceremony in the sidelines of the Rio+20 environmental summit on June 13, 2012 in Jacarepagua, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development opened Wednesday, launching a new round of debate on the future of the planet, its resources and people, 20 years after the first Earth Summit. AFP PHOTO/ANTONIO SCORZA (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/GettyImages)
Brazilian Kayapo and Xerente indians prepare to set fire on the Holy Pyre using a traditional method during the Kari-Oca opening ceremony in the sidelines of the Rio+20 environmental summit on June 13, 2012 in Jacarepagua, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The UN Conference on Sustainable Development opened Wednesday, launching a new round of debate on the future of the planet, its resources and people, 20 years after the first Earth Summit. AFP PHOTO/ANTONIO SCORZA (Photo credit should read ANTONIO SCORZA/AFP/GettyImages)

My dictionary defines knowledge as ‘the facts, feelings or experience known by a person or group of people; awareness, consciousness or familiarity gained by experience or learning.’ Whereas information is news or data often referring to specific or timely events or situations.

Most of my research and writing has been about the clash of cultures in South America. I have written a score of books about the Spanish conquest of the Incas, the conquistadors’ obsession with the myth of El Dorado, and particularly the Portuguese absorption of hundreds of indigenous peoples in the Brazilian half of the continent during the past five centuries. Writing this history has been a peculiar challenge, because the conquering and colonising Europeans had a monopoly of writing. Their books, documents, chronicles and archives gave me a mass of information. By contrast, the native Americans were pre-literate, handing their knowledge down orally. Until recently, all the good quotes have come from the colonisers, not their vanquished subjects. The conquests were one-sided because the invaders had far superior weaponry and horses, and particularly because alien diseases decimated indigenous peoples. Writing this history has been distorted because, although both sides possessed much knowledge, only one monopolised information data and the means to record and disseminate it.

The Incas had a huge empire, stretching for thousands of kilometres along the Andes, and they administered its nine million subjects highly efficiently. But they achieved this without writing as we know it. They did, however, develop a mnemonic device for recording and transmitting information. This was the khipu, a comb-like fringe of long knotted cords hanging from a larger primary cord. The cords have different arrangements of knots and can have different coloured threads. After Pizarro’s conquest in the 1530s, khipus were actually used by Inca officials testifying in Spanish courts but, tragically, Spanish chroniclers failed to record how they worked. Many khipus were destroyed by zealous priests who suspected that they contained diabolical knowledge; but about 400 have survived. There is therefore intensive research into trying to decipher them, particularly by a team led by Professor Gary Urton of Harvard University. Gary recently lectured about this research at the British Museum. Introducing him, the museum’s director Neil MacGregor lamented how his personal workload was bedevilled by a mass of civil service form-filling. It was therefore a peculiar pleasure to hear about a great civilisation that functioned so efficiently without any written information! Khipus were used to record the quantities of food, llamas, military equipment and other essentials stored throughout the vast Inca empire. They may also have quantified ‘taxation’ – which took the form of levies of workers sent to help the Incas’ building, agriculture or warfare. We do know that the Incas had a corps of hereditary knot-record keepers called khipu-kamayuq (quipu-camayoc in Spanish spelling), experts who could instruct a messenger carrying a khipu to another official with the oral information needed to interpret it.

We must remember that khipus were just mnemonic devices, used only by an elite of senior officials to convey specific and ephemeral information to one another. The vast corpus of knowledge about Inca society and history was passed orally from generation to generation, by tribal elders or family members. All the early Spanish chroniclers, and government officials conducting visitas (a form of census or geographical gazette), consulted local wise men. The chronicler Garcilaso de la Vega learned from his mother, who was an Inca princess, and Juan de Betanzos was married to one.

When I moved my research eastwards to record the Portuguese colonisation of Brazil, my task became harder. I had originally planned to do this in one volume, but it eventually took three volumes, adding up to 2,100 pages. There were four reasons for this inordinate length. Brazil is a gigantic country covering half the South American continent and most of the Amazon basin; there are still over 200 indigenous societies (and were many more), each of which was a separate case study, not just one centrally organised empire; the conquest, attraction or colonisation of these tribes started five centuries ago and is still continuing – with perhaps 20 indigenous peoples still isolated or uncontacted; and lastly, the information for my history was derived from myriad fragmented sources, with very few narrative chronicles.

Brazil’s indigenous peoples are often called ‘Indian tribes’, not least by their own members. Each has a slightly different habitat, customs, society, history, and is at varying stages of contact, so it is wrong to generalise about them – but I shall have to do so in this essay. In evolutionary terms, these are hunter-gatherers with rudimentary agriculture, prehistoric, and of course pre-literate. But this is not to say that they are primitive. Far from it. Most have long-established and harmonious societies with elaborate ceremonies, decoration, housing, mythology and spiritual beliefs. They lead good lives, with admirable diets, plenty of exercise, and frequent bathing, so that both sexes are generally fine physical specimens. But they are tragically vulnerable to alien diseases from Europe and Africa, against which they initially had no inherited genetic immunity. This was the main reason why Brazil’s indigenous population fell catastrophically from several millions to, at its nadir 50 years ago, 500,000 people.

Like any hunter-gatherers, Brazilian Indians are rich in knowledge but poor in organised information. They of course had no technology to record or transmit information. However, their knowledge of their environment and its resources can be stupendous. A study of the ethnobotany of just one tribe – the Carib-speaking Waimiri-Atroari north of Manaus – found that they had uses for over 300 plants, were utilising 80 per cent of 214 tree and liana species in a one-hectare plot, and were equally knowledgeable about the botanical resources of tall tropical rainforest, of seasonally flooded igapó woods, and of dense dry caatinga. Other ethno-botanists found that the Gorotire Kayapó (living in savannas in central Brazil) created clumps of woody vegetation by transferring litter fertiliser and the nests of termites and ants to them. In one such ‘garden island’ the Gorotire utilised a remarkable 120 species of plants, with major-use categories including medicines (72 per cent), game attractants (40 per cent), foods (25 per cent), firewood (12 per cent), fertilisers (8 per cent), shade (3 per cent) and other uses (30 per cent). As consummate hunters and fishermen, indigenous people know the identity and behaviour of every animal in the forests, fish in their rivers, and bird in their skies. They can imitate all animal sounds – which, incidentally, is why a newly contacted people rapidly pick up a few words of Portuguese. I have seen this because I have been with four tribes at the time of their first contact. In most indigenous societies, the men meet every evening to chat outside the men’s house in the centre of the village plaza. They might discuss village affairs, although there is rarely any change or politics or what we would call news; but their favourite topic by far is hunting and fishing. This is how their knowledge is transmitted. Indigenous societies do not share our obsession with numbers as the basis of information data. They rarely bother to count. I was once on a team invited by the Brazilian government to report on treatment of Indians all over that great country. I devised a questionnaire for each indigenous post or territory, and this had numerical questions such as population, breakdown by gender and age, and the number of huts. One question was whether the tribe had enough game food from hunting. With the Ramkokamekra (Canela) of Maranhão in north-eastern Brazil – a people who had been in contact for centuries and are now surrounded by ranches – the chief delivered a rousing speech about wonderful hunts of peccary, tapir, monkeys, tortoises, capybaras and even jaguar. The government agent in charge of the post told us that this was nonsense: they had not caught anything for ages. We put this to the chief and he accepted that it was sadly true, but he then repeated his speech about the glorious hunting of his boyhood. He had not deliberately sought to mislead us. He just saw this as an opportunity for oration and happy memories – and statistical information on a form meant nothing to him.

Geographical knowledge is as acute as that about the natural environment. Everyone who has travelled or hunted with Indians is amazed by their unerring sense of direction. A hunter might leave some arrows or game under one of the millions of tree trunks in the forest, all of which look identical to a stranger. Asked whether he had forgotten his deposit, the Indian would reply that he would of course recover it from under that particular tree – just as a modern city dweller can recall a street corner. Indians travel for days on end through forest too high to see the sun through the canopy, and they know every bend or rapid in rivers with endless unbroken vegetation on either bank. Without maps or clocks, their knowledge of a journey is based on effort involved in each stage. The German Karl von den Steinen was the first outsider to enter the upper Xingu river, in 1884. He asked a Bakairi about the geography of one of its headwaters, and noted the following:

The river was drawn in the sand and the tribes were named and indicated by grains of corn… But what a difference between a printed Baedeker and this gesticulation, this spoken picture, this enumeration of days’ journeys that creep relentlessly farther stage by stage! The second Bakairi village is some days’ journey from where we were… First you get into your canoe, pepi, and paddle, pepi, pepi, pepi. You row with paddles, left, right, changing sides. You reach a rapids, bububu… How high it falls: his hand goes down the steps with each bu, and the women are fearful and cry pekoto, ah, ah, ah …! There the pepi must plunge between the rocks – a hard stamp on the ground with his foot. With what groans it is pushed through, and the mayaku, the baskets of baggage, are wearily carried overland – once, twice, three times, on the left shoulder. But you climb aboard again and paddle, pepi, pepi, pepi. Far, far – his voice lingers ih… so far ih… and he pushes his mouth out into a snout and pulls his head down hard into his neck. He demonstrates how the sun sinks in the heavens, ih… The sun sinks over there, until – he holds his hand out as far as possible and draws an arc towards the west, ending at the point in the sky where the sun stands when lah…a – you reach the landing place.

How is this knowledge passed from generation to generation? In an unmaterialistic and pre-literate society, there is of course no formal schooling. Indigenous parents are very loving to their young. They never, ever, chastise, order or scold them in any way. You do not hear shouting or even raised voices by either age group. Children play happily and do small chores if they feel like it. When aged about seven they start imitating their parents, because this is what they passionately want to do. Girls might try some spinning, basketry or grinding manioc; boys shoot little bows at birds, learn to fish at the river’s edge and to move stealthily through the forest. Whenever there is a festival, you will see a ragged line of children copying the grown-ups. There is a close bond between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters. But when Orlando Villas Boas (a great indigenist of the 20th century) asked a father whether he was teaching his son, he replied: ‘No, because I do not know whether he wants it. When he does want to know something, he will ask and I will teach him.’ Children mature fast in this uncomplicated world. By the time a boy is ten or 12, he has almost an adult’s knowledge and skills in hunting, fishing, and other male tasks, as does a girl with women’s work. In many tribes, boys and girls undergo puberty initiations in order to qualify as adults. These rites of passage can involve painful ordeals or months of seclusion in a sealed corner of the communal hut, during which they might be instructed by elders.

There is special training for certain categories. Shamans, as with priests in every religion, spend years learning knowledge of the spirit world and faith healing from an older master. Chiefs have minimal powers in the egalitarian and democratic society of an indigenous village, although they are expected to orate well and to be generous and calm. It helps if they are fine hunters or champions in the favourite sport of wrestling. When the 16th-century essayist Michel de Montaigne asked a Tupinambá chief (who had been brought to France) what privileges he got from his rank, the young leader answered simply: ‘To march first into battle.’ In the 1970s, I knew a young man called Aritana, who was being groomed to succeed his father as chief of the Yawalapiti people in the upper Xingu. He explained that because of his status he had undergone years of seclusion, which is ‘an important period of learning for us, rather like going to school. My father and uncle taught me tribal myths and legends and also how to make things like arrows and bows or [mollusc-shell] necklaces. Above all, they taught me how to behave, how to treat others, and especially how to converse.’

Aritana matured to become the genial, gentle and hugely respected paramount chief of the dozen peoples of the upper Xingu. He has often emerged into the cities of modern Brazil, and been a spokesman for indigenous people on a world stage. But, like almost every other one of the over 200 tribes still functioning in Brazil, he does not want to lose his Indian identity. He feels that ‘the beauty of our lives here is that we still live in the same way as we have always done, with the same legends, festivals and beliefs of our ancestors… Everyone here is the same: we have no rich or poor. We ourselves make most of the things we need, and what we don’t make we trade from other neighbouring tribes. We don’t like to fight or quarrel. Why should we? What purpose does it serve? We prefer to live in peace in our villages and on friendly terms with everyone. This is why I call this land of ours Paradise.’

I recently said to Aritana that I had plenty of pictures of his people naked in only body paint and feather ornaments, but I wanted some of them doing modern activities – in which many are highly proficient. He immediately said ‘no problem’ and posed for me, dressed and in front of a big, clunky computer.

Our modern sophisticated society has seemingly limitless knowledge, and this is partly disseminated by electricity-powered information technology. Thirty years ago the Brazilian government wanted to build a huge hydroelectric dam near the mouth of the Xingu river (1500 kilometres north of Aritana’s village). Because the Amazon basin is so flat, the reservoir above this dam would drown thousands of square kilometres of forests and indigenous territories. An engineer from the electricity company sought to ‘sell’ the project to a protest meeting of threatened tribes. A Kayapó woman called Tuira strode up to the platform, and brandished a machete in an elegant sweep that ended with a tap on the hapless businessman’s face. With devastating logic, she told him: ‘You are a liar. We don’t need electricity. Electricity won’t give us food. We need the rivers to flow freely – our future depends on them. We need our forests to hunt and gather in. We do not want your dam.’ The engineer spoke of further studies and of economic benefits. The Indians would have none of it. They pointed out that a nearby frontier town was a horrible place where ‘conditions are terrible and the people live miserable lives. Is this what you are offering us? Is this progress? Don’t talk to us about relieving our ‘poverty’. We are not poor: we are the richest people in Brazil. We are not wretched. We are Indians.’

Indigenous society has many qualities, but it will never begin to achieve any of the intellectual, artistic or technological marvels of our knowledge-and information-driven world. Hunter-gatherers with rudimentary agriculture are not even Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s idealised noble savages. But Villas Boas and many other champions of indigenous people are adamant that our world is not superior or inferior to the indigenous one, just different. In this they subscribe to the views of the great French theorist Emile Durkheim and anthropologist Claude Lévy-Strauss: that these are simply two distinct societies. Nothing is gained by trying to compare or rank them. But I leave you with a final thought. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, rarely have so many owed so much to so few. The ‘many’ are the rest of mankind, the ‘few’ are Amazonian indigenous peoples, and the debt we owe them is that they are protecting a swathe of tropical rainforests and rivers as large as the entire original European Union. Their territories are critically important in generating rainfall, sequestering carbon, tempering climate change, and housing millions of creatures with which we share our planet in its richest terrestrial ecosystem.

This essay by John Hemming was first published under the title Is modern information better than pre-literate knowledge? in Knowledge and Information: Perspectives from the Engelsberg Seminar, Axess Publishing, 2019


John Hemming