Boa Vista 2: A day at a museum

My first day’s schedule was disrupted by a drastic change in government.   They got a new governor on Friday and he fired almost everybody on Monday, at least those appointed politically.   Well, not fired strictly speaking.  They had to come in and find out if they still had jobs.  At my first meeting at one of the planning offices, the guy told me that he could talk to me but that I might not be talking to a person actually employed there.  It was a good talk and I learned a lot about Roraima, but the situation was not normal.  I was supposed to have lunch with the governor, but he was gone.  The new governor found a few minutes to talk to me.  I was grateful for that, since he had a lot of other things to do.  But not much was said.

I had a better time at the Museum of Roraima. It is actually closed, closed for renovations.  People were still working there, however, and they were nice enough to show me around.

I met a woman there studies the indigenous people of Roraima and around.  She lived three years among the Yanomami. These people were made famous in the 1960s when an anthropologist wrote a book about them called “The Fierce People.”  I read it in college and I still recall the cover.  It was controversial among anthropologist because it painted the Yanomami is a negative way.  (It remains controversial today, BTW.  Anthropology steps on a lot of assumptions and one generation debunks the other, often with extreme prejudice.  I think that is because anthropology is the study of human societies and practitioners sometimes find what they are looking to find and then try to bring it back as a critique of their own societies.  The best example is Margaret Mead’s study of Samoa, which indicates another permutation, i.e. being wrong doesn’t always seriously harm your reputation.  Sometimes this is availability bias, i.e. they find what is easy to find, but often it is just ordinary unconscious bias of choosing what you think is important.  Anthropology has a kind of god-like view too.   How can one person judge a society or even hope to understand it.  But this digresses.) According to the book, as I recall, they were vicious, primitive and cruel.  The book was controversial because it went against the neo-Rousseau idea of the noble, or at least the not bad, savage. 

One of the assumptions among many modern anthropologists is that less developed cultures are relatively benign until polluted by contact with modern Western man.  Here was a story of wonderfully violent people who just got that way by themselves.   (BTW – there is another good book I read on a similar subject was “The Better Angels of Nature” by Steven Pinker. He says that, contrary to our assumptions, violence in human societies has been declining for centuries and the death rates from violence we see in modern wars were normal in pre-literate societies.)

Suffice it to say that the woman I spoke with did not agree with the “Fierce People” book and thought many of the ideas were wrong. She explained that there was a lot of variation among the peoples of the region and among individuals.This culture, like all cultures, was in a state of constant change. 

The lack of a strong material culture and absence of writing meant that this particular culture was more protean than many others, as virtually every bit of the culture is stored in mutable human memories and all those memories die with the individual.  If he fails to pass something along, it is gone forever.  There is no digging up the old manuscript and rediscovering the ancient texts.  This, coupled with very low populations, means observations are applicable only for short times and in specific places.Maybe the author of the Fierce People didn’t quite understand what he was observing and even if he did, maybe he just caught them at a bad time.  I suppose it might be like an anthropologist showing up in California in the 1960s, finding the Manson family and extrapolating that to the general population.  

I have thought about this regarding history in general, especially ancient history.   We find some artifacts and project it onto the larger society.  Maybe the community we found was just strange, unloved and rejected by the larger society?  Of course, even this assumes a high level of understanding.  We need a working theory of what the artifacts mean.   They showed me a long sock-like thing made of wicker.  It was flexible and could be pulled thinner and thicker.  I could have looked at the thing of 1000 years w/o figuring out its purpose.  It was used to make a kind of mush with manioc and other roots, some of which have harmful toxins.  Liquids, and evidently the toxics, are pushed through the slots and after a while only the good mush is left.

At another part of the museum, I met a guy who collected bees.  There are lots of different kinds of bees in Brazil and people who study these things not infrequently find new species.  The new species are usually specialists, i.e. they use one sort of plant or have a particular lifestyle.  I suppose it is not really all that different from the anthropology above, with the key difference that biological evolution takes longer than cultural evolution. 

In my experience, bees are yellow stripped.  I was surprised to find lots of brightly colored bees.  This explains a puzzle.  In my yard, I never see many bees, despite having lots of wild stuff and flowers.  I know understand that I have been seeing bees, but I thought they were just odd flies.

One more thing about the museum, it reminded me that I am getting old.   They had “artifacts” like the old phonograph pictured nearby that I recall from my childhood as being modern.   Unfortunate people of the past needed to contend with such things.