Ancient People: We are All Modern Now

The oldest cliché in the book, guaranteed to be found in any newspaper article or TV show about indigenous peoples, is the moniker “ancient people” (sometimes “ancient tribe” or “ancient tribal people”, etc.)

What is an “ancient people”?

The idea, I suppose, is that their current practices, social structure, and way of life has remained unchanged for centuries. It is a nice fantasy, but it is almost never true. Further investigation invariably reveals a history of constant change. These include changes that come from the dynamics of so-called “traditional” ways of life, including warfare with neighboring groups, the constant invention of new traditions, changes in food supply, and migration to new ecological environs. It also includes exogenous factors, such as invading armies, trade with other groups, colonialism, and incorporation into the global economy. Often these changes (including incorporation into the global economy) happened a century ago. So long ago that the younger generations have never known any other way of life.

In some extreme cases, the group itself might be a product of colonialism. As Mamdani documents in Citizen and Subject, many so-called “tribes” were invented by European’s in order to simplify colonial administration of rural areas. Fluid and even democratic indigenous practices were replaced with the creation of a tribal “chief” answerable only to colonial authorities – a despot.

In some cases, there is even documentation of devolution: state-based societies disintegrating into small tribal-bands as a result of some cataclysmic event. History doesn’t always work in just one direction.

It is not uncommon to even hear of an large, dispursed group, such as the Jews, as an ancient people. I’m just in my 30s, I’m not ancient. And even if certain Jewish traditions have thousands of years of history to them, I think I have much more in common with today’s Indian and Taiwanese bloggers than I do with a Jew from the first century BCE. There may be people alive today for whom that would be somewhat less true. There may be people whose way of life and language has changed so little from that of their ancestors that, were they sent back in time a thousand years, they would feel right at home, but I doubt it. With very few exceptions, I think it is safe to say that “we are all modern now.”

The same cliché is often used with language as well. Some languages, it seems, are more ancient than others. Its true historically, but all contemporary languages are equally old. All have emerged from the same linguistic roots, changing, morphing, and adapting to history. Languages continue to change even now. You can observe language change in action by going into any community and recording the old and the young, comparing the differences in how they speak. The differences might be more striking in some situations than in others, but there will always be a change.

So what is an “ancient people”?

It is the dream of continuity in the face of ever accelerating change. Ancient people are the bearers of ancient truths which we have lost. They are connected to land and family in ways that we are not. We find it amusing that they might listen to rock music and enjoy Hollywood movies. It must all be so strange for them! But it is really strange for us. We need them to be ancient and traditional so that our own alienation can be better comprehended. We need a lost island out there where people still worship a giant ape so that we can remember our own humanity.

It is also an important myth for those who self-identify as members of an ancient people. In some cases entire communities have gone back and re-discovered the traditions of the ancestors so as to hold on to that identity. In doing so, however, they invariably reinvent those traditions, creating something entirely new…

UPDATE: Some similar ramblings from Lorenz.

35 thoughts on “Ancient People: We are All Modern Now

  1. Well said, Kerim, but could you explain what makes modern representations of traditional or ancient beliefs or practices any less ‘fabricated’ than the way people of an earlier time believed and lived?

    If nothing today is authentic, was there anything ever authentic? Was there anything untainted by ‘contact with the outside’ or ‘power’?

    Are you debunking only a modern condition, or all historical human culture/civilization as founded upon false notions of authenticity?

    On a different note, what is your alternative to the cliche you began with? How do you suggest people out there outside academia discuss: peoples, civilizations, traditions? How can one be sensitive to the cliche while not in the process minimizing or leveling away the accumulated experiences, wisdom, brilliance – those things we want to learn about, learn from, and celebrate?

  2. I’ve actually had quite a few conversations recently about this kind of characterisation. A personal pet peave of mine is the constant contemporary discussion of how conflicts in the middle east “date back to Biblical times” or other such nonsense. If an historical conflict is still current, it is current because of quite contemporary practices and beliefs perpetuated in and by contemporary societies. All communities comfortably ignore the vast preponderance of their histories – if particular events or periods are significant *now*, we should look for contemporary, not historical, causes for this selective appropriation of the past (and I say this as someone who originally trained as an historian).

    One thing I would add to your analysis of what contributes to the “ancient people” description, is the (political) pressure to claim a kind of originary “innocence” in order to assert political rights that, in an ideal context, it should be possible to assert in other ways.

    Sometimes this political requirement is literally inscribed in law – e.g., Australian indigenous land rights claims require that indigenous communities demonstrate an historical (and continuous) relationship to a particular body of land, so that talking in terms of very old, and very unchanging traditions is sort of built into the structure for the recognition of indigenous rights.

    Even if not literally built into legislation, there can still be a sort of incentive to claim the “moral high ground” by asserting unchanged historical tradition – tapping into nascent “noble savage” stereotypes for political capital, with the downside that communities risk having to become museums of themselves, in order to assert valid rights to self-determination…

  3. could you explain what makes modern representations of traditional or ancient beliefs or practices any less ‘fabricated’ than the way people of an earlier time believed and lived?

    I’m not arguing that they are any less fabricated.

    If nothing today is authentic, was there anything ever authentic? Was there anything untainted by ‘contact with the outside’ or ‘power’?

    See Rex, above.

    Are you debunking only a modern condition, or all historical human culture/civilization as founded upon false notions of authenticity?

    Interesting point. Authenticity is important for the legitimacy of all cultural traditions, no matter how untenable it might be. However, I don’t think authenticity is always grounded the same way. For instance, many societies claim divine intervention to establish their authenticity. There is a difference between being the “Chosen People” and being an “ancient people.” Of course, the two forms of authenticity can co-exist.

    On a different note, what is your alternative to the cliche you began with? How do you suggest people out there outside academia discuss: peoples, civilizations, traditions? How can one be sensitive to the cliche while not in the process minimizing or leveling away the accumulated experiences, wisdom, brilliance – those things we want to learn about, learn from, and celebrate?

    I don’t ask too much of documentaries on the History channel (I think I was flipping past a recent show on Siberia when I was inspired to write this), but I would think it is fair to request that they don’t arbitrarily place some people outside of history altogether.

    Even if not literally built into legislation, there can still be a sort of incentive to claim the “moral high ground” by asserting unchanged historical tradition – tapping into nascent “noble savage” stereotypes for political capital, with the downside that communities risk having to become museums of themselves, in order to assert valid rights to self-determination…

    True, and as someone who works with indigenous people fighting for their rights, I aknowledge how difficult this can be; however, I think there are better ways to frame such rights claims. The best discussion of such issues by far is

    Errington, Joseph. 2003. Getting Language Rights: The Rhetorics of Language Endagerment and Loss. American Anthropologist 105 (4): 723-32.

    I discussed it some in this old post on my other blog.

  4. Joe asks,

    On a different note, what is your alternative to the cliche you began with? How do you suggest people out there outside academia discuss: peoples, civilizations, traditions? How can one be sensitive to the cliche while not in the process minimizing or leveling away the accumulated experiences, wisdom, brilliance – those things we want to learn about, learn from, and celebrate?

    Why not simply recognize that the distinction between modern=advanced (or corrupt) and ancient=primitive (ah, the noble savage) was always fundamentally flawed? People are people wherever we find them. Some of what they do may be worth celebrating. A lot will be of questionable value. Some may be abominable. Then, bracketing our value judgments, we can ask what they do (say, believe) means to them, how it got that way, who benefits, and what, if anything, it adds to our understanding of the human condition.

  5. I absolutely agree that there are better ways to frame rights claims – and I obviously wouldn’t have regarded my post as a critique of your original comment, with which I largely agree. I do think, though, that the available political space between “we have rights because our practices are timeless, ancient, etc.” and “we must become modern acquisitive individuals assimilated to mainstream culture” is often very, very small, and that this explains some of the temptation to articulate one’s culture (or others’ culture) as “ancient”.

    Ian Hacking has done some good work, admittedly not on this exact issue, but on why people choose to articulate mental illness in the ways they do – arguing, in effect, that there’s no doubt the people he studies were suffering, but that the discourse through which they come to articulate that suffering is heavily shaped through what he calls the “ecological niche” for valid suffering in their communities – some forms of articulating suffering fall on fertile ground, flourish, and multiply, while others result in suffering being ignored…

    Not to compare cultural identity to mental illness… ;-P But to suggest, as of course you and others here have already indicated, that means through which identity claims, rights claims, etc., come to be put forward into the public realm can be shaped by shared concepts because, even if those concepts are patently flawed and quite easily refuted, they still have resonance, and one can “count” on being heard, at least by some audiences, when one couches claims in those terms.

  6. “Indigenous people” is in fact another problematic label — although analytically fuzzy it expresses the shared experience of people who lived outside of Europe who got the short end of the stick after the whole 1492 thing. These days it has also come to include national minorities — hence the term ‘fourth world’ that you also see being thrown around.

    But it is hardly a decent analytic tool, or even a term that is universall adopted. In South America, afaik, it is popular. In Australia ‘aboriginal’ is prefered. In the US and Hawaii ‘native’ is used. In Canada it’s ‘First Nations.’ In areas without settler populations — like much of the Southwest Pacific and Africa — people don’t speak in these terms at all.

    So to the extent that you like the idea of ‘indigenous people’ you are tacitly accepting one narrative of world history which foregrounds the story of European colonialism and, as the concept of indigenous has been stretched to include ethnic minorities such as those in mainland China, a story of colonial action by a national majority. So it has some appeal as an analytic concept, but it’s hardly the best concept around. It’s just convenient.

    Obviously such a label has (as all labels do) political implications, as NP points out. Tanya Murray Li has written eloquently about how much the amount of $$ and publicity available to s group shifts when they manage to convince people that they are not ‘peasants’ but ‘indigenous.’ This issue is also central to my own work.

    Obviously it has little to do with ‘ancientness’ (‘indigenous’ is about where you’re born, not how long you’ve been there).

  7. The Wikipedia entry for Indigenous People captures much of what Rex said so well. I think it is important to emphasize that while the term is not without its own complications people who use that label often face very similar economic and social pressures. I would argue that this is due to similarities in the colonial encounter. There are useful comparisons that can be made within this category, say between French and British colonies where policies towards indigenous populations were quite different (as Mamdani documents), but I do think it is a useful analytic cateogory. Not unproblematic, but still useful.

  8. Obviously it has little to do with ‘ancientness’ (‘indigenous’ is about where you’re born, not how long you’ve been there).

    I think I misunderstand what you mean… are we talking about a single individual or a group of people in that quote. It seems to me that whether an individual is considered indigenous is neither dependent on where they were born nor dependent on how long they’ve been there. Take Japanese–someone is not Ainu just because they were born in Hokkaido, nor are they Ainu because they have lived in Hokkaido for some extended time. But the topic was “peoples” not a person, and “peoples” are not “born” anyways. But I think when you said “not how long you’ve been there” you meant as a group, not just a single person?

  9. I did mean as a group — I was playing off of the etymology of the word ‘indigenous,’ which is based on the Latin word for ‘birth.’ People who are born in a place are ‘indigenous’ to it. Sorry if you didn’t catch the etymological reference there.

    How individuals affiliate with a group which is officially deemed ‘indigenous’ is of course exactly the issue — in many cases involving customary land tenure or sovereignty, the issue is often not which group notionally owns the land, but who can be considered to ‘be part of the group. Typically governments want descent-based rather than residential-base or ‘consocial’ criteria (think, for instance, of the hullabaloo about Ward Churchill) and often even use things like blood quanta to make their decision — which is a really bad idea.

  10. So, tell me, how is the political structure of the Zulus a creation of colonial administrations?

    By god the world is full of wankers.

  11. I’m amazed that ‘John Chard’ knows enough about 19th century South African history to write under that pseudonym and still not understand the colonial dynamics that led up to the battle of Rorke’s drift. John, if you are interested in understanding the way that Zulu identity is intimately connected with the colonial history of Africa, I suggest the “Shaka and the Creation of the Zulu” section of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry on Southern Africa.

    For current history, you might also want to check out Shula Marks’s “Patriotism, Patriarchy, and Purity: Natal and the Politics of Zulu Ethnic Consciousness” or Vail’s “The Creation of Tribalism in Southern Africa.” Just for starters.

  12. First, thanks for letting a random net-surfer make a post without joining the group. Second, maybe this should be posted under a different thread. If so, sorry.

    I live in the US and have taken a recent interest in Mexico in regards to their “indian, native american, first nation, aborigines”. That got me into the definition of race, genetics of skin color and global migrations.

    The Mexican race policy is “we are all mestizos”. Sort of ‘we came without our own women, we screwed and now we’re all brown’. Of course, lighter colored skin is preferable and there is a high correlation between light skin color and status/opportunities. The people with the darkest complections live in the southern and eastern parts of the country where the poverty is the worst. Lots of these people do not speak spanish. So, if you’re indian in Mexico, you get no reservations, no status as a sovereign nation, no bureau of indian affairs. (Please correct me if I am wrong about any of this). In 1921, Mexico collected an unusual census–unusual in that it included information about race. Apparently, the norm is to collect data about language and not race. If you speak spanish, you are assimilated! Now, birth certificates are a different matter. On your birth certificate, you are listed as mestizo, pure indigenous, or white. Apparently, there a couple of small communities of “black, negroid, african, afro” villages or communities but they and the country at large, don’t have a sense of being separate from the population–unlike the USA–even though they imported slaves from Africa sooner than we did. Also, mestizo means a mixture of white and indian and they don’t seem to acknowledge mulatos, the mixture of white and black which has been of paramount importance to the USA.

    I found some interesting theories about skin coloration, genetics and migrations. I like the one that says, as pre-humans we probably had white skin and were covered with hair. Dark pigmentation developed to compensate for loss of hair. That means we all started out white and our colors came with evolution. I found a reasonable explanation for why white skin originated within 600 miles of the North and Baltic Seas but thought the explantions about why people on the American continent near the equator where not black like the people living at the same latitudes in Africa were not convincing.

    I discovered groups that think the white race makes up only 8% of the world population and the whites are re-classifying brown/Negroid/North Africans/Indian/Pakistan as caucasian so as to avoid extinction. The paranoid group was non-white and angry that the whites were trying to maintain their dominance by swelling their numbers with brown people. I thought that was both funny and sad. Power is about dominance, money, access to resources and lack of social consequences for your actions. Also, I think caucasion is determined by linguistics not color.

    So, any of you anthro-centrics care to comment (or enlighten me) on race, skin color, assimilation vs racial/ethnic identity, some gross oversight about Mexico? If that doesn’t elicit a response, how about this: I just hate the use of black and white to distinguish brown from beige. There are some folks who really are pretty much black and some real pale folk and a few albinos but most of us are some shade of brown. Why can’t we all just be colored?

    Re: indigenous people. The remnants of an culture that shared some arbitrarily defined geographical area prior colonialization.

    Re: ancient peoples. Any culture no longer in existence that was absorbed or displaced by at least one culture prior to the current dominant culture.

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  14. As an aboriginal/indegenouse person from the west caost of africa. I have news for you .. we are atill alive and kicking, and we knwo the diference btw those who have inhabited the lands since time emomorial and our historic ways of living as a community which predate the ‘so-called” western civilisation.

    If we choose to pull our heads out of the racist, eurocentric denial of our collective histories. You will awake to the realisation that we are not all modern people as you say.

    There is the circular logic ( otherwise know as the indegenouse worldview, which looks at things not as block-or-white, either/or .. but more as circle of interconectedness of spirit, thought and respect for diversity ) and the intrinsic beleif in our interconectedness that has been part of most of the worlds indigenouse peoples.

    There has been a deleberate cultural genocide against our peoples. Some of us are fighting to preserve and continue the interupted growth of our cultural and sociatial vallues that inately make us who we are.

    To the person who refered to tribes as an invention of the Colonial states. Maybe you need to actual start looking at resources outside of eurocentric academia. We as aboriginal ( peoples, tribes,kingdoms empires ) existed since time imemorial, long before the so-called civilised europe.

    Barbara Clowers made an inreference to skin pigmentation. I got news for you . Our mothert in Africa have a long history of given birth to children with all kinds of skin pigmentation, including those who would be mistaken as european (Albino kids). This was long before anyone from europe stepped on our lands. Also modern day science has also concluded that Africa as the craddle of humanity and civilisation.

    I think the problems with the definitions of indigenoouse, is the failure to even ask us who were are. We self inderify and we know who we are. Our elders remind us of our connections to each other, teach us our traditions and leave us with teh sacred duty to pass it on to the next generation. We have not gone away, and we are not just cultureal relics.

    Many of the things that the west claims as new-age, are actualy eurocentirc-representations of some of our ancient traditional ways.

    Just as the united states dept of Indian affairs continues to attempt to define who is indian and how they should be governed. It is the same colonial way that some of our societies in the global-south were and are corrupted to serve european needs.

    Checkout Dr Emagwali writtings on civilisation and globalisation and our stolen history at http://www.emeagwali.com

    peace be with you,

    Ifo Ikede
    A strong proud aboriginal from the west coast of Africa

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  16. Ifo — I addressed some of this in a post on my personal site a couple of years ago, entitled We Are ALl Postmodern. The idea that Kerim is expressing is not so much that we are all Western and there is no such thing as an authentic indigenous identity, but that there are no peoples in the world that are not part of, are not embedded in, the current reality. The idea of an “ancient culture” suggests a people stuck in time, primitive and backwards, struggling to make sense of “our” “advanced” “civilization” (Oy! The shudder quotes show that I’m being postmodern!). As you point out, the “backwards” indigenous cultures are, in fact, societies with their own long histories, the product of engagement with and adaptation to and resistance against colonialism, globalism, imperialism, political struggle, and so on — change initiated both from without and from within.

    But the modern worldview has tended towards assimilation and universalism; it is in the postmodern mode that indigenous cultures have asserted themselves as forces to be reckoned with, that they (perhaps “we”) have been able to ground an insistence on cultural “granulity”. This is not, however, directly opposed to the sense in which Kerim uses “modern” — that is to say, the modern world is postmodern, too. Which is why an Americanized Jew of secular upbringing can synthesise Jewish liturgical melodies and singing style with dub reggae, itself a synthesis of Western techno beats and “indigenous” Jamaican reggae, itself a synthesis of Garveyite Zionism, Western pop/rock forms, and “indigenous” African singing styles and rhythms, themselves a product of centuries of interaction between “indigenous” African cultures. “Indigenous” in quotes not because they’re not truly indigenous, but because what it means to be indigenous changes from place to place, moment to moment, as culture travels from person to person, people to people, land to land.

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  18. Not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. We all need to recognize life and love for what it is. Not judgement, but acceptance and appreciation for positive imput.

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