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.