A friend sent me a link yesterday to a BBC version of that story out of Brazil about new photographs of ‘uncontacted’ tribes, writing: “Isn’t this what archeologists dream of?” While it’s lovely to know that my close friends are thinking of me, it is a bit chagrining that my profession remains confusing, including basic distinctions in the respective objects of study of ‘anthropologists’ and ‘archaeologists,’ to say nothing of more complicated stuff to do with critiques of the pervasive Western fantasy of ‘uncontacted’ tribes, noble savages, and so on. And doesn’t the general public know that anthropologists today fetishize nanotech scientists as much as they do Amazonian tribes? (I imagine here images something like a Gary Larson cartoon, with pictures of ‘natives’ in lab coats threatening a drive-by photographer with bunsen burners.)
I feel a little queasy that we have to sell the drive for cultural autonomy and respect for foraging peoples with the whole ‘never seen a white man’ drivel. The term ‘uncontacted’ is part of the problem; ‘isolated’ would be better, as these groups have seldom ‘never seen a white man.’ They usually have developed a habit of reacting hostilely when they do, perhaps suggesting that it’s not so much lack of contact, but certain kinds of contact that they have experienced.