Breaking News: Intrepid Explorer’s First Contact with a Vanishing Race of Noble Savages

I’ve been too busy to actually sit down and read Paul Raffaele’s Smithsonian article on getting “up close and personal with New Guinea natives who say they still eat their fellow tribesmen” until now. What finally prompted me to do so was this recent article in The Age responding to a “60 Minutes” segment about Raffaeles and the boy Wa-Wa. (I discovered both articles via the unflagging anthro-blogging of

I was amazed by how cliche ridden Raffaele’s article is. It was startlingly reminiscent of the kinds of articles National Geographic published a century ago: The intrepid explorer ventures into a dangerous and unknown territory for the sole purpose of making contact with natives who practice bizarre and grotesque rituals and are deeply suspicious of the explorer whose humanity they question (but finally accept). The experience causes tears to well up in Raffaele’s eyes.

Responding to the “60 Minutes” version of the story, Sarah Hewat writes:

Before we go pointing the finger, let’s look for the primitive fetishist within. Those who saw the 60 Minutes report perhaps did not notice the shorts being worn by members of the “forgotten” tribe, and the black plastic bags they were holding? And did audiences notice that they were speaking Bahasa Indonesia, rather than, as was claimed, an ancient dialect?

Now, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that people are still accused of witchcraft and killed (even eaten) for the crime. But one would like some good-old-fashioned ethnographic understanding of the practice rather than the raw exoticism that Raffaele offers up. In India, witchcraft accusations are closely related with the marginalization of the Adivasi population, battles over land, and gender relations. In short, they are a thoroughly modern phenomenon. But Raffaele portrays these practices as some kind of enduring primitive trait, and I find that pretty hard to stomach.

18 thoughts on “Breaking News: Intrepid Explorer’s First Contact with a Vanishing Race of Noble Savages

  1. Anyone interested in learning more about this can find it in Rupert’s article on the subject,

    “Giving Up Homocide: Korowai Experiences of Witches and Police (West Papua)”:

    It’s from Oceania 72(1) — if you have The Magic Fulltext Cookie then you can see the entire piece.

    As usual there are several levels of (re)contextualization going on here — the exoticism of the 60 minutes piece, the exoticism of the Smithsonian piece, and the exoticism of the Korowai, who have the bad luck of living (or perhaps having lived) a way of live that is distasteful to the progressive representational politics of most anthropologists. I think its important to separate each of these.

  2. Of course cannibalism is a sort of fetish for anthropologists. I thought William Arens did a rather thorough job of demolishing the ethnographic “evidence” for cannibalism. William Arens: The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, Oxford University Press, 1979. As I recall he received quite a bit of flack for ever questioning one of the foundations of modern anthropology 😉


  3. Here is the cannonical link to the article Rex mentioned earlier, for those with ebscohost accounts. (Rex\’s link is only for Chicago users.)

    This quote caught my eye:

    While Korowai have not known military domination of the extreme kind common elsewhere in West Papua, it is still the case that over the years dozens of Korowai have been variously arrested, beaten, tortured, physically humiliated, and jailed by police. Korowai have also witnessed or heard stories about police use of guns against human bodies. These experiences have been very meaningful to Korowai, and have deeply affected how they currently organize their own lives.

    While the Smithsonian article does mention one such story, it is carefully pushed aside since it interferes with the overall narrative of \”first contact\”; however, what does it matter if these particular people have never met a \”white person\”? It is clear that they have been affected by state policies and interactions between their group and the police.

  4. “In India, witchcraft accusations are closely related with the marginalization of the Adivasi population, battles over land, and gender relations. In short, they are a thoroughly modern phenomenon.”

    Why does this follow?

  5. Kerim, I think PDH is asking why you are attributing modernity to witchcraft just because it is involved with battles over land, gender etc. As I understand your point witchcraft is “modern” because it is involved with the politics of state/ethnic/gender formation, marginalization and oppression. “Witchcraft” is also an important device in the language of colonialism; the primitivism we (the metropole) associate with people who we are told practice witchcraft justifies in our minds the extension of the system of state control into their lands and societies.

  6. Sorry. I promise I really do try to find a neutral URL that will work for most people, but apparently I just can’t figure it out 🙁 I’m glad that the article is available online for free as well. Rupert is a close friend of mine and I would encourage people to read his work — it can often be technical but I think he is an incredibly smart person.

  7. It took some thought for me also to process the linkage between witchcraft and modernity, but I largely came to the same conclusions that TJN succinctly articulates. In making the thought connection, however, I seem to have hindered my ability to understand the exact dimensions of pre-modern witchcraft accusations. I know very little of it, but when a pre-modern community accused a member of witchcraft, say following a particularly violent thunderstorm, or a heavy infestation of insects, wasn’t there still an elite driven political element at work–namely the control/regulation of other community members? And isn’t that akin to the politics of marginalization and oppression that is taken as a token of modernist witchcraft accusations? Perhaps someone can briefly outline the pre-modern manifestation of witchcraft politics?

  8. Well, I think he was trying to point out that the “marginalization of [some] population, battles over land, and gender relations” can’t really be called modern necessarily, since these kind of phenomena have been going on for, you know, a long time. Like, oppression predates colonialism.

  9. Perhaps, but then so what with regards to power relations? The question is why would it follow from “there are gender relations” to “its a modern phenomenon”. Your answer seems to be that there is a hidden premise: “All phenomena are modern”. So, the argument is:
    1a. Phenomenon A is closely related with phenomena X, Y, Z
    1b. All phenomena are modern.
    2. Therefore, A is a modern phenomena.

    Its like saying “In India, families are related to caste. In short, caste is a modern phenomena.” Maybe caste IS a modern phenomena, but it doesn’t follow from the first sentence in any particular way.

  10. In general, I was hoping he’d explain. Because there’s some sort of logical reasoning between his first statement and his second, and it is not apparent to me. I didn’t have a specific criticism because I didn’t know how he reached his conclusion.

    I now think he is using “thoroughly modern” in a very soft form. I highly doubt he is disparaging the use of understanding the origins of witchcraft accusations as a means of shedding light on their present manifestations. The “thoroughly modern” he uses seems likely to apply to any modernly relevant cultural practice simply by the fact that it is presently in practice.

  11. Modernity in my mind is very much linked with the process of state formation. For instance, land ownership is very different in the context of nation-states than it is in the pre-modern era. So it would be incorrect to say that these phenomena are “the same” as those we would refer to by the similar names in the pre-modern era and the only difference is one of temporality.

  12. I appreciate Kerim’s link between regional/cultural practices and modern state formation as defining “modernity”. But what happens when state formation breaks down? Is that still modernity? There is a wonderful film by Australian TV, “Black Harvest” about the relationship between a Papuan-Australian and a “big man” of a Highland village and their attempts to create a coffee business. In many ways this film highlights a tragedy of both local and international crises: coffee prices plunge forcing a labour conflict between the partners and the promised labour; a local war erupts in the middle of the harvest season, finally collapsing the entire enterprise. The film details the complete collapse of the relationship between these two men, and the suidice attempt by the big man (walking onto the battle field so he might be killed by either sides’ arrows). So my question to Kerim is, can modernity collapse? And if so, what is it replaced by?

  13. Hi Fred! There is an interesting discussion about the film by another Fred in the comments to an earlier Savage Minds post. That Fred (and Deborah) criticizes the film precisely for the ahistoricism I am worried about here.

    I certainly don’t advocate a teleological view of modernity. States collapse as well as form. However, when modern state’s fail they do so in the context of a world system, and often through the active intervention of neighboring states. And, of course, there are very important non-state actors which are part of that system as well … but surely one is entitled to a little short-hand when posting a comment of this sort?

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