Across the blue of the Arctic icefields, herds of caribou walk through the spring snow towards their traditional calving grounds. The caribou have lived in the Yukon Territory of Canada for as long as the Gwich’in, the people indigenous to these lands. ‘The caribou are everything’, said Norma Kassi, a Gwich’in woman. ‘They are the centre of our whole livelihood. All of our food, our culture, our dances, our spiritual connections are with the caribou.’
Most tribal peoples have been wholly dependent on their lands for millennia. The earth has formed the foundation of tribal peoples’ identities; it has always provided food and shelter, and has also long been the spiritual focus of their lives, the resting place of their ancestors and the repository of myths and memories. ‘We are the land, and the land is us,’ said Stefan Mikaelsson, President of the Sámi parliament at a Slow Food council gathering; a sentiment echoed from the Brazilian Amazon by Davi Kopenawa, spokesperson for the Yanomami people, when he said, ‘The environment is not separate from ourselves; we are inside it and it is inside us.’
This ancient and profound interdependence means that from the agriculturalists of the Amazon and the cultivators of Bangladesh’s rugged hills to the hunting peoples of Canada and the hunter-gatherers of Africa, tribal peoples possess a detailed and intimate understanding of their territories. Year after year of painstaking observation – motivated by the sheer need to survive in harsh territories – has resulted in encyclopaedic banks of knowledge about their ecosystems, and given rise to astonishingly creative survival skills.
After generations of sailing the clear waters of the Andaman Sea, the Moken ‘sea gypsies’ have developed sophisticated acquatic abilities that allow them to hunt for ray, turtle and crab with harpoons (a recent scientific study conducted by Lund University in Sweden showed that the eyesight of Moken children is 50% more powerful than that of European children.) In Africa, the Hadza of Tanzania have attuned their hearing to such a sensitive degree that they can hear the quiet trill of the honey-bird that guides them to bees’ nests in the boughs of baobab trees, from which they retrieve honeycombs. And in the Kalahari, when the waterholes of the red sand-face turned to dust during times of drought, the Bushmen of Southern Africa have learned to store water underground in empty ostrich shells sealed with beeswax, and quench their thirst with the juice of the tsamma melon.
This detailed and arcane knowledge of native animals, plants and herbs is still extremely relevant to the world today. Were it not, in fact, for the specialized botanical knowledge of many tribal peoples, vital medicinal compounds might still be unknown (it is thought that plants have been vital in the development of around 50% of today’s prescription drugs).
The Yanomami, for example, who utilise around 500 species of plants on a daily basis for building materials, food and medicines (they relieve diarrhoea with the juice of the woody cat’s claw vine and treat eye infections with the bark of the copal tree) use a poison on the tips of arrows called curare. This has been appropriated as a muscle relaxant in western medicine, and made possible such procedures as open-heart surgery. In North America, the manufactured painkiller aspirin was developed from the bark of the white willow tree, which American Indians boiled to treat headaches.
Similarly, many foods that have become the world’s staples might still be undiscovered were it not for the ingenuity and observations of tribal peoples. ‘The food systems of indigenous peoples who retain connection to long-evolved cultures and patterns of living in local ecosystems present a treasure of knowledge that contributes to well-being and health, and can benefit all humankind,’ states the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation.
South American Indian tribes have long had many uses for the rose-coloured seeds of the achiote tree, which produces a pigment commonly known as annatto. The Aztecs are thought to have added it to chocolate drunk by their priests; today, the Tsáchila of Ecuador use it to dye their hair red and the Zo’é of Brazil to paint their bodies. South American Indians also apply annatto medicinally: as an aphrodisiac and a digestive, a sunscreen and inspect repellent. The curanderos, or herbal healers of the Peruvian Amazon, squeeze the juice from the fresh leaves to cure eye infections.
It is only in recent years, however, that annatto has become the world’s most important natural food colourant next to caramel. When the seeds are crushed and soaked in water, they produce an orange-yellow or red paste, which creates the yellow hue of British Cheddar and French Maroilles, the orange-tint of salad oils and popcorn, and the vibrant flush of red lipsticks.
The root crop manioc a woody shrub which is also native to South America, was similarly discovered and developed by South American Indians, and has become a vitally important world food. It now provides the staple for about a billion people in over 100 countries; in Africa alone, it is the staple food for nearly 80% of the population. ‘Manioc is not just eaten by indigenous people,’ says Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, the international organisation that campaigns for the rights of tribal peoples. ‘It is an extremely important food, and has saved countless lives already. It is one of South American Indians’ most valuable, but totally unrecognised, contributions to our world economy.’
South American Indians also developed the potato, which provided the staple food for Aymaran and Incan diets. The Incas even developed a system of freeze-drying the plant, creating a substance called chuñu, which could be stored for up to 10 years. When it was first brought back from South America to Europe in the late 1400s and 1500s, the potato was regarded with suspicion, considered only fit for animal feed or for growing in gardens as an exotic novelty.
It was not until the late eighteenth century that the potato was accepted as a western food. By the time Marie Antoinette of France wore a crown of potato blossom in her hair, the root vegetable that had been grown on the cold slopes of the Andean mountains had been accepted by European high society. Today, the potato is the staple food for more people than manioc; both root vegetables will become increasingly important as the world’s poor grows in numbers. ‘Potatoes are now such a fundamental staple of western menus that their provenance has been forgotten, as has the fact that they took much longer to be accepted in Europe than is usually realized,’ says Corry.
The discoveries of tribal peoples are frequently underestimated or overlooked, however. Despite their knowledge, their ingenuity, their adaptable responses to their ecosystems – to mention but a few remarkable elements of their collective wisdom – even in the 21st Century, with all that is known that they know, tribal peoples are still dismissed as ‘uncivilized’ for the absence of material wealth, still thought of as ‘backward’ for their lack of formal education. ‘I cannot read’, said Roy Sesana, a Gana Bushman from Botswana, ‘but I do know how to read the land and animals. All our children could. If they couldn’t, they would have died long ago.’
Such racist prejudices underpin the appalling treatment tribal peoples have been subjected to for centuries, and expediently condone their dispossession from their homelands for ‘development’ projects, conversation concerns and a myriad of other reasons. For the rest of the world, the dismissal of human genius that has enabled tribal peoples to sense minute changes in climate or shifts in ice sheets, to accurately predict the spring return of the snow goose or the blossom time of the peach palm tree is – at a time of ecological uncertainty – at best ironically careless; at worst catastrophic. For from the frozen north, from the green heart of the tropical rainforest and from under the glare of the African sun, tribal peoples have developed extraordinary gifts for humanity, of which the discovery of manioc and the potato plant are but two.
Joanna Eede is an editorial consultant for Survival International.
Article first published in Slow magazine, issue 51.
Photo: Yanomami, Brazil (Survival International)