Everyone who has read Guns, Germs, and Steel knows that one of the central themes of Diamond’s book was that New Guinea tribesmen were in no way inferior in human ability to Wall Street bankers (ooh, bad choice of an example: it’s pretty easy to argue that Wall Street bankers are some of the lowest examples of humanity.) So here’s a story of New Guinea tribesmen using Facebook. Also, it tells of a documentary that was made that switched stereotypes: instead of sending the Harvard professor to New Guinea to comment on their lives, they brought over a group of New Guinea tribespeople to gawk at us.
The company I worked for didn’t have a good reason why they could not, so we pitched it as an idea and got it commissioned. That’s when I was brought in. Worried that their visit might pollute their culture with modern ideas, or perhaps make them terminally envious of a world beyond their reach, I talked to some experts on Papua New Guinean tribes, and at that point exposed myself for the blinkered bigot that I was. “How dare you,” said one anthropologist, “to imagine, without question, that a Sepik tribesman would be envious of your culture. That’s one of the most arrogant things I’ve ever heard. These people are supremely proud of their own culture. They have a much more rewarding lifestyle than the majority in the West. Mark my word, they won’t want anything you can give them.”
Oh, burn. That’ll put us in our place.
Except…we did have an advantage or two.
But the anthropologist was wrong about one thing; they did take something back: the idea of putting feathers on arrows. In the second week of their visit, I took three of the tribe to watch an archery club shoot at targets in a local community center. One of the archers was a fanatic and made his own arrows from willow, spruced with turkey feathers. The tribesmen were fixated on the feathers. “Why these feathers?” they asked. “It makes them fly straight,” said the enthusiast. And after a few practice shots, the tribesmen discovered that it certainly did. Their eyes lit up. Back home (presumably for thousands of years), they had been making arrows that were three times the size and weight of these feathered arrows, because without feathers an arrow needs to be weighty in order to fly true through the air. Just adding feathers would mean that they could carry three times the number of arrows out on hunts, and shoot three times the number of feral pigs. Of all the ideas in England, this was the one that could have an immediate and significant impact on their lives.
So what has the West done for the rest of the world lately? Well, there’s feathered arrows. And…facebook? Maybe we should stop right there.