The Ancestor Myth: Why today’s tribal peoples should not be compared to our ancestors

Ayoreo woman © Survival

Andrew Marr’s BBC TV series begins with comparing a tribe in Paraguay, the Ayoreo, to humans of 60,000 years ago and earlier. Although this and similar beliefs are widely held, Stephen Corry shows that they are easily proven false. They derive from the colonial era and are still used to justify the theft of tribal peoples’ land and resources.

In 2012, the BBC produced an eight-part television series, ‘Andrew Marr’s History of the World’, presented by one of Britain’s best-known political journalists. It was followed by a book of the same title, and was due to be screened on the USA’s Discovery Channel in 2013.

In the opening seconds of the first film,1 Andrew Marr solemnly intones, ‘For thousands of years the Ayoreo tribe have lived in the forests of South America. They’re still leading much the same hunter-gatherer lifestyle as the very first humans on Earth.’ Andrew Marr wrote the script himself and probably thinks – I believe wrongly – that inserting the word ‘lifestyle’ softens his obvious meaning: the Ayoreo are much the same as prehistoric man was, tens of thousands of years ago. This hapless tribe in Paraguay was presumably chosen as an example of hunter-gatherers in general; Marr does at least accord them the merit of being ‘equally human’.

This opening remark is nonsense. Worse, it represents the doctrine which still underpins the destruction of tribal peoples and the theft of their territories and resources.

The same idea was used to justify Europe’s attempted and largely successful conquest of the rest of the world, as well as its slave trade. In this variant, the ‘white races’ (to which I, like Marr, belong) had supposedly advanced and were superior to others who had remained backward and primitive; they needed Europeans to lead them into the ‘modern world’, which ‘we’ had made and which belonged to us. History was on our side, not theirs. This gave us the right – indeed, the duty – to take their lands, resources, and labour, for they simply did not know how to use them properly. The evidence lay incontrovertibly before our eyes in the ruins of classical Athens and Rome, and was even eventually ‘proven’ by Darwinism.

Variations on this belief grew prevalent in Europe from the eighteenth century,2 and however strongly it still holds sway in popular consciousness, and with whatever varnish of political correctness it is painted, it remains a contrivance to explain and justify our inordinate and selfish exploitation of everyone else’s resources.

As applied to tribal peoples nowadays, the rationale goes like this: because the first humans are usually characterised as ‘hunter-gatherers’, it follows that twenty-first century peoples who are also ‘hunter-gatherers’ must live in broadly the same way. Andrew Marr’s film begins with this error, and proceeds to compound it, asserting that world history, indeed time itself, has somehow passed the Ayoreo by and that they only came ‘face to face with the twentieth century’ in 1998 (what century were they supposed to be living in?).

The film makes it clear that it counts as ‘first humans’ those Homo sapiens who first successfully left Africa to colonize the planet around sixty thousand years ago3 (though, as Marr recognizes, our species is much older). But to what extent is the lifestyle of modern hunter-gatherers in general, and of the Ayoreo in particular, really comparable to that of our ‘Out of Africa’ ancestors tens of thousand years ago? One place to start looking for an answer is in the act of hunting itself.

Hundreds of different hunting techniques and technologies have now been developed by tribal peoples throughout the world. These include expertly-crafted weapons such as spears and spear-throwers, bows and arrows, blowguns and boomerangs, as well as simpler clubs and axes, slings, lassoes, nets and bolas. Many of these are likely to be the result of generations of development and improvement.

Bows, for example, range from short and weak weapons, made in only a short day, to long bows, carefully fashioned over time to give considerable power and accuracy.4 Where the available material is limited to short and inflexible staves which cannot shoot with momentum, as is the case in the Kalahari, humans compensated by discovering arrow poisons, and perfecting sophisticated tracking and stalking methods to gain really close range.5

Tribal hunters today use many highly-attuned skills, such as mimicking animal calls or acting in a particular way, to attract the curiosity of game or drive it towards a fellow hunter. Snaring and other traps are a good way of securing small animals, though they can require great skill in construction and placement, as well as considerable patience.6

These are not the only qualities asked of a consummate hunter: silence and athleticism must be underpinned with in-depth zoological knowledge and careful strategic thinking. Hunting societies today comprise a way of life, and engender a particular way of seeing the relationship between people and the animal kingdom. Hunting is a key component in their self-identification, beliefs and rituals: little is more important to them.

The humans who left Africa certainly must have shared with modern hunters their quick-wittedness and ability to improvise and adapt, but we have scant idea whether or not they used any of these hunting practices or technologies, or held any of these beliefs. They could have survived perfectly happily without them, just as our ancestral apemen did a few million years previously.

We might not know much about how our ancestors lived, but we can make some guesses based on what little we have found. We can be pretty certain, for example, that they had no towns or cities, and did not rely on any cultivated staple, such as those which now feed most of the world – corn, rice, wheat, potatoes, cassava, sweet potatoes, and taro. There is no evidence for any of these until thousands of years later.

We can also guess that humankind’s early ‘Out-of-Africa’ colonists depended for most of their diet on the plants and small creatures which were ready to hand. They may well have also scavenged on dead animals, including those killed by other predators such as lions, and they probably feasted off foods found in plentiful and easy supply along the many shorelines they followed, including shellfish,7 crabs, sea urchins, fish left behind in tidal pools, and so forth.8

Eating what they could easily find around them doubtless included digging out small animals from their burrows, and ambushing or chasing others. However, we do not know to what degree, if any, these people relied on hunting as it would be understood by hunter-gatherers today: we do not know whether they went after sizeable prey, and if so whether they used any complex hunting technology or technique to help them secure it.

In spite of a brazen assertion made later in Marr’s film, there is no evidence that settling in one place generally meant ‘you would starve to death’. With very low population densities, it is hardly likely to have been a common problem.

Additionally, we do not have the faintest idea what they believed in. Understandably, scientists are very keen to find any evidence for this, but what might that be?9 The most compelling finds which could provide clues may be rock art in the form of painting and carvings, and figurines crafted from ivory or other material. In spite of generations of guesses and theories as to what they mean, the real answer is that we simply do not know.10 Anyway, Marr compares the Ayoreo to human beings from tens of thousands of years earlier than any of this art. Did prehistoric people at that time have their own beliefs for what might lay behind everyday experience? It seems likely, but the truth is that we can only guess. Nowadays probably every adult on Earth believes in something or other, but as far as we know not a single ape does. Such notions – irrespective of whether they are characterized as religious or scientific – form an important component of ‘lifestyle’, some would say the most important. We simply cannot compare our ancestors to the Ayoreo in this respect.

So let us return to looking at hunting technology. We need to confront the evidence, from about forty-four thousand years ago, that people in the far south of Africa were already using some weapons and tools which would be familiar to Bushman hunters today (who are likely to be their descendants).11 However, these two peoples, modern Bushmen and their ancestors, share what may be a unique feature: they are from the same place, they have not travelled in the way we can be certain that the ancestors of other tribal peoples did. (Although even that might be wrong: perhaps they did move, only to return whence they came.) Is it possible that, having invented things which worked well in their environment, they saw no need to adapt them? Does that imply they did not change in other ways?

Of course it suggests nothing of the kind. For example, the earliest spears found are from Germany and date to an astonishing four hundred thousand years ago. We do not know if they were used for distance throwing, rather than mere short-range stabbing, but they were skillfully crafted and weighted so they could be.12 They are so good in fact that a reconstruction in the hands of an expert can be hurled over seventy metres, over eighty percent of the distance thrown by the 2012 Olympic gold-medallist in javelin, Keshorn Walcott. Be that as it may, I doubt if Mr Walcott’s lifestyle is any more similar than is yours or mine to that of four hundred thousand-year-old Homo heidelbergensis – even if his spear is only a bit better than the oldest model found!

Our ancestors certainly ate meat, that is not in dispute. Our extinct ‘cousin’ species, the Neanderthals, were eating mammoths and other large creatures, such as horse, reindeer and bison, many thousands of years earlier that the Out of Africa Homo sapiens colonists. In this sense, perhaps Neanderthals’ diet could have been more like that of modern hunter-gatherers than that of our ancestors. We know that some Neanderthals went after the biggest prey they could find; whereas our own Homo sapiens ancestors might have largely made do on smaller fry.13

However, the Neanderthals lived in cold northern climates where they needed copious amounts of meat to stay alive. They certainly hunted, but we do not know to what extent that meant largely ambushing game at known feeding grounds, waterholes, or in pit traps, nor do we know how much was scavenged, as opposed to hunted actively. The truth is likely to be that this varied at different times and places.

We can in fact look back much, much further for evidence of meat eating. There is, for example, some evidence from Africa that Homo habilis, ape-like (possible) ancestors of our species, were eating antelope, which they could have killed, even as long ago as two million years14 – this is half a million years earlier than the first (possible, but very disputed) evidence of hearth fires so far discovered.15 We also know that our only remaining close relatives (now that other human species are extinct), chimps and bonobos, occasionally chase, kill and eat monkeys and some other creatures. As I said: they all ate meat, but how did they get it?

Finds of mammoth bones, from ‘only’ thirty thousand years ago in the Czech Republic, point more towards scavenging game which had already been killed by other predators, as opposed to hunting.16

There are plentiful remains of axes, knives and, as we have seen, spears dated to long before our own species came on the scene, and there is a tendency to assume that the existence of such very ancient weapons demonstrates per se that hunting – in the sense of going after sizeable live game – was going on all this time, but actually it proves nothing of the sort.

We can be pretty certain that the main driver of technological developments in recent history has been warfare, so it is surely possible that conflict was also one factor in the development of prehistoric tools.17 Knives and axes would have served as well in defence as in attack, equally against man as well as beast. Such weapons are also just as suited to butchering scavenged – as opposed to hunted – meat. In other words, the principal use for early spears could have been defensive, rather than for hunting. It is worth remembering, though proving nothing of course, that one of the most famous spear-carrying folk alive today are the African Maasai, who do not hunt or eat wild meat.

The truth is that we know very little about how early Homo sapiens got their food. The degree to which they hunted ‘much the same’ as modern hunter-gatherers do, or largely scavenged for it, is almost entirely guesswork based on little more than prejudice.

Arguments that hunter-gatherers today can tell us more about our past than anyone else are entirely circular: it is simply assumed that hunter-gatherers live like our ancestors once did, and vice versa that our ancestors must have lived as we imagine – often wrongly – modern hunter-gatherers do.18

As I say, we do not know how much our ancestors scavenged for meat rather than hunted; equally, we do not know the degree to which they stuck to coastal zones or favoured riverine or inland dwelling. There is evidence that fish crop up in their diet, but we do not know how much they relied on the fishing technologies which are now practised by modern hunter-gatherers: nets; traps; harpoons; bow and arrows; spears and harpoons; weirs; the highly sophisticated use of poisons; and of course hook and line. They could have used these things, none of which are likely to have left much trace in the distant archeological record.19 Equally, they might not have used any until much more recently, relying instead on beached whales and dolphins, collecting shellfish, and exploiting tidal pools.

Indeed, the sheer quantity of easily available food, at least in some environments and at some periods, must have rendered sophisticated hunting techniques fairly pointless. Prior to industrialization, game would have teemed over much of the ice-free world.20

So if we cannot pin down anything much about prehistoric hunting practices or beliefs, what do we know about peoples’ movements? Science does have a fairly good, albeit rough, outline of their peregrinations after leaving Africa, as well as some understanding of how it came to pass that a few of their descendants developed into Ayoreo Indians, whilst others led to Andrew Marr, and me.

Most experts believe it took nearly forty-five thousand years of Asian living before anyone eventually walked across the land bridge which then joined Siberia to Alaska. (Marr outlined this journey in his film, which makes his equating the Ayoreo with our ancestors even more problematic.) To reach that most easterly Asian point, the ancestors of the Ayoreo would have had to occupy at one time or another pretty much every possible environment known on Earth, barren deserts and lush tropics, steaming lowlands and high, cold plateaus and mountains. In each, they would have had to adapt, inventing and developing new ways of securing food and shelter: the knowledge and technologies which enable human beings to flourish on a tropical coast are of little use in Mongolian steppes or Siberian forests.

Each of these different ways of life would obviously take time and ingenuity to flower. It is unlikely, to say the least, that they were all inherent in man’s knowledge sixty thousand years ago in Africa. Insert a tribe of tropical forest hunters today into the middle of Siberia, and without expert local advice they would probably not survive for long.

The forty-five thousand years between leaving Africa and arriving in Alaska rolled by at the same pace for everyone. Many tribes would have died out or were killed, some probably interbred with other human species,21 and doubtless learned new things from them – perhaps about hunting. But why believe anyone who survived was ‘left behind’ by the development of anyone else?

In reality, African, Asian, Australasian, and then American and Pacific, tribes invented and developed techniques, artefacts, foods and medicines – and ways of managing both the environment and their relationships with each other – which would astonish Europeans when they came across them in the colonial era, at least as much as ‘the natives’ were themselves intrigued by the Europeans. The early quote from Columbus about the Caribbean Indians, ‘There is no better people… in the world,’ is usually masked by the genocide which followed.

It also goes largely unrecognised that several aspects of tribal life – particularly foodstuffs and medicines – were enthusiastically adopted by the colonists, and still figure large in all our lives today. For example, most of the world’s food intake now comes from only five staple crops: three were developed by American Indians – corn, potatoes and manioc/cassava. Unknown outside the Americas until the sixteenth century, but able to thrive easily in many different environments all over the world, they have sustained countless millions of lives.

Before these wondrous inventions, before the ancestors of the Ayoreo had even set foot in the Americas, they had already enjoyed myriad lifestyles in hundreds of different environments, across thousands of miles of migration and over tens of thousands of years. This pattern increased in complexity after they crossed the Bering Strait and turned south.

At that time Alaska might have been relatively ice-free, though much of the northern hemisphere was still in the grip of the last glacial period and most of Canada, like Britain and northern Europe, was frozen solid. Hunting techniques have to be particularly skillful if they are to support human life in such an environment where plants are scarce. The Inuit, who entered Alaska some thousands of years after the earliest immigrants, invented their own special technology to adapt to this, with their dog sleigh, special toggling harpoon, skin-covered kayak, and the famous snow house. It worked brilliantly, and that part of the world remains home for them, though it is still viewed as hostile by everyone else.

It seems certain that the Ayoreo’s ancestors, together with those of most American Indians, came through Alaska thousands of years before the Inuit. As they moved south through Canada and the United States into ever-warmer climes, they came up with new ways to ease their life in the forests, plains, marshes and swamps, mountains and deserts. Some tribes became predominantly farmers, others grew a few crops, and supplemented them with hunting, others were largely hunters or fisherfolk. Some formed sizeable, permanent townships, others lived in seasonal camps, still others rejected settlement altogether and lived in temporary shelters in small bands, moving on every few days.

Some hunters became farmers, as was the case in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, but others may have inverted this. They certainly did later on, when formerly settled farmers developed into mobile, horse-borne hunters as they moved from one part of North America to another. ‘Progress’ for such folk meant less, not more, agriculture. In some environments, entirely different ways of life happily coexisted, and in others there was doubtless conflict. In spite of what some overly determinist writers22 believe, whether a tribe was, or is, mobile or settled, and the kind of technology it embraces, is not just dictated by the environment, climate and necessity: surely another important factor is simply preference, and the freedom to choose.

This stark fact is easily illustrated because it remains the case in many parts of the world, including our own. Compare manic Oxford Street shoppers to the isolated nuns of the Tyburn Convent less than five minutes walk away in London, or the growing Amish communities in the eastern USA: both reject most recent inventions despite living in the world’s most hi-tech regions. This terrific force of preference and choice surely, by itself, calls into question the eurocentric ‘great leap forward’ theory centred on the development of Mesopotamian farming (which the BBC film eggs up particularly comically, showing a single woman tending a single plant and being amazed at its miraculous growth – it is pure Monty Python).23

Today’s nomadic herders live alongside settled farmers, and nomadic hunters still share their forests and plains with those who prefer fixed housing. All of them know how to build houses and could easily live in settled communities if they wished. The fact that their numbers are dwindling has very little to do with ‘progress’ or ‘development’, but is almost entirely a result of being forced off their land, usually violently.24

But let us return to tracing the history of the Ayoreo’s ancestors. Within a few thousand years, all the Americas had been colonized. The southern continent’s coastal deserts, mountains, plains, frozen steppes, and of course the world’s greatest tropical rainforest, Amazonia, were all inhabited by Indians around the same time as our species first followed the glaciers receding from northern Europe.

In South America, it might easily have been the direct ancestors of the Ayoreo who first came across the hot scrublands where the tribe still lives. Of all humankind, only those Indigenous peoples further south – mostly now made extinct by Europeans – had travelled farther from their African starting point, experiencing even more environments on their way. But even if the Ayoreo were the first in their thorn forests (where the environment might not have been what it is now, of course), that is not to say they never moved again. Some of their Guarani neighbours were known to walk many hundreds of miles and back, searching not for any better environment in an economic sense, but in response to their beliefs and religion. Other tribes are also known to have gone on extremely long migrations in recent centuries, criss-crossing the continent.

The Ayoreo and their ancestors were far from bypassed by history. They must have lived though, and then forgotten, literally hundreds of different lifestyles before arriving in their Chaco homeland. Like the ancestors of all American Indians, they are quite likely to have once fished in Arabia, trapped foxes in Siberia, caught salmon in the Rockies, scavenged for beached whales in California, grown corn in Mexico, gone crabbing on Caribbean sands, and all this before they had even discovered South America.

At the same time, it is true that there are still uncontacted Ayoreo today. They have evaded any peaceful contact with non-Indians for at least a few generations, probably much longer, and possibly since Europeans first turned up five centuries ago. We know a good deal about them because most of the tribe has been missionized (which I will come to) and can tell us exactly how they live. Unlike some South American Indians, they do not use canoes. They do build small communal houses which last up to a year; each accommodates a handful of families, but they do not really live in them much. They prefer cooking and even sleeping en plein air.

They keep several vegetable gardens where they grow different kinds of squashes, beans, corn, melons, tobacco, and so forth. The dry climate means that many plots fail, so they tend separate ones in different places in order to catch whatever localised rainfall there is. They classify different zones of their territory through careful observation of the soil, vegetation and animals, and vary how they use each to prevent over-exploitation.25 They especially prize the plentiful wild honey.

Like almost all South American Indians they will not touch scavenged meat from game they have not killed themselves. Their hunting is extensive: wild pig, anteater, deer and armadillo are taken with spear, tortoises are caught or dug from their burrows. This does not necessarily mean randomly wandering to see what they might happen across: for example, they know exactly the ranges of specific herds of peccary, and when they fancy pork on the menu they go there to track them down and make a kill. In a sense, they ‘manage’ the pigs in a way not all that differently to the way a herdsman does – keeping tabs on, and exploiting them when needed.

The Ayoreo are split into different groups, each defined by rules concerning marriage partners, and even by dietary restrictions, with some foods permanently off-limits to specific clans. Some eat fish and eels, easy to catch when waterholes shrink in the dry seasons, others never touch them. Their beliefs lead them to seasonal, but extensive, feasting, partying and communal ritual which, as with the clan distinctions, they themselves consider one of the most important aspects of their lives. The rainy season, first announced by the rapid-fire call of a nightjar, is looked forward to with particular eagerness as it unleashes a long cycle of festivities and socialising.26

Like all societies, the Ayoreo have a complex lifestyle, and (as with all social science and history) trying to sketch it in a few paragraphs (or books!) can never be other than simplification. The pertinent question is: what opinion about them is the viewer or reader led to, what is emphasized, what omitted, and what is just plain wrong?

Just how much of Ayoreo lifestyle do these Indians share with humans from sixty thousand years ago? I accept that this is not helpful for writers and broadcasters bent on imposing their, easily accessible but indefensible, narrative on real history, but the answer is not what Andrew Marr’s film would have us believe, it is rather that we have absolutely no idea27 – bar the blindingly obvious: that is they ate meats and veggies which they looked for themselves, they argued, they had children in the usual way, they cared for them, and so on.

The Chaco, like the Arctic of the Inuit in the far north, has long been seen by outsiders as uncomfortable and hostile, even ‘uninhabitable’, but it is the Ayoreo’s home. If they had wanted to live elsewhere, they could have done so. They live well and enjoy life as much as anyone. Or at least they did so until others began to steal their territory, and that is the problem.

Outsiders have long wanted to force all Chaco Indians into settlements. The Jesuits and the state were once the principal culprits; they were followed by the evangelical and extremist New Tribes Mission from the United States. Until a few years ago, it encouraged Indians to ‘attract’ their uncontacted relatives and ‘bring them in’.28 Some were killed in these expeditions, and many more succumbed when they were reduced to a state of dependence on the missionaries and nearby ranchers.

Ayoreo land is growing in value to outsiders because road-building means it can increasingly support some ranching. One of the main invaders now is a company largely owned by international construction giant, Grupo Sanjose, headquartered in Madrid.

Those Indians who are still successfully escaping contact have been running from the bulldozers for decades. The BBC film pretends a 1998 meeting between a family of previously uncontacted Ayoreo and a Paraguayan settler was ‘a chance encounter’. In fact, it was nothing of the sort: the Indians had been hounded for years and had simply, finally, given up.

The film claims the Ayoreo and the ‘twentieth century’ (by which it really means ‘industrialized society’)29 occupy two worlds which Marr claims are ‘completely divided by history’. This is not the case: outsiders have been the bane of the Ayoreo for years. In their striving to avoid them, the uncontacted Indians have developed their own stories and explanations about these invaders and thieves, and their bulldozing killing machines. These Indians are still uncontacted because they are still hiding, still evading capture and the serious risks to life it brings.

This has been going on for so long that it is impossible to know how much of their way of life now predates their evasion strategy, or is a response to it. Are their houses small partly to try and escape detection? Do they possess only what they can carry so they are able to run away faster?

We do now know that some nomadic Amazonian tribes, once thought to be entirely hunter-gatherers, actually keep garden plots scattered around the forest, and they have origin myths for the most important crops just as their more settled Indian neighbours do. Perhaps they once grew them more extensively, who knows?

Theirs might not always be an entirely free choice. Their lifestyle might, and I stress might, have become more nomadic over recent centuries in response to hostile incursions into their territory.

The real problem with the BBC’s treatment of the Ayoreo – apart from being factually wrong – is of course that it reinforces the prejudice that they are ‘backward’. What else might ‘living like our ancestors’ mean? The programme blindly repeats the creed which, as I say, not only underpinned the colonial theft of tribal lands all over the world, but is still trotted out by companies which seek to finish the job, always pretending to help the locals – and always stealing their resources, and reducing their former self-sufficiency to abject penury.

Both the Ayoreo and our sixty thousand year-old ancestors collect or collected wild foods (like a significant number of Italians today in mushroom season!), and the Ayoreo hunt and cultivate a variety of crops. But did our mutual ancestors really hunt (or grow crops) in ‘much the same’ way? Even if early societies were predominantly hunters for their meat, rather than scavengers, it still does not justify the comparison (and it is worth noting in passing that plenty of Americans and Europeans hunt for the pot today; some live from it).

I will not dwell much on the film’s endorsement of other – equally colonialist – views of human development, which put ‘us’ as the prehistoric world’s leaders: this includes its description of the Mesopotamian development of wheat as ‘the one thing that has changed Earth more than any other.’ (What about the ability to make fire, or the invention of gunpowder?) In case we had missed the point, this is stressed as a ‘crucial moment’, a ‘breakthrough that everything follows’.

In reality, this so-called ‘discovery of agriculture’, which is usually placed around thirteen thousand years ago, is increasingly questioned by some scholars, and not only because people in other continents also grew crops independently, or because others have been changing their environments, domesticating animals, and carrying plants far from their place of origin for tens of thousands of years.

Recent discoveries are even calling into question the ‘hallowed’ Mesopotamian ‘discovery’ of turning grass into human food, such as barley or wheat. Grinding stones, apparently used to make flour from other grasses, have been found in Italy and Russia, and they date to far earlier – no less than thirty thousand years ago. Our ideas about Mesopotamian innovation may be massively overstated.30

Other dubious assertions about our ancestors litter the film. Marr does accept that they were ‘fully developed modern humans, just like us’, but claims: they were ‘driven by food, water, shelter’; that life, ‘was an endless trek after game and fruit and seeds’; that ‘Africa nourished us, but she was always difficult and always dangerous’ (at least the phrase ‘dark continent’ did not slip in), and so on. These may serve the BBC’s desire to make it all as dramatic as possible, but they are surmises based on nothing more than guesswork, this time about our ancestors rather than today’s tribes. There are plenty of peoples living today in places ‘we’ find ‘uninhabitable’ (which is why we have not occupied them – yet); none seem to live in endless struggle with the environment.

The film also carries more subtle messages inferring that industrialized ‘civilization’ is the natural, even pre-ordained, outcome of a series of characteristics and discoveries, rather than just one of many ways of doing things, albeit the one which has taken over. For example, we are told that societies ‘without bosses… always fall apart very quickly’.31 This is simply not so: in reality most nomadic hunting peoples today have no real leaders, as well as social mechanisms to stop any emerging. But might they once have had chiefs, and then abandoned the practice? We will never know.

Interestingly, this is one aspect in which ‘we’ industrialized societies may resemble our very distant ancestors more than hunter-gatherers do. Most apes live in hierarchical societies where dominant males accrue power (and more females), and behave very differently to the egalitarianism of hunter-gatherers. (Though of course we do not know how hierarchical our ape ancestors of millions of years ago were, because that species no longer exists.)

Overall, the film’s message is really not that far from the colonial ‘God-ordained’ nature of European ‘civilization’, used to justify its imposition on the world. It is an old doctrine which is, and deserves to be, thoroughly discredited in the twenty-first century.

Of course, the BBC might retort that the film is mere television, which has long abandoned any serious educational role. The criticism I express here will be described as overly ‘politically correct’; doubtless I will be admonished to ‘lighten up’, but these are serious issues about the survival or extinction of whole peoples, and about our view of ourselves. And if the script is intended as just background noise to add drama to the footage, the ‘re-enactments’ are often worse, not to say laughable.32

But the defense that the film is entertainment which is not to be taken seriously just will not wash. It is presented and written by a top, award-winning, serious political journalist of considerable pedigree. It is also co-produced by the UK’s Open University. Does that institution really think this is what we should now be teaching as the history of human development? The Ayoreo have not been bypassed by sixty thousand years of history, but the Open University appears to have skipped over a century in its promotion of such seriously out-of-date, as well as highly toxic, ideas.

Our ancestors cannot comment on History of the World and nor can the Ayoreo couple whose 1998 meeting with a colonist was reenacted in the film – unsurprisingly they died following contact. However, other Ayoreo can make their feelings known, and they have.

They assert, ‘Some cojñone (‘white’, literally ‘strange’, people) say that we and our relatives still in the forest live in the past… that we’re backward… We Ayoreo-Totobiegosode live as we choose to live. Our culture has its own path. Those of us who know the cojñone know how they live, and what they consider ‘progress’. You cannot force those of us who are still in the forest to give up living as they wish to. We will continue living as Ayoreo… We exist as Ayoreo, just as the cojñone exist… We live as Ayoreo in the forest which feeds us, we don’t have to go to the city where food is very expensive.’33

Were they in Britain, they might consider suing the BBC for an apology. That would be an encounter of ‘two worlds’ well worth watching.



Correspondence with the BBC

I put an outline of these arguments to Andrew Marr on 28 September 2012 in the hope of achieving a more accurate portrayal in the final of the eight films in the series, which had yet to be broadcast, and which I understood would return to the Ayoreo theme. This hope proved fruitless for the films, but in the book of the series, there is no mention of the Ayoreo at all. I wrote from Survival International:

‘We were dismayed by the opening sequence of the first episode of your History of the World, and I’m writing in the hope that you can ensure episode eight does not feature the same mistakes…

The voiceover referred to the Ayoreo as ‘leading much the same hunter gatherer lifestyle as the very first humans on earth.’ In fact, Ayoreo way of life and culture, like that of all peoples everywhere, has been continually adapting and evolving. It is easy to prove this, as their own ancestors traveled from Africa, through Asia and Siberia, and then moved south through North America, Central America and most of South America… they would have lived in more or less all the temperatures and environments possible, and adapted accordingly… but their hunting technology could not possibly have been the same as it is now in the scrub forest.

Leaving Ayoreo history aside, no one knows how the ‘first humans on earth’ lived in Africa. They would certainly have eaten wild berries, fruits and so on, as apes do, but if they ate a lot of meat it might have been procured as much, or more, by scavenging. So, we cannot even assert with any authority that the ‘first humans’ were ‘hunters’.

Obviously, the TV film must use a certain shorthand, but the danger in comparing Ayoreo lifestyle with that of the first humans is, we hope, obvious. It strongly suggests that the Ayoreo themselves are like the first humans, and consequently further behind on the evolutionary chain, ‘backward’, ‘primitive’, and so on. This is still the imperialist prejudice used to justify much of the destruction of contemporary tribal peoples by the states they now find themselves in (qv. Botswana, Ethiopia etc). For a flagship BBC series to perpetuate it in 2012 is surely not acceptable.

The narration went on to say, ‘In June 1998 they came face to face with the 20th Century’. This particular mistake is all the more egregious given that it comes very soon after the BBC updated its editorial guidelines on the ‘reporting and portrayal of tribal peoples’. I quote from the new guidance: ‘Care is also needed to avoid confusing a people that are not industrialised with one that is not part of the modern world or 21st century.’

The narration also described Parojnai and Ibore’s encounter with the bulldozer driver in 1998 as ‘a chance encounter between two worlds’. Sadly, their encounter had absolutely nothing to do with chance. Parojnai and his family had been cornered in an ever-smaller fragment of forest by the rampant, illegal deforestation that was and is occurring in the Paraguayan Chaco. Their lives in the forest had become completely impossible… To portray this meeting as due to ‘chance’ is seriously to misrepresent their plight at that time – and also to excuse the fact that this plight was solely due to the criminal failure of Paraguay’s government to uphold its own laws relating to the recognition and protection of tribal territories. This failure, of course, continues today, and continues to have tragic consequences for Parojnai and Ibore’s relatives.

As your team got the account of Parojnai and Ibore’s first contact from [Survival International], and as neither of them are now alive to make their own case, we feel a particular responsibility to speak up for them, and to ensure that the tragic facts of their story are not misrepresented. We hope that if the Ayoreo’s story is explored further in episode eight, these mistakes can be avoided, and their story represented fairly.

The executive producer of the series, Chris Granlund, replied on 5 October 2012:

‘A degree of compression is indeed necessary in making television films and this is particularly acute in an opening sequence of a series like this. But it certainly wasn’t our intention to mislead the viewer. We didn’t suggest that the Ayoreo were less evolved than the rest of humanity. In fact the film makes it very clear that the humans who left Africa around 70,000 years ago were ‘fully evolved modern humans just like us’. We do say that the Ayoreo lifestyle is ‘much the same’ as the first hunter-gatherers; this seems to be an accurate representation that doesn’t preclude variations in their hunting technology or cultural evolution over thousands of years. In the opening ‘out of Africa’ sequence the film also explains: ‘These people are fully-developed modern humans just like us – Homo sapiens – it means ‘wise man’. As hunter-gatherers we were driven by familiar basic needs: food, water, shelter. And for over a hundred thousand years we’d been changing, adapting and struggling to survive.’

So the film is very clear that all modern humans going back over 70,000 years (including the Ayoreo) are at the same stage of evolution. Far from promoting ‘imperialist prejudice’, the programme aims to emphasise the shared humanity of the people in the encounter: ‘This was a chance encounter between two worlds, both equally human but completely divided by history.’

Our use of the words ‘chance encounter’ was intended to suggest that this type of direct contact is often sudden and unexpected. And the threat of the loggers – the fact that it is they who are intruding on the Ayoreo – is clear even in this short sequence. A survey series like this is unable to explain the illegality of the Paraguayan government’s logging policy. But we make no suggestion in either episode one or eight that the destruction of the environment is in any way justified by the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the Ayoreo.

The line: ‘In June 1998 they came face to face with the 20th century’ is a shorthand for ‘came face to face with the technology of the 20th century’ – the images of the bulldozer should make this clear. But again the film leaves the viewer in no doubt that the Ayoreo and the loggers are part of the same human world – divided only by the different historic course of their cultural development.’


1 The first film is entitled, ‘Survival’. The opening few seconds are also used to introduce the trailer for the series. See

2 Racism which its advocates asserted had been scientifically proven began later, in the second half of the nineteenth century. American and other ‘scientific racists’ decided that a particular ‘race’ of whites, the northern Europeans (‘Aryans’, ‘Nordics’, ‘Teutons’), were the most superior of all.

3 Marr suggests that the date of the successful African ‘exodus’ was seventy thousand years ago, but here I use sixty thousand to bring it in line with the guess of key experts and because it is the date I use elsewhere. Obviously, the precise time can never be known.

4 They also include complex ‘recurve’ weapons made of a mix of materials, including wood, horn, and sinew, which can greatly increase the power of the arrow.

5 There are clear prehistoric rock art depictions of bow hunts, but only from a few thousand years ago, for example, at Valltorta Ravine in eastern Spain.

6 I look at the sophistication of modern hunting techniques in more detail elsewhere (S Corry, Tribal peoples for tomorrow’s world, Freeman Press, Alcester, 2011, pp. 48-55). One example is how dogs and hawks are trained to help: indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more sophisticated way to hunt rabbit or small deer in the open steppes, where game can escape an approaching man long before he is in bow (or shotgun) range.

7 There is evidence of shellfish exploitation by Homo sapiens from one hundred and sixty thousand years ago.

8 Recent studies suggest, for example, that food from the sea, rivers and lakes might, at one period at least, have featured more in Homo sapiens’s diet than in that of Neanderthals. See, e.g. C Stringer The Origin of our Species, Allen Lane, London, 2011, p 74.

9 The use of coloured pigments, which may have been used for body paint, seems very ancient, with the earliest finds dated to around two hundred and sixty thousand years ago. Decorative shell beads also crop up at an early date, starting around one hundred thousand years ago. However, neither of these necessarily point to anything other than simple embellishment. Burials incorporating something in addition to a body are also fairly common, starting from around one hundred and fifteen thousand years ago (In Israel, where a man was interred with a boar’s jawbone. See, e.g. Stringer, op. cit., p 126.) and may well give pointers to ideas about experience beyond death.

10 Those found span tens of thousands of years, starting around forty thousand years ago in Europe, and possibly earlier in Australia, but in any case much more recently that the time Marr is referring to. They rank among the world’s greatest art. The rock paintings and carvings mainly show large mammals – for those in Europe, these are horse, bison, mammoth, rhino, wild ox, and so forth – and geometric patterns, handprints, and a few depictions of people. Variations are found in all continents. The far fewer statuettes found are mainly of women (often with hairdos but little or no face) and animals. In spite of the most intense study and theorizing over generations, we do not know what they mean. We might guess that the mammals depicted are game animals, but even that is questionable. Most of the bones found in the famous Lascaux caves of France are reindeer, but the paintings mostly show horses: not a single depiction of reindeer has been found among the two thousand images. A deer antler with a picture of an ibex was found at the Duruthy rockshelter in France, but no ibex bones have been found there.

11 The finds are from Border Cave, South Africa.

12 Identifiable spear-throwers have not been found older than some twenty thousand years.

13 Though it is likely that those of us who are not African may count a few Neanderthals amongst our ancestors.

14 Lions, for example, tend to prey largely on weaker herd animals, the old or young. Finds of the remains of butchered animals where there is a preponderance of healthy adult game might therefore indicate these were not scavenged from lion kills. Herds could have been ambushed by hunters lying in wait, for example hiding in trees.

15 There seems better evidence for fire being used from about eighty thousand years ago. Much later, Neanderthals in southern Europe may at one stage have used fire to open shellfish, whilst still apparently eating most meat raw. See, e.g. Stringer, op. cit., p 140.

16 See, e.g. Stringer, op.cit., p 145.

17 This is of course not the same thing as claiming, as some now do, that prehistoric peoples spent most of their time at war.

18 School textbooks routinely equate the way of life of contemporary tribal peoples with those of ‘our’ ancestors. For example, UK school history textbook, Medicine & Health through Time (by Dawson & Coulson, Hodder Murray, London, 1996, p 11) asks, ‘Does anyone today still live in the same way that their prehistoric ancestors did? It sounds unlikely, but in parts of Australia there are Aborigines whose beliefs and way of life have not changed for centuries.’ The book does not explain how anyone knows what Aboriginal beliefs were centuries ago, but the writer is clearly aware of the implications of the statement because she or he continues, ‘This might sound like an insult, but it isn’t.’

19 Fish hooks, and an engraving of a fish caught on hook and line, found in the Courbet Cave in southern France probably date to thirteen or fourteen thousand years ago.

20 The extraordinary size of bison herds in North America’s Great Plains is well known. Also, impressive accounts of the proliferation of game in Ohlone country, in today’s San Francisco, can be found in M Margolis, The Ohlone Way, Heyday, Berkeley, 1978.

21 Although, for example, the recent discovery of Neanderthal DNA in (apparently) all non-Africans is now well known and points to our species having children with some of them, it is also possible that some of this DNA is simply derived from the common ancestor of both Neanderthals and us.

22 Eg. Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, Napoleon Chagnon.

23 See

24 Thomas & Janet Headland, of SIL International, have shown how, in the Philippines, the local farming population stops Agta hunter-gatherers becoming independent farmers in order to force them into serfdom. The Aurora Pacific Ecozone & Freeport Authority, is now trying to take over Agta land and forbids their hunting. In common with all destructive ‘development’ these days, it claims to be ‘green’ and ‘eco-friendly’. See

25 Lucas Bessire, personal information, 2012.

26 Jonathan Mazower, personal information, 2012.

27 The British Naturism organization criticized the Marr films in 2012 for putting into clothes the actors portraying historical ‘reconstructions’ when the people would actually have worn little or nothing. This includes the Ayoreo: uncontacted Ayoreo women go bare-breasted, whereas the actors in the reconstructions were covered. The BBC accepted there were ‘compromises in accuracy’ but said it did this ‘to take into account the sensitivities of the widest possible world audience’. Ayoreo sensitivities, about supposedly living ‘much like’ sixty thousand year-old people, seem to have been excluded from the BBC’s concerns. See

28 An extraordinary tape recording of the moment of one such contact, which ended in Indians being killed, can be heard at

29 The BBC’s own guidelines are very good in this respect and stress, ‘Care is also needed to avoid confusing a people that are not industrialised with one that is not part of the modern world or 21st century.’ The Marr film clearly breaches them. See

30 See

31 Andrew Marr’s views on the desirability of strong state control, as well as on ‘nature’ and ‘progress’, were clearly expressed in an article (ironically, opposing racism) for The Guardian newspaper (28 February 1999). He described racism in these terms, ‘It’s nasty and it’s natural which is why I am, on the whole, against too much nature. ‘Natural harmony’, accurately investigated, means a bloody and unstable cycle of massacre and extermination. Though human experience happens inside nature, human progress also depends on surmounting it… And the final answer [to racism], frankly, is the vigorous use of state power to coerce and repress. It may be my Presbyterian background, but I firmly believe that repression can be a great, civilising instrument for good. Stamp hard on certain ‘natural’ beliefs for long enough and you can almost kill them off. The police are first in line to be burdened further, but a new [anti-racist law] will impose the will of the state on millions of other lives too… So it should.’

32 They include a bizarre Tolkienesque crawling across a rock bridge, clearly intended to represent our ancestors’ daring escape from ‘always dangerous’ Africa.

33 Personal communication, Porai Picanerai, president, Organización Payipie Ichadie Totobiegosode, Paraguay, 2012.