Stabroek News — History This Week Article

A Struggle on Two Fronts: Against Imperialists, and Against Reactionaries

By Dr. Christopher Carrico
The quote ‘History is written by the victors’ is normally ascribed to Winston Churchill.  Even without the fact that Churchill is a person to whom a great deal of apocrypha has been attributed, he clearly was not the first person to conceive of this idea.

Walter Benjamin, a far lesser known figure than Churchill, also addressed the question of how the victorious write history:  in his essay ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History.’  This dark essay, though one ultimately filled with faith and hope, was completed in the spring of 1940.  Later in the same year, Benjamin was arrested by Spanish authorities while trying to flee Europe and Nazi persecution.  Benjamin fully expected to be handed over to the German authorities and sent to the Nazi concentration camps.  Instead of facing these horrors, he chose to commit suicide by overdosing on morphine.

About history, Walter Benjamin wrote ‘in every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.’  The only historians capable of inspiring hope are those who are ‘firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.  And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.’

The cultural histories of peoples who have been conquered become part of the spoils of the victors.  Even in developing countries that celebrate their multiculturalism, there is the risk that official state-sponsored observances like Amerindian Heritage Month or Emancipation Day will become another way that those who have ‘won’ in these societies appropriate the culture of national minorities as part of the spoils of their victory.  The bigger portions of these spoils, however, are collected in the museums and archives of Europe and America; in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.; they were in the World’s Fairs in London and in the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries, where ‘savages’ and ‘barbarians’ were brought from around the world and placed on view before the ‘civilised’ to show the inevitable linear progression of history towards its teleological end: Western civilisation.  Documentation of the civilising mission of the West is always also a documentation of the barbarism that the West has carried out.

It is in this sense – the Janus-faced nature of imperial power (where they write history as if they were the rest of the world’s saviours) – that the critics of ‘human rights imperialism’ in fact have a valid point about how the notion of rights functions in the world today.  Human rights organisations as they actually exist can sometimes be the 20th and 21st century equivalents of the Christian missions of the colonial era.  Whatever the individual intentions of the missionaries, or of the human rights activists, their ideas help to form part of the justification for imperialism.  Because feudalism, despotism, ignorance, and social backwardness exist in the world, the ‘enlightened’ West has a duty to civilise the rest.  The West is called to carry, in Rudyard Kipling’s words, ‘The White Man’s Burden.’

There is an element of the appeal to human rights in every American imperial intervention of recent times.  In the Iraq War, even after the world learned that Iraqis did not have weapons of mass destruction, the war was still justifiable on the grounds that Saddam Hussein was a dictator, and a gross violator of human rights.

In Afghanistan, the war is said to not just be about the ‘hunt for al Qaeda’ but also to be about the freedom of the people of Afghanistan.  In particular, in fighting a war in Afghanistan, the US claims to be fighting against extreme forms of gender oppression, and other forms of cultural tyranny, not just against the Taliban.

The case against Iran has being built for years.  The high profile sentencing of Sakine Mohammadi Ashtiana to be stoned to death for adultery will no doubt be used by imperialists as another reason why sanctions against (and possibly even an invasion of) Iran is the right thing for the ‘civilised’ world to do.  The fact that in Iran, homosexuality is punishable by the death penalty will, no doubt, also be invoked as a justification.

The Cold War was full of instances that are similar to the ‘War on Terror’ in their ideological use.  The terror and repression of socialist states was used as justification for taking preemptive action against left-leaning governments in the name of stopping the spread of communism.

The logic of the Cold War never totally went away, as we can clearly see in Latin American and the Caribbean.  American-Cuban relations have still not been normalized; Hugo Chavez is presented in the American media as the South American equivalent of Saddam Hussein.  The Chavez government was so harassed by human rights imperialism that they expelled foreign human rights groups from the country.  Even Aristide was vilified as a human rights violator whenever he became inconvenient for the Bush administration in Washington to keep in power.

In addition to the fact that the human rights agenda always presents the danger of being hijacked as a justification for war and imperialism, there are other problems.  The agendas of international agencies are not always what seem best from the point of view of local organisations.  The funding streams that keep NGOs running severely limit what kinds of actions can be done to address problems in local settings.  Organisations from the developing world often have a lack of autonomy to set their own agendas, and when they have fought for the space to set their own agendas, foreign organisations often take credit for the progress that has been made by action that came from the grassroots.

Organisations that are attempting to fight social problems in the developing world are going to need to develop more strategies that help them to move past the trap of the liberal democratic – human rights based paradigm.  Real social movements are going to need to forcefully assert themselves again from the grassroots up, from the most marginalised and dispossessed, and not from NGOs who have lost the ability to be ‘movements’ because they are just a string of foreign-funded projects.

More activists around the world will have to recognise that taking your case to the UN in Geneva, or to the OAS, or to Copenhagen, may not be the most effective use of your time, energy and resources in creating real social change in your communities right now.  Liberal human rights strategies, legalistic reforms, lawsuits against the government, etc. can be one part of an effective struggle for social change, but used alone, without the support of a broad-based movement to push government and society for change from below, there will not be an effective ‘revolution from above’ coming from the UN or the OAS, or from individual nation-states like the U.S., the U.K., Canada, or Norway.

By taking the internationalist human rights paradigm as the default setting in the world of social activism, activists have already admitted defeat before they have begun the struggle.  They have done so by giving up the fight over local power and local conditions, by not taking seriously enough the power of their own nation-states, and the space of the nation-state as a site of struggle.  They have given up hope of substantially transforming their own societies and governments from within, and hope, in vain, that outside ‘pressure’ from international bodies is what will save them at the end of the day.

Finally, an appeal to the liberal human rights paradigm requires that those who seek redress in this manner perpetuate their identities as victims instead of taking concrete steps to empower themselves in practical ways in the local and the national context.

In the end, the issue at stake in the absolute hegemony of a single model of how to achieve human justice in the world has less to do with the universality of liberal democratic values, and has more to do with the failure of earlier projects of liberation to be successfully carried out.  If national liberation struggles, the struggle for socialist construction, or the struggles for co-operative or communist societies had been successful, then appealing to the international bodies that are designed around the Washington Consensus model of liberty and formal equality would not seem like the only option that activists have when entering a struggle to end inequality and to expand the space for human freedom in the world.

What are we left with?  A struggle on two fronts.  First, a struggle against reactionaries: people who defend their power and privilege as a part of their culture and customary rights, people who condone or look the other way at violence against the vulnerable, people who explain away and rationalise extra-judicial killings, people who assert things like ‘homosexuals ought to be beheaded.’  But there is also a struggle on a second front that needs to be fought: a struggle against international capitalists who are glad to have those reactionaries around, because they give them the excuse to do everything possible to undermine any kind of autonomy that might be possible at the local or national level.


Stabroek News ‘History This Week’ Article

‘Western Cultural Imperialism in Neo-colonial Societies’

8 July, 2010

From the point of view of history and anthropology, there are many sad ironies in the current debates in Guyana and in many other formerly colonial societies over cultural relativism versus notions of universal human rights.  Cultural relativism, a concept that emerged from anthropology during the early twentieth century, was an idea that was meant to counteract the racist ideas about cultural evolution that formed the dominant European worldview of the time.  In a cynical inversion of the spirit of this idea, cultural relativism is today invoked to defend oppressive cultural institutions, and to suppress struggles for freedom.  One of the great ironies is that traditions that were imposed upon non-European societies through the violent process of colonialism are today thought of in neo-colonial societies as ‘traditional values’ to be defended against the onslaught of Western ‘cultural imperialism.’  Current debates surrounding gender roles and sexual orientation provide us with clear examples of these processes.

Throughout the colonial era, Western European Christendom propagated its strongly held beliefs about the naturalness of a particular kind of patriarchal family structure.  These beliefs included ideas about the moral superiority of their culturally specific forms of marriage, about the inferiority of women to men, and about the right and necessity of the use of physical violence in the discipline of children.  Western European Christendom also propagated its particular beliefs about the nature of sexual morality – what kinds of behaviours were moral and what kinds of behaviours were sinful.

The culturally specific ideas about marriage and sexuality that European colonizing societies considered to be universal were frequently at odds with the values of the societies that Europeans subjected to colonialism.  Male dominance in gender relations, for example, was a cultural characteristic that was absent in many parts of the world, such as in hunting and gathering societies and many other non-state based societies in the Americas, in Australia, in the Pacific Islands, in some parts of Africa and Asia, etc.  The idea that parents have an absolute authority over their children was also an alien notion to many societies, as can still be sometimes witnessed in Guyana’s Amerindian communities where youth were often allowed remarkable autonomy in deciding how to conduct their lives on a day-to-day basis.

European ideas about sexual morality were also quite at odds with the beliefs held in the societies that they colonized.  The incredible diversity that is found in human culture regarding ideas about sexual morality is a phenomenon that appalled and frustrated European Christian missionaries as they attempted, against all odds, to make universal ideas about sexual morality that emerged out of specific historical and cultural conditions that were neither universal nor timeless and unchanging.

Even the most superficial examination of the institution of marriage shows us how misguided European Christians were about the universality of their ideas.  Most people are familiar with the fact that there are many societies that allowed the practice of polygyny (a man having multiple wives) and that this was a practice that was of particular concern to missionaries in many parts of the world.  What fewer people are aware of is the fact that polyandry (a woman having multiple husbands) was also a reality – one that was more deeply disturbing to European Christians than polygyny.  Tibet, Nepal, India and Sri Lanka are places where institutions of polyandry have been well documented ethnographically.  The large and powerful Nair (or Nayar) caste of India’s Malabar Coast, for instance, had families that were matrilineal (one’s name, property, and lineage were only inherited through the female line) and women had multiple husbands.  Polyandry was noted by observers of indentured Indian labourers who were brought to British Guiana, particularly because of the high ratio of men to women in the population that was brought here as labourers.

The notion that marriage is universally a relationship between a man and a woman (or men and women) is also one that does not bear closer scrutiny.  Africa happens to be a continent where we find good ethnographic documentation of same-sex marriage.  In some parts of Africa, there are certain conditions under which it is considered acceptable for a woman to have a female ‘husband’.  Traditions of taking on female husbands have been found in West Africa, and there is indication that some of these traditions have survived in the African diaspora in the West Indies (in Suriname, for instance).  In the Sudan, as well, in the Nuer society, where wealth is normally inherited through a male lineage, a family with no sons may ask a daughter to take on the role of a son, take a bride, and be the inheritor of the wealth of the patrilineage.

In a number of Amerindian societies, in both North and South America, the berdache played a significant role.  The berdache was biologically male, but took on the mannerisms and behaviours, and did the work that was normally associated with women.  Often they married men, and carried out the tasks and played the roles normally associated with wives.  In some Amerindian societies, women also sometimes played the role of men.  Sometimes these were women who were adept at the tasks normally associated with men (such as hunting or warfare) and these women took other women as wives.

Other than within the context of marriage, male-male sexual relations play an important role in adult socialization in some societies.  This was clearly true from the historical evidence we have of ancient Greek and Roman societies, but these were by no means isolated or anomalous cultural examples.  Anthropologist Evans-Pritchard’s research among the Azande of the African Sudan showed that when young Azande warriors left their homes during adolescence, they shared residence and had sexual relations with adult male warriors who paid bridewealth for them, and were responsible for their initiation as warriors.  The normal progression of Azande male sexuality was from young male brides, to adult male warriors, to retired warriors who married women and fathered children.

In certain areas of Papua New Guinea, ritualized male homosexuality takes on the most ubiquitous form found in any societies.  Male homosexual relations are nearly universal in these societies, and male sexual relations with women come with an elaborate set of taboos, are considered to be particularly risky and dangerous, and are considered as a kind of  ‘necessary evil’ that is only appropriate for the purposes of biological reproduction.  What anthropologist Gilbert Herdt called ‘ritualized homosexuality’ has been found in around 50 tribes in Papua New Guinea.   In some of these groups, only oral sex is performed, with anal intercourse being considered unclean, while other of these societies have no taboo against anal sex.

Papua New Guinea gives us an example of same-sex sexuality where the characteristics of the opposite sex are not taken on by its participants.  But there are also examples of persons who are biologically of one sex taking on the characteristic of another sex, but do not engage in homosexual acts.  In India, there are examples of transvestitism (dressing in the clothes of and taking on the characteristics of the opposite sex) that are associated with celibacy rather than with homosexuality.  In some cases, men dedicate themselves to particular goddesses, dress themselves in women’s clothes, and take vows of celibacy for periods of time as performances of dedication to that goddess.  There are also men who are devotees of the god Krishna who ritually dress themselves in saris and pray to be reborn as one of Krishna’s wives.

When child abuse, homophobia, domestic violence, patriarchy within the family, etc. are declared to be ‘our values’ to be defended against the onslaught of ‘Western cultural imperialism’ in neo-colonial society, the great irony is that Western cultural imperialism has often been partially responsible in making these behaviours, springing from bigotry and chauvinism, into rampant problems in the first place.  None of these problems are exclusive to, or originate from, the Western European colonial traditions.  Patriarchy, and all of the violence against women and children that is used to keep it in place, certainly is much older than the European colonial era.  Many anthropologists have noted that the oppression of women seems to have emerged at the same time as, and to be a part of the same processes as, the rise of class stratified and state based societies.  This means that patriarchy is a problem that is several millennia old, and probably existed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, India and China before it was ever a problem in most of Europe.  But as I noted above, patriarchal institutions were by no means universal before the colonial era, and there were always spaces of resistance and alternative traditions even within societies where the dominant traditions were extremely patriarchal (as in many parts of India).

When oppression is defended as a part of tradition, those are traditions that need to be challenged.  Traditions are neither monolithic, nor all equally worth preserving, nor are they of some unchanging essence that defines what it means to be a member of a culture for all of time.  If anything, what seems to be part of the essence of what it means to be human is the desire for freedom and liberation.  We do not settle easily with institutions and conditions that oppress us, and the extent to which we resist being ruled by those conditions is the extent to which we have lived free (and therefore truly human) lives.

Stabroek News ‘History This Week’ Article

‘Race: The Colonizer’s Worldview’

17 June, 2010

History This Week – No.21/2010

By Dr. Christopher Carrico

We know that Guyana is a land of ‘six races’ – Amerindian, African, Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, and European.  These categories make cultural sense to Guyanese, but the idea that there are six distinct races of human beings in Guyana has no scientific grounding.

What anthropologist Audrey Smedley called the racial worldview is the notion that there are fixed, discrete biological races within the human species that are innately different and unequal in inheritable physical, mental, moral and behavioural terms.  Races seem ‘natural’ to those socialised to see them, but race has not been a part of human culture for most of our existence as a species.  Modern notions of race only emerged as a folk concept during the seventeenth century, and as a scientific concept during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  By the late twentieth century, the component parts of the racial worldview had been disproven by science, but the social and cultural reality of race persists long after it has been discredited as a biological concept.


The notion of the inheritability of unequal social status is an ancient one, but it is the justification of inequality with the idea of biological inheritability which makes the racial worldview unique.  Precursors to the racial worldview could be seen in Western Europe before the colonization of the Americas, but it was really the European colonization of the Americas, with its extermination and dispossession of Amerindians, and its enslavement of Africans, that made the ideological work of the racial worldview necessary.

All of the European colonial powers exhibited extreme forms of ethnocentrism during their conquest of the Americas.  The Spanish, for instance, spent considerable time debating whether Amerindians were even human.  Then, once their humanity was generally agreed upon, the Spanish continued to debate which Amerindians were savages and cannibals, and which were civilized.

It was, however, British colonists in the Americas that first fully developed a folk notion of race, as they sought to solve their labour problems in the Caribbean and in parts of North America, with the use of enslaved African labourers.  The British were neither the first to enslave Africans, nor the first to bring them to labour on plantations in the Americas, but they were the first to develop ideas about enslaved Africans that almost completely stripped them of their humanity.

Writing of seventeenth and eighteenth century British North America, historian Gary Nash wrote that there was ‘a psychological compulsion to dehumanize slaves by taking from them the rights that connoted their humanity.  It was far easier to rationalize the merciless exploitation of those who had been defined by law as something less than human’.  Similar processes were underway in the British Caribbean, and the work of Hilary Beckles and other Caribbean historians indicates that West Indian planters were a few decades ahead of their British North American counterparts in defining their black slaves as ‘less than human.’

Some scholars suggest that the reason the English developed the folk idea of race in its crudest form is that England was the first truly capitalist society.  On the one hand, capitalism’s search for ever greater profits demanded an ever greater exploitation of labour and theft of land and resources.  On the other hand, English society, at least from the seventeenth century onward, also developed an elaborate rhetoric of equality that contradicted the extremely unequal social conditions that it brought into existence.

Ellen Wood, in Empire of Capital writes:  ‘at a time when even ideologues of empire like John Locke were declaring that men were by nature free and equal, slaves had to be placed outside of the normal universe of natural freedom and equality to justify their permanent subordination.’  If a society can declare that ‘All Men are Created Equal’ and at the same time be based on slavery, then slaves, both men and women,  had to be categorized as less than human – somehow not quite “Men”.

In another irony, it is during the period that European historians refer to as ‘the Enlightenment’ that the folk concept of race came to be elevated to the status of high culture.   European scholars articulated a notion of race that was supposedly supported by the science of biology.  The dominant European notion of human descent prior to the Enlightenment came from the book of Genesis, and was based on a single origin of all humans from Adam and Eve.  The earliest scientific notions of race still adhered to this single-descent Biblical account, but argued that humans became differentiated due to the effects of different environments.  Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus (whose notions of genus and species remain central organizing concepts in biology to this day) classified the human species as having several varieties.  Among them were Americanus, Asiaticus, Africanus, and Europeanus – or Amerindians, East Asians, black Africans and white Europeans.  While all of these seem like natural categories to us today, Linnaeus also included ‘wild men’ homo ferus, and ‘monstrous’ races such as troglodytes, dwarves and pygmies – categories that do not seem as ‘scientific’ today as the other categories.

While the Enlightenment gave us the foundations of scientific racism, during the nineteenth century slavery increasingly came under attack by abolitionists, and in the Caribbean especially, was increasingly destabilized by slave resistance, uprisings and rebellions inspired by the successful revolution in Haiti.  In response to attacks on racial institutions, nineteenth century racists elaborated scientific racism in increasingly grotesque forms, a trend that continued even after the legal abolition of slavery in the U.S. and in European colonies.

Scientific racism reached its zenith in the Nazi German state, with its attempt to purify the ‘Aryan’ race.  All of the racist pseudo-science that developed during the prior centuries was applied with cold, technocratic efficiency during the genocide by the Nazi state of perhaps as many as 17 million ‘inferior’ people.  These included above all, Ashkenazi Jews, but also Slavs (mainly prisoners of war from Poland and Russia), Communists and their sympathizers, the Romani (Gypsies), and many others who were supposedly inferior in some biologically inheritable way: like homosexuals, drug addicts, the mentally retarded, the insane, and artists that created what the Nazi state considered to be ‘degenerate’ art.


During the last hundred years, a consensus emerged among human biologists that race is not a useful biological concept when applied to the human species.  Race in a biological sense refers to a population that is genetically distinct, and genetically isolated enough to remain distinct.  Nothing like race in this biological sense can be said to exist among modern humans.  Based on anatomy, physiology, and intelligence testing, scientists such as psychologist Alfred Binet and anthropologist Franz Boas began arguing over a hundred years ago that it is impossible to divide the human species into discrete, fixed races with distinct physical and/or mental characteristics.

In 1911, Boas outlined some ideas that later became axiomatic in anthropology.  (1) there are no ‘pure’ races, (2) races are not permanent and fixed, but rather always changing as a result of environment, mutation, and natural selection, (3) ‘the average differences in physical traits between races is small in contrast to the great overlapping of range and duplication of types among them’, (4) there is no evidence that any race is ‘incapable of participating in any culture or even of creating it’, (5) race, language and culture do not correspond to one another, (6) the supposed ‘primitiveness’ of some groups is not due to their racial inferiority, but rather is a result of their specific cultural histories.

During the years 1930-1950, population genetics became established as a science.  Some people initially believed that ‘races’ could be studied by an analysis of the frequencies of various genes in different populations.  The problem with this idea is that gene frequencies do not map very well onto traditionally defined ‘races.’  Furthermore, few genes map in the same way; the distribution of each gene is different.

Particularly since the 1980s, the science of genetics has increasingly validated the anti-racist position taken by pioneers like Boas years ago.  Over 99.9% of our genetic material is identical in all human beings.  85% of all genetic variation occurs within populations, not between them.  We are all very much the same genetically, and how we differ usually has nothing to do with our ‘race.’  Populations interact with and adapt to their environment by gradual physiological changes.’  Many variations can be explained as a result of adaptation to particular environments.  There are no fixed and unchanging races.  Furthermore, traits vary gradually across geographic space, which means that there are no distinct and separate races.

As I wrote last week, all of the things that make us human were characteristics first developed during our shared pre-history in Sub-Saharan Africa.  These traits are universal in the human species, and are shared by all living humans.  Conversely, the characteristics that are used to categorize us by race, like differences in skin colour, hair texture, or shape of a person’s eyes, are superficial physical characteristics that have very little bearing on a person’s overall genetic make-up.

However, while race does not have any biological reality, race does have a very powerful social and cultural reality.  As we all continue to be racially categorized in the societies that we live in, race is real because it has real effects on all of our lives.

Stabroek News ‘History This Week’ Article

‘The Upper Paleolithic “Cultural Revolution”: Humanity’s Universally Shared Cultural Heritage’

10 June, 2010

By Dr. Christopher Carrico
What is culture?
Welsh literary and cultural critic Raymond Williams once wrote that ‘Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.’  According to Williams, the word first entered the English language in the early 15th century, and originally referred to the tending of animals and crops.  Traces of this early usage of the word culture can be still found in words such as agricultural and horticulture.

Around one hundred years later, the word culture was first used in a metaphorical sense to refer not only to the cultivation of animals and crops, but also to the cultivation of the human mind.  Gradually, the meaning of culture extended to include a general social process having to do with the acquisition of particular manners and sensibilities.

By the nineteenth century, different uses of the word culture were taking on particular class connotations.  One of these usages was the emergence of an elite notion of high culture, which referred to the manners, customs, and sensibilities of the upper class, and to the artistic, literary, and other creative works that the upper class considered to have value.

At the same time that this elite notion of culture was being consolidated, writers in the European Romantic tradition were beginning to develop a notion of folk culture that found value and meaning in the ways of life of ordinary people.  The Romantic Movement generally held the customs, values, oral traditions, creative productions, etc. of Europe’s peasantry and other non-elite classes to be more genuine and authentic than the elite notion of what it meant to be a ‘cultured’ person.

The Romantic notion of particular folk and national cultures is one of the important forerunners of the idea of culture as it emerged in the field of anthropology during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  E.B. Tylor’s 1871 definition in Primitive Culture is exemplary as a modern anthropological definition:

Culture, or civilization, ¼is that complex whole which included knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

By the modern anthropological definition of culture, culture is a universally shared characteristic of all living human beings.

Our Shared Natural and Cultural History

The same year that Tylor published his classic definition of culture, Charles Darwin published his second great work: The Descent of Man.  The Descent of Man built on Darwin’s earlier work The Origin of Species (1859), and clarified what Darwin believed to be the implications of his theories for human evolution.

One of Darwin’s observations in The Descent of Man that has been clearly supported by subsequent scientific research is the idea that all living human beings are descended from common ancestors.  Particularly since the genetics research published by Rebecca Cann and her colleagues in the late 1980s, biological anthropologists have increasingly reached a consensus that all living human beings share a common female ancestor who lived in East Africa less than 200,000 years ago.  This is sometimes referred to as the African Eve hypothesis.

200,000 years ago is also around the time that paleoanthropologists have found the first fossil evidence of anatomically modern human beings (Homo sapiens sapiens), again first in East Africa.  Ancestors of these early humans had already walked upright, had dexterous hands with opposable thumbs, used simple wooden and stone tools, and had gradually increasing brain sizes for several million years.  The control of fire and the use of complex language before this time are still matters of debate.  By 200,000 years ago, human skulls and skeletons appear that are strikingly similar to the form that human beings have today.

Many anthropologists, however, make a clear distinction between the emergence of anatomically modern humans, and the emergence of behaviourally modern humans.  While some believe that modern human culture emerged gradually during the Lower and Middle Paleolithic (200,000 – 50,000 years ago), others believe (following Eldredge and Gould’s idea of ‘punctuated equilibrium’) that the available archaeological evidence suggests that there was a blossoming of modern human culture that happened rather suddenly around 50,000 years ago.  Jared Diamond calls this the ‘Great Leap Forward’, and Richard Klein calls it the ‘Dawn of Human Culture’.  The terminology is perhaps not important, but I like to think of it as the first human cultural revolution.

Beginning around 50,000 years ago, there is clear evidence of the emergence of the cultural characteristics that are shared by all living human beings.  The ability to use highly complex language from this time is indisputable.  More complex language led to the ability to form more complex kinship relations and other kinds of social bonds.  The tools that human beings used became more complex, and fishing was added to their repertoire of hunting and gathering.  They regularly and indisputably cooked their food.  They began to create artwork in abundance: figurative art including paintings and figurines.  They began to decorate their bodies with tattoos, paints, and jewelry.  They began to exchange goods and materials over long-distances.  They created musical instruments, and accompanied the playing of these instruments with singing and dancing.  They began to bury their dead, and to hold complex funeral rituals that demonstrate that they were developing notions of religion and of an afterlife.

Human cranial capacity, brain structure, and ability for intelligence seems to have changed little since this cultural revolution occurred, and the major changes that have taken place among human beings during the last 50,000 years are mainly cultural, and are not physical in nature or based on the further evolution of the human brain.

The cultural characteristics of behavioural modernity that all living human beings share is thought to have emerged first in Africa, and to have moved within the next 3 – 4 thousand years into Europe and the Near East, where the bearers of this modern culture completely or nearly completely replaced the Neanderthals who were living in these areas.  Modern humans are thought to all be descended from the more recent migrants from Africa (the Cro-Magnons), and to have little or no Neanderthal ancestry (hominids living in Europe and the Near-East who were replaced by modern humans).  Behaviourally modern human beings spread throughout the Old World, including into areas that were previously uninhabitable by hominids.  One of these areas was the tundra of Northern Asia, and by at least 16,000 years ago, modern humans were spreading into the New World as well: migrating across the Bering Straits and colonizing the Americas.

Social organisation
Foraging – hunting, fishing, and the gathering of wild plant materials – was the universal mode of human existence at all times during the Paleolithic.  The organisation of society was kinship based.  There existed no notion of private property, and social life was communally organised.  Paleolithic foragers probably lived in small bands of perhaps 25 – 50 persons at the most, and the ethic of sharing was one of the most fundamental principles within and between these groups.  These societies had what is known as an immediate return economy, where food that was procured during foraging was immediately consumed, more than could be consumed was not sought, and there was no attempt to accumulate a surplus of wealth of any kind.  There were no haves or have-nots — no rich or poor — in these societies.  There were no homeless people, or children, sick or elderly who did not have a communal support network that took care of them.

Foraging societies never developed any kind of state authority or class stratification.  Indeed, foraging societies have a strong tendency towards egalitarianism in all aspects of social life: including in gender relations.  Generally the only authority recognized in these societies is the shaman, who is shown respect by other members of the society because of her or his recognized abilities in healing and expertise in spiritual matters.  While violence undoubtedly existed in Paleolithic societies, there is also little evidence to indicate that systematic warfare existed at any time prior to the Neolithic.

With the exception of classes and states, and all of the coercive and violent mechanisms that are put into place to protect and expand class and state power, all of the basic human institutions were developed during the Paleolithic, and during a time before any modern humans had yet migrated out of Africa.  All of the things that make us human (having large brains, walking upright, using tools, using complex language and forming complex social bonds, creating art, music, and religion, and forming beliefs about the cosmos, the afterlife, and the meaning of human existence) were characteristics first developed during our shared pre-history in Sub-Saharan Africa.  These traits are universal in the human species, and are shared by all living human cultures.

The societies of the Upper Paleolithic were once categorized as being in a state of ‘savagery’ and many still think of these societies in this way.  When one considers the juncture that the human race is currently at in the world, we have much that we could learn from the original creators of our shared human heritage.

Guyana Times Amerindian Heritage Month Article

‘Tribes without Tribes:
Race and Tribe in the construction
of Amerindian Heritage in Guyana’

6 September 2009

In this article I will address the significance of ‘race’ and ‘tribe’ in the public construction of Amerindian heritage in Guyana.  It is an ironic but familiar story in colonial and post-colonial histories, that the main categories that organize the public construction of identity have more to do with the ideologies of the colonizers than they have to do with the traditional forms of indigenous self-identity.  Race has been the most obvious and insidious of these categories since the early modern era, and has taken its current biological and ‘scientific’ form since the time of the European Enlightenment.  The notion of ‘tribe’ has also been one which European colonizers imposed upon the indigenous social formations of Guyana, of the Americas in general, and of much of the colonial world.


As a biological term, the overwhelming scientific evidence of the past hundred years has indicated that race is not a useful biological concept when applied to the human species.  Race in a biological sense refers to a sub-species, a population that is genetically distinct, and genetically isolated enough from other populations that these separate groups are en route to speciation (becoming separate species).  Nothing like race in this biological sense can be said to exist among modern humans.  Based on anatomy, physiology, and intelligence testing, scientists such as Alfred Binet and Franz Boas began arguing over a hundred years ago that it is impossible to divide the human species into discrete, fixed races with distinct physical and/or mental characteristics.  More recently, human geneticists have validated the conclusions of these earlier observers of the human mind and organism.  Particularly since the 1970s and 1980s, the science of genetics has produced clear evidence that all living humans are very closely related to one another, and are all descended from common ancestors who lived in sub-Saharan Africa less than 200,000 years ago.

All of the things that make us human (having large brains, walking upright, using tools, using complex language and forming complex social bonds, creating art, music, and religion, and forming beliefs about the cosmos, the afterlife, and the meaning of human existence) were characteristics first developed during our shared pre-history in Sub-Saharan Africa.  These traits are universal in the human species, and are shared by all living human cultures.  Conversely, the characteristics that are used to categorize human beings by race are all easily observable physical characteristics whose genetics are not well understood, but clearly bear very little relationship to a person’s overall genetic make-up.  Differences in skin color, hair texture, or shape of a person’s eyes are all recent and superficial differences that are adaptations to the various environments into which the human species has moved.  These traits also do not help us to define discrete races, because the existence of these traits varies gradually across geographic space, rather than being neatly contained into clearly defined populations that we can indentify as races.

However, while race does not have any biological reality, race does have a very powerful social and cultural reality.  Despite the fact that Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. is just as likely to be closely genetically related to someone from Denmark or Korea, or to the officer that arrested him, as he is to be genetically related to Barack Obama, this was irrelevant to the woman who had been Gates’ neighbor for many years and called the police because a non-white person was fumbling with the lock at his home in a predominately white and wealthy neighborhood.  That race does not have a biological reality also did not matter to the police officer who charged Gates with disorderly conduct when he became upset about being arrested for “breaking and entering” into his own home.

Similarly, consider the situation of the Amerindian in Guyana who is discriminated against or not given opportunities because he or she is considered to be a ‘stupid buck.’  Whether this is explained as being a result of nature or of circumstance, it does not matter for this individual that in a biological sense, there is really no such thing as the Amerindian ‘race,’ but only the human race.  For the person categorized as racially inferior, race is real because it has real effects in that person’s life.


The indigenous peoples of the Americas are descended from the same common ancestors as all other living human beings.  The best available archaeological and biological evidence indicates that the main migration of indigenous Americans into the hemisphere occurred across the Bering Land Bridge which connected Siberia and Alaska until around the end of the last ice age.  There are artifacts that clearly date a major migration into the Americas from around 12,000 BC.  Some archaeologists, however, speculate that earlier and smaller migrations took place across the Bering Straits as early as 18,000 BC, and some geneticists have claimed that the colonization of the Americas may have begun as early as 40,000 years ago.

The earliest Amerindians (often referred to by archaeologists as ‘Paleo-Indians’) probably came to the Americas following herds of megafauna (very large animals like the wooly mammoth) that they relied upon for subsistence.  The mastodon, and the giant sloth whose fossil was recently discovered in the Bartica area, are examples of megafaunal species that were around at the end of the Pleistocene, and were probably hunted by Guyana’s first Amerindians.  Some archaeologists suggest that once Paleo-Indians reached the Americas, they very quickly moved throughout North America, and perhaps as far south as South America within a few generations after crossing the Bering Land Bridge.  As soon as a century or two after walking from Siberia, it is likely that Paleo-Indians were already living in what is today Guyana.

Paleo-Indians throughout the Americans probably first lived in small (25 – 50 persons) egalitarian hunting and gathering bands, and many probably nomadically followed herd animals while collecting plants and other animal sources of food along the way.  They moved throughout the Americas following megafauna, but whether because of overhunting, climate changes, disease, other reasons, or a combination of the above, their occupation of the Americans was soon followed by a massive extinction of the megafaunal species.

Throughout the Americas, Paleo-Indians adapted to the megafaunal extinctions by becoming more diversified foragers: fishing, hunting, and gathering a wider variety of plants and animals than they had previously.  Among the early settlers of the Guyana coast, Paleo-Indian foragers diversified the kinds of marine resources which they collected, and some of the earliest evidence of continuous human settlement in the Guyana can be seen in the shell middens of Guyana’s North West, where people have used shell fish as a source of food for thousands of years, and the shells which are the refuse from their meals form enormous mounds.  Fishing also took on greater significance in Guyana: very large stone fish hooks found along Guyana’s riverbanks are among the oldest surviving artifacts in the region.


Of the Amerindian groups that live in Guyana today, the group whose ancestors seem to have come here first is the Warau.

From around 5200 BC there is evidence that early Waroan peoples lived along the coast of Guyana’s North West and in the Orinoco River Delta area of neighboring Venezuela.

They subsisted by gathering plant materials, such as the Ite palm, and by exploiting marine resources such as oysters, conch, lucines, mussels, netirites, crabs and snails (Williams 2003: 86).  After around 3300 BC they began making canoes, and a wide variety of stone tools that were used in canoe manufacturing (130-148).  There was also a division of labor between communities, as the skills and resources were unevenly distributed between Waroan groups.  Canoes most likely lead to an increase in the productive capacity of fishermen and collectors of marine resources, and there was a resulting increase in population density (145).

The language of the Warau people is not closely related to any of the other languages spoken in Guyana.  It forms its own language family.

Speakers of Arawakan languages, and Cariban languages came to Guyana at a later date.  The Arawakan languages that are currently spoken in Guyana are Lokono (commonly simply called “Arawak” in Guyana) and Wapishana.  The Cariban languages are Carib, Arekuna, Makushi, Akawaio, Patamona, and Wai Wai.

Sometime around 1600 BC, the peoples inhabiting the mouths of the Orinoco and Amazon Rivers developed horticulture.  According to Jennifer Wishart (1995), the first farmers to move into Guyana were the ancestors of modern-day Lokono Arawaks, who settled the coast around 1550 BC.  Denis Williams (1995) elaborates on this notion, attributing environmentally determined causes to the rise of horticulture:

“Around 3550 years ago, all of the factors that were necessary for the transition to horticulture existed in Guyana several varieties of wild manioc, adequate flour-processing expertise and its associated implements, sedentary populations and the indispensable technology of pottery-making.  The only thing needed to precipitate the change to horticulture was a major subsistence crisis.  At this time, comprehensive drying out of the swamps over several generations provided that crisis.  Neo-Indian culture based on horticulture was the result.”

According to Irving Rouse (1985), around 2000 BC, early Arawakan peoples set out from a homeland somewhere in the Upper Rio Negro area, and colonized in a “double pincer” movement down the length of the Orinoco and Amazon rivers by around 1600 BC.  When the Orinocan or Northern branch reached the mouth of the Orinoco, they moved northward into the Caribbean Islands and southward along the Western Guiana coast.  When the Amazonian or Eastern branch reached the mouth of the Amazon they moved northward along the Eastern Guiana coast.  The two groups met somewhere along Guiana Coastal Plain, and today’s Lokono Arawaks are the mixed descendants of these two groups.

Given the many similarities in pottery styles, and ways of life of Arawakan and Cariban peoples of this era, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the migrations of these two groups of horticultural peoples who probably migrated into Guyana around roughly the same time.

The mode of production that the Proto-Arawak and Proto-Carib peoples practiced was based on horticultural production with cassava (manioc) as the staple crop.  Cassava subsistence production is a labor intensive activity involving under brushing, the felling of trees, burning and clearing of logs, planting and harvesting; as well as labor intensive food preparation involving squeezing, grating, boiling, straining, baking, etc.  Every stage of this process is communally organized along kinship lines.  This mode of production relies on the activities of part-time specializations in basketry, ceramics and stonework.  It also relied on the expansion of the stone axe making industry especially in order to continually supply firewood for food preparation.  Furthermore, these new horticultural societies developed exchange relations of mutual dependence with each other, and with the still thriving Warao people of the Orinoco delta and the Guyanese North West (Williams 2003).

By the end of the first millennium BC, linguists suggest that the original Cariban language had differentiated into the distinctly different languages of Carib, Kapon (Akawaio & Patamona) and Pemon (Arekuna and Makushi).  Denis Williams suggests that the Kapon and Pemon speakers migrated into the interior of Guyana around the end of the last century BC, introducing the horticultural way of life into the deep interior, and also becoming specialists in long distance trade.  Archaeological evidence suggests that there developed in pre-Colombian times systems of long distance trade that connected the societies of the Amazon, the Orinoco, and the Caribbean Islands with the societies of Guyana’s coast and interior.

Some archaeologists have suggested that more complex systems of agriculture developed along the Amazon and the Orinoco, and perhaps also along the Guyana Coast, from the first centuries AD on.  Horticultural peoples such as those of Guyana’s interior played the role of trading goods long distance between these societies.  More complex systems of agriculture were perhaps also accompanied by more complex forms of political structures, such as societies with forms of hierarchy, status, and rank: i.e. lineage systems, chiefdoms, and perhaps even classes and states.  Neil Whitehead, Michael Heckenberger and George Simon  have recently suggested that the raised-field complex which covers large areas of the Berbice Savannas, and extends into Suriname, is a logical place to look for archaeological evidence about more complex systems of agriculture and possibly more complex political systems in the prehistoric Guianas.


Just as we are told that Guyana is the land of six races, only to learn that race in the sense that this notions implies is an illusion, it is also somewhat of an illusion to represent Guyana as having nine ‘tribes.’  There really is no agreed upon definition of the ‘tribe’ either in lay terms or in the anthropological literature.  The most common reference point for anthropologists trying to reason through the notion of ‘tribe’ is American cultural anthropologist Elman Service’s 1962 work, Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective.  In that work, Service suggested that the tribe was a stage of political evolution in human societies that was more complex than the bands of hunting and gathering societies, but not as complex as chiefdoms and states.

The band organization of hunting and gathering societies was small scale, egalitarian, and had no political institutions that linked groups beyond the level of small, fluid, kinship-based co-residence.

The tribe, as Service saw it, was a level of political organization that was more commonly found among horticultural and pastoral societies than among hunters and gatherers.  It was more complex than the band, involved greater numbers of persons in a single polity, had the beginning of forms of hierarchy based on status, rank or prestige, and had forms of organization such as the lineage, moiety, or clan which linked together groups beyond the level of the kinship-based bands.

For Service, the band and the tribe were the first two stages in an evolutionary model which progressed towards chiefdoms and culminated in the state-based and class-stratified societies which he referred to as civilizations.

There are many problems with Service’s concepts, not the least of which is his one- directional evolutionary model which posits state-based and class-stratified societies as inevitable and irreversible advances over more ‘primitive’ forms of social organization.  From the point of view of the societies of the Guianas, however, another real problem is the lack of empirical ‘fit’ between Service’s model and the manner in which Amerindian societies that have been closely studied by ethnographers actually function.  The majority of the societies that Peter Rivière surveyed in his work Individual and Society in Guiana, for instance (these were mainly the Cariban speaking peoples of the Guiana Shield), seemed to operate more according to the principals that Service attributed to the band societies.  They are small, largely autonomous groups, who have no chiefs, leaders, or even ideas of tribal identity or affiliation that normally exist beyond the level of the individual settlement.  The settlement itself is a small, fluid, and fragile social unit that is easily dissolved when intra-group conflict arises.  And yet, these are not bands of hunter-gatherers, these are horticultural peoples, some of whom are involved in complex long-distance trade, and some of whom have periodically been involved in complex political negotiations with state-based colonial and post-colonial societies for the past four centuries.  They are not less evolutionarily adapted to deal with the realities of the modern world than their tribal, chiefly, or state-based contemporaries, they have simply adapted to modern conditions differently.

Having said that the tribe as an idea about a certain stage of political evolution does not work very well (in general, or in the Guianas), this does not mean that there have never been tribal kinds of political organization in the Guianas, or that the idea of the tribe has not taken on some kind of reality as a result of its employment by the colonial and the post-colonial states.

Historically, it seems likely that the Lokono Arawaks of  Guyana at the time of European contact had some kind of tribal or chiefly political organization that integrated communities beyond the level of the settlement.  Likewise, we have a very clear and well documented depiction of the formation and the disintegration of a chiefdom in the Guianas in Neil Whitehead’s work Lords of the Tiger Spirit: A History of the Caribs in Colonial Venezuela and Guyana 1498-1820. These two examples, the first of which probably predates European contact, and the second of which was in part a response to European colonialism, should by no means be considered anomalies, but are probably part of a larger pattern of the formation and disintegration of tribes and chiefdoms that has existed since the time of the introduction of horticulture into the Guiana Shield and the surrounding regions.

While the idea of the tribe in the anthropological sense meant by Elman Service or by his critics is not one that can be easily applied to the Amerindian groups as they exist in Guyana today, there is, however, another important sense in which these groups can be said to have been ‘tribalised’ during the colonial and post-colonial eras.  As recently as the 1950s, when Audrey Butt Colson did her doctoral research in the Upper Mazaruni, she reported that the majority of persons whom the state identified as ‘Akawaio’ did not self-identify with that name.  She found that identity was a part of a nested hierarchy that included information about residence, geography, language and culture, but did not include an overarching notion of a shared tribal identity.  By contrast, my own impressions of the situation when I did fieldwork in the Upper Mazaruni in 2001 and 2002, is that today the Kapon-speaking peoples of the Upper Mazaruni seem to have nearly universally internalized the notion of an ‘Akawaio’ identity.

This internalization of an identity that was probably initially a name imposed by strangers to describe an aggregate of peoples who did not necessarily originally perceive themselves as having a shared common identity is a phenomenon that is probably equally applicable to a number of other groups in Guyana, such as the Caribs, the Arekuna, the Patamona, the Makushi, and the Wai Wai.  The colonial state, and now the post-colonial state, used these names as ways of categorizing groups which it sought to keep track of and control for various reasons such as the state’s claim to territory, the need for a labour force in extractive industries in the interior, and originally for purposes of making strategic alliances that would enable small European colonies to survive in areas that still were effectively controlled by Amerindian peoples.

Interestingly, for the purposes of future political organization, the British colonial state ascribed identities to Amerindian peoples on the basis of so-called ‘tribe’, but they never recognized entities known as ‘tribes’ or recognized political institutions that could negotiate on behalf of their peoples in the same sense that ‘states’ negotiate on behalf of ‘nations.’  In the post-colonial era, when land title has been given to Amerindians, and when political institutions have been created and incorporated as part of the state, land has been granted to villages, and political representation works through village councils.  Nowhere in Guyana does a tribe collectively own land, nor are there large blocks of unfragmented land controlled by a single ‘tribe’ of people.  Furthermore, nowhere in Guyana are there tribal councils that are invested with the authority to negotiate on behalf of the peoples who have today internalized the tribal identities that were ascribed to them by the colonial state.

This situation of tribes without tribes has historically been the best of both worlds from the point of view of the state.  Tribal identities have made it easier for the state to categorize people for the purposes of social control, but there are no tribal political institutions which could be used to mobilize demands for recognition, respect, more equitable social conditions, or greater control on the part of Amerindian peoples over their own resources and destiny.  Whether a process of ethnogenesis on the part of Amerindian peoples, and a political movement to secure the conditions of Amerindian self-determination will arise out of the ‘tribalisation’ created by the colonial and post-colonial states remains to be seen.  Just such a movement has flourished in recent decades in many other parts of South and Central America, and is vibrant and militant among the Makushi and Wapishana of Roraima State, Brazil, with whom Guyanese Amerindians have many contacts and relations.  What effect their presence will have on Amerindian politics in Guyana remains to be seen.



Rivière, Peter

1984  Individual and Society in Guiana: A comparative study of Amerindian social organization.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rouse, Irving B.

1985  Arawakan phylogeny, Caribbean chronology, and their implications for the study of popular movement.  Antropologica 63/4: 9-21.

Service, Elman

1962  Primitive Social Organization: An Evolutionary Perspective. New York: Random House.

Whitehead, Neil.

1988    Lords of the Tiger Spirit: A History of the Caribs in Colonial Venezuela and Guyana 1498 – 1820.  Dordrecht, Holland: Foris Publications.

Williams, Denis.

1995    Pages in Guyanese Prehistory.  Georgetown, Guyana: Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology.

2003    Prehistoric Guiana.  Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers.

Wishart, Jennifer

1995    The Prehistoric Arawak of Guyana.  Georgetown, Guyana: Walter Roth Museum of Anthropology.