M.E. Traylor's Reviews > The Mountain People

The Mountain People by Colin M. Turnbull
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Jan 27, 11

bookshelves: wishlist, hunter-gatherer-lifeway
Read from January 19 to 27, 2011

This was a pretty incredible account of how devastating the transition can be for a hunter-gatherer culture suddenly cut off from their subsistence base and forced into sedentary farming. In what amounted to two or three generations, the Ik lost so much. Turbull had a sound understanding of the typical hunter-gatherer lifeway and how the Ik's forced lifeway transition affected this, but his tone in the book fluctuated between empathy, loathing, hopelessness, and snide resignation.

I don't believe in objectivity, anthropological or otherwise, but sometimes I found myself reacting when Turnbull couldn't step back from his judgment and hatred of the Ik when he had never known the hunger and subsistence transition they were experiencing (something he acknowledged freely). Then again, I've never lived in a culture so far removed from my own cultural expectations and biases. I imagine that if I'd lived with the Ik for two years I might have had many of the same judgments, regardless of any intellectual understanding. Turnbull's experience among the Ik was a very human one, and I appreciated how honest he was about himself.

One of the parts I appreciated most about Turnbull's account was how he plainly drew parallels between the degeneration of Ik culture and modern industrialized culture. Without ranting or sensationalist language, he points out that the Ik throw their children out at three, whereas in modern America we wait until kindergarten, "divorcing" ourselves from them just as surely. The Ik self-interest that seems so despicable to a romanticized view of human virtue is simply a mirror of our own self-absorption, just without the capitalist and technological trappings.

One of my favorite lines:

"In larger-scale societies we are accustomed to diversity of belief, we even applaud ourselves for our tolerance, not recognizing that a society not bound by a single powerful belief is not a society at all, but a political association of individuals held together only by the presence of law and force, the very existence of which is a violence."

This was an incredibly powerful (if depressing) read, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity.
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