What We Lose When Cultures Vanish

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Penan, Borneo (Wakx/flickr)

All week long, in partnership with our friends at Scientific American, we’re talking about "the end" on The Takeaway. Whether it’s melting glaciers, the falling water table, or even how the world itself will end, we’re exploring our fascination with endings.

Today, we examine the stunning evidence of how Western civilization is changing and, in some cases, eliminating indigenous cultures. Half of the world’s 7,000 languages are endangered, and when language dies, whole cultures can disappear. Vital, ancient wisdom can be lost.

So we ask you: What traditions or wisdom do you think is worth saving? And what do you do to preserve them?

Joining us is Wade Davis, explorer in residence for the National Geographic society. He’s spent years chronicling the lives of far-flung peoples.


Wade Davis

Comments [13]


sweet information post!

Mar. 07 2013 07:42 AM
Dmitri Slepovitch from Brooklyn, NY

@ Rachel LS from 02155:
Rachel, there are people who are eager to record your family songs and learn from you. Together with my late colleague, Prof. Nina Stepanskaya, I had been collecting Yiddish songs, instrumental music, and stories in Belarus for a decade. And here in New York, there is a group (or even groups) of people who are in search of people who can sing, tell, dance, and/or play.
Here is one of the things we do here, a Yiddish song blog:
Another thing is, that we take this rich heritage back to life – through klezmer and Yiddish concerts, theater shows (at National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene), etc.
Please contact me <dslepovitch (at) gmail (dot) com> and I and my friends will surely find a way to record, preserve, and pass on your heritage... our heritage.

Aug. 24 2010 11:00 AM
Patricia from Forest Hills

My parents are from Colombia and one of the traditions I'd love to continue is keeping the Nativity scene as the focus of Christmas. Santa wasn't a part of Christmas growing up and I like that. Keep the focus on Christ not on some fat guy giving presents.

Aug. 24 2010 09:24 AM

Contrary to an earlier comment, Christian Science is not "religious prestidigitation." It is based on "reason, revelation and demonstration," and so IS Science.

To quote Daniel 2:45:
"Forasmuch as thou sawest that the stone was cut out of the mountain without hands, and that it brake in pieces the iron, the brass, the clay, the silver, and the gold; the great God hath made known to the king what shall come to pass hereafter: and the dream is certain, and the interpretation thereof sure."

Aug. 24 2010 08:45 AM
Rachel LS from 02155

I'm Jewish, so I was raised with the idea that knowledge and traditions are *supposed* to be handed down. At the Passover Seder, we are reminded in multiple places that we were slaves in Egypt and must teach our children that this is their story.

As for my own family, we have Passover melodies that we have never heard anywhere else. I think they're probably Lithuanian (based on our Yiddish pronunciations), and I wish I could find other people who knew them, or people who wanted to learn them.

Aug. 24 2010 07:49 AM
Karl Richard from Tunbridge Wells, UK

Oops. That last link squeezed the file into illegible scrawl. Sorry.

This rectifies the issue:




Aug. 24 2010 04:29 AM
Karl Richard from Tunbridge Wells, UK

Oops... Sorry. The last link squeezed the file into illegible scrawl.

This rectifies the issue:




Aug. 24 2010 04:28 AM
Karl Richard from Tunbridge Wells, UK

That was only part of my musing... However, this is my complete response (8000 characters rather than the measly 3000 allowed):




Aug. 24 2010 04:21 AM
Karl Richard from Tunbridge Wells, UK

We need to evolve...


Why cling to the dead bodies of the past like the Egyptian people once did to their Pharaohs? Preserve it, and give people free choice if you want... But is that really possible until we see ourselves for what we really are??? Would our consumerist/capitalist society really stop its insatiable appetite for over consumption??? Would it leave the forests of the Yasuni National Park and its indigenous peoples and wildlife alone, leaving the oil un tapped?


We are taking so much from the environment that literally there may be no culture left on Earth that isn't infected memetically with this capitalist cancer. This isn't about saving... This is about evolving to see what is really there.

Thus, we need to find enlightenment for ourselves first - rather than trying to cling to the past - before we can move forwards... Otherwise we'll perish... And we'll miss the chance to look after this wildlife reserve of a planet... Throwing away what evolution randomly allowed us to become. Shepherds of the Earth.

It is said that life can be like a grammar lesson... Where the past is always perfect and the present tense. But living in the moment, free of the "reactive mind" that binds us to the past is the present we have been given via these esoteric practices of mindfulness and meditation.

The Buddhist notion of Emptiness is the key to shaping our future. Until we can see past the programmed memetic schemas of the world, we're going to create the same types of destruction and suffering time and again.



So why ask questions that are simply based on old dogmatic ideal that to cling to the past? Everything changes and vanishes... Why not ask what we'd like to achieve instead and set a course forwards into new understandings?

We must make friends with uncertainty and see that chaos is all present and pervasive, like the Gods we still worship. Could there be a connect here between religion and uncertainty? No doubt the three great Taoists thought so... Chang Tzu, Lao Tzu and Kung Fu Tzu.


If we loose sight of these precious teachings, and blend them with a healthy does of science, we may never find the harmony and peace we all cherish.

This is what I would preserve... Science, mindfulness and meditative practice.

Aug. 24 2010 04:11 AM
Jeff smoalne from Newark, DE

I would want to preserve, among other things the idea of a judicial system. Where arguments can be decided on by a fair and impartial arbitrator instead of relying on violence, war or destruction.
I would be very happy on the other hand to see ideas like christian science left behind since they are based on religious prestidigitation and have no reason to exist anyway and doesn't offer one bit of worthwhile to the world.

Aug. 23 2010 05:56 PM
DHBuettner from Boston, MA, USA

The one tradition that I would hand down from generation to generation is Christian Science. The beliefs and knowledge collected from people's healings and the articles written offer insight to how God heals. There is the History of the Holy Bible, Writings by Mary Baker Eddy, the Hymnals, Sentinels, Journals, Harolds, Monitors, and back issues in bound volumes and electronic format. Besides Christian Science there are other religions that I would be interested in handing down as well. This is slowly going away and needs some rejuvenation to keep it alive in modern society in case society needs to know about intelligent transparent or invisible entities or God like beings that have existed for millions of years.

Aug. 23 2010 05:28 PM
Johnny Mervell from Athens, Greece

Which of them would I save?? All of them, obviously. If we keep letting nations, like those in North America, suppress other cultures on the planet into one blob of neutral cultureless robots like them, there won't be anything left.

Aug. 23 2010 05:01 PM
Johnny Mervell from Athens, Greece

Which of them would I save?? All of them, obviously. If we keep letting nations, like those in North America, suppress other cultures on the planet into one blob of neutral cultureless robots like them, there won't be anything left.

Aug. 23 2010 05:00 PM

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