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Vanishing Tribes

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Alain Cheneviere is a French ethnologist, linguist, photographer, and filmmaker who has toured the world for twenty years, seeking out isolated tribes whose precarious existences appear to be doomed. Some groups, such as the Akha of Thailand and the Warani in Ecuador, pursue self-destructive paths, desiccating their arable land or degenerating bloodlines through intermarriage. Most often, however, the dangers are external, posed by oil prospectors, miners, construction crews, drug traffickers, Marxist guerrillas, or zealous missionaries of any religious persuasion.

The author’s travels have led him to exceptionally remote locales in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific basin. Aided by his ability to allay native suspicions and by his linguistic skills, Cheneviere lived with the groups he studied and sometimes even enjoyed ritual adoption into tribes. His color photographs, which constitute a large part of the volume, testify to the rapport he enjoyed with his subjects.

Coverage of each society is prefaced by an introductory section which sketches the social structure and emphasizes the principal distinguishing features of the group. In some cases, the author testifies to surviving practices that have elsewhere been denied, such as headhunting among the Asmat and cannibalism among the Jale, both in New Guinea.

A traditional legend from each tribe is appended, followed by several pages of illustrations, the photographs supported by captions that serve as explanatory text. In most cases, relationships between a tribe and contemporary civilization are noted, with comments on the frequently disastrous consequences of such contact. The Bonda of India suffer from alcoholism. The Ladakh-Pa of Indian Tibet face population decrease as the polygamy practiced by nearby Muslims lures away young tribesmen. Often a society will assume the veneer of a religion such as Christianity while continuing to practice their traditional rites, as do the Colorado in Ecuador, while the Tarabuquenos of Bolivia quietly wait for deliverance by the ancient gods.

Admitting to the contradictions built into any encompassing system of ethnolinguistic classification, Cheneviere concludes with a lengthy, ambitious chart that undertakes to categorize worldwide tribal families in terms of groups, subgroups, and races.