Is the loss of a culture, language, or cultural practice tragic?

For example – some small and remote tribe (let’s say in Brazil) lives by traditional hunting and gathering, and conducts religious rituals that involve dancing, chanting, masks, etc., under moonlight. They speak a language not closely related to any other on earth. This tribe, once “discovered”, assimilates into Brazilian society and disappears over the next fifty years or so, largely due to the choices that young tribe members make – they are interested in the larger society, so more and more of them leave until only the old folks are left.

So, after several decades, no one alive still speaks this language, no one conducts these religious rituals, and no one lives the lifestyle unique to this tribe.

Is this tragic? I’m deliberately leaving out the stuff that normally has accompanied such “discoveries” in our history (murder, displacement, theft of land/resources, exploitation, slavery, etc.) – such things are undoubtedly tragic (and crimes against humanity). But what about just the loss of culture, practices, and language (and again, I’m assuming that these losses were the result of decisions that individual tribe members made over time)? Is this loss tragic?

I think the answer is no. Or, if they are tragic, then they are a very, very minor tragedy indeed. I’m not troubled if no one believes in a certain god any more, or no one conducts a certain ritual any more, or even if no one speaks a certain language any more, except when these things were eliminated by violence (which I’m aware that they often were).

Is it inherently tragic? No.

But it could be tragic, if that culture possesses valuable knowledge or a skill that no one else does. For instance, I’m thinking of traditional medicines. If an isolated tribe were to have secret knowledge about a plant with cancer-fighting properties, and the last member of that tribe died without passing that knowledge on to others, then yeah, it would be a shame. But the thing is, no one would know it was a shame.

Good point! I had not thought of that. Probably due to my western-centric bias.

I would consider it a tragedy if none of the language, music, arts, and other pre-contact cultural attributes were not recorded for posterity. Other than that, if they want to join modern society, who’s to stop them?

I’m the same way - if there’s a record made of the culture and language, then the individual tribespeople can do what they want as far as changing their lives.

BUT - the real problem is making sure that enough of the culture and language survive that future generations of the tribe (or other people who wish to emulate them or study their language/practices) actually survives to be useful and representative.

So far, we’ve done a really hideously bad job of that, even in the regrettably seldom instances when we’ve even tried.

Keep in mind that culture can include practices that we consider horrible. For example, female genital mutilation. If this cultural practice died out, not only would it not be tragic, it would be wonderful.

So I guess my answer is, “It depends - is the cultural trait in question good, bad, or neutral?”

Every culture is a sort of natural experiment in human possibility. If a language and culture dies out without a very good record remaining of their language and cultural practices, then that anthropological information, that information about the nature and potential of the human species, is, effectively, lost for ever. It is a tragedy for science.

Some cultural practices are abhorrent. But except for instances of culturally enshrined oppression and violence, yes, I do tend to think their loss is tragic.

Part of the tragedy is that every culture includes a tremendous amount of art, in both material culture, story, and even idiomatic expressions. It’s just depressing to destroy art, even if that art largely goes unremarked as an ordinary part of everyday life.

I think “tragedy” is too strong a word. We’re poorer for it, but I would save that word for things that actually cause harm to people. If the last of the Yanowoma Tribe (made up name) dies and takes the language and culture with her, then it’s a shame. But not a tragedy. If they are wiped out by disease or war, that’s a tragedy, but because of the loss of human life.

I think this is pretty much my position as well.

Cultures are not static- even ones that seem ancient. That remote tribe has been changing and adapting to circumstances just like anyone else, and has it’s own history of change that is just as rich and complex as our own. Indeed, culture is something people perform, and in a sense culture is new every generation.

I think we tend to view changes that seem like a big deal to us (“they have up their quaint mud huts! Their picturesque traditional clothes have been replaced by tee shirts!”) as important, and don’t really take into account the less exotically romantic ways communities change. Heck, half of the ultra-remote tribes haven’t been that way for long, and are only hanging out in the forest due to very modern land pressures.

Or as another example, Cameroon’s rich and complex sets of beliefs about witchcraft, which come complete with trials for sorcerers and secret rituals, seems like a holdover from the distant pass. But in reality, many of the major practices formed in the 1950s and are related to very modern events.

So I have trouble finding the natural change of a culture to be a sad event. It’s not just inevitable, it’s continual. There is not and never has been any other situation. So why mourn the remote tribal culture of 2014 and not the no doubt very different culture of that tribe of 1942 or 1828 or 500?

That said, not every adaptation is a good fit. Cultural evolution is trial and error like everything else. So I think cultures can evolve with modernity in harmful ways. I think working out those kinks is mostly a matter of time, but planned interventions can mitigate some of the damage. I’m thinking if situations like high-fat canned meat replacing traditional diets on pacific islands and that sort if thing.

I do find the loss of languages very sad. Each language is unique and beautiful and irreplaceable.

It’s interesting that you say that, since languages evolve just like culture does.

A language dies approximately every 2 weeks. I mourn the loss of data but I’m not about to spend the rest of my life hanging out in jungles and plains and writing down grammars and glossaries for languages with only 500 speakers left. Sorry if that seems cruel.

I guess for me the difference is that culture evolves quickly and dies slowly, while language evolves slowly and dies quickly.

It’s a little sad. But consider how much cultural content is lost anyway. A guy sits in a garret writing music, or novels, or poetry, and he dies of neglect. The trash collector sweeps up the guy’s life work and it is lost forever. So it goes.

It’s a “free market” problem. If a culture can’t compete, it goes out of business. There are an awful lot of products that aren’t made any more, and some of us miss some of them a lot. But we weren’t a big enough market share.

For the purposes of abstract anthropology, as much as possible should be recorded and preserved and archived.

Local example, by the way: the San Diego based Kumeyaay Indians have their own language – and they won’t allow a glossary to be compiled! They hold their language to be their own private property. Outsiders can’t study it: it isn’t permitted. This is not how valuable cultural data is made known to the world at large!

That is not strictly true about the Kumeyaay. Margaret Langdon did a lot of work with them, and within the community there are active preservation efforts. They are under no obligation to share their culture with outsides, but I assure you that if you are genuinely interested in learning Kumeyaay, they will be happy to help you learn. I can’t speak for every individual of course but I know a couple of (partial) Kumeyaay speakers and I’ve met one of the fluent speakers, who was very welcoming.

I was born and raised in their territory, and I never heard the word “Kumeyaay” until I was in my 30s. You can hardly blame them given the way their culture has been received by non-Kumeyaay.

Think of it as evolution in action. Hell, I’d even cheer the extinction of certains cultures/practices. I shed no tears over the Aztecs, for example.

Only the rocks live forever. (And they don’t, really.)

I really can’t think of language death as very tragic. A language that only a handful of people on the entire planet speak simply isn’t very useful. Often the people that speak it would be better served by learning a more commonly-spoken language, which is what typically happens.

If the only function of language were to facilitate communication, that would be true. Language, however, is also a source of poetry, which typically loses something in translation; each language provides unique ways of conceiving of the world, through their choices of semantic range and metaphor.

In other words, you’re kind of missing the point. It’s like saying “why do we need blue and yellow? We can get by just fine with black and white, and it’s cheaper.”