Teaching Niall Ferguson a (Colombian) History Lesson

Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: Niall Ferguson, Colombia, hunter-gatherers



Dave Hill is a novelist, blogger, occasional broadcaster and long-standing writer for the Guardian

25 years ago in a small colonists' settlement called Calamar in Colombia a group of about 40 indigenous people wearing no clothes and speaking a language no one could understand turned up on the doorstep of the local school. Who were they? Their dramatic arrival sparked something of a sensation in Colombia's media, concern from Calamar locals, and headaches for the government's indigenous affairs department in Bogota about what, if anything, to do. It didn't help that no one understood what they were saying, or what they wanted or where they were going, and when a group of indigenous interpreters were flown in, speaking 21 languages between them, they couldn't understand either.

The people who appeared that day, in 1988, were the Nukak, members of an indigenous people living in small, highly-mobile groups (e.g. the wayari muno, meu muno, mipa muno) to the east of Calamar between the River Guaviare and River Inirida in Colombia's Amazon. According to a 2011 book called, in my English translation, The Nukak: The Last Nomadic People Officially Contacted in Colombia – edited by two Colombian anthropologists, Dany Mahecha and Carlos Franky, who speak the Nukak language – that day in Calamar was the "definitive event" marking the Nukak's official, permanent contact with national society....

What, you might ask, does this have to do with Niall Ferguson, a British historian and Harvard University professor who was once named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world? In his 2008 book The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World – in what appears to be an attempt to illustrate the "considerable disadvantages" to the "cash-free life" of "hunter-gatherer societies" – Ferguson wrote:

Five years ago, members of the Nukak-Maku unexpectedly wandered out of the Amazonian rainforest at San José del Guaviare in Colombia. The Nukak were a tribe time forgot, cut off from the rest of humanity until this sudden emergence. Subsisting solely on the monkeys they could hunt and the fruit they could gather, they had no concept of money. Revealingly, they had no concept of the future either. These days they live in a clearing near the city, reliant for their subsistence on state handouts. Asked if they miss the jungle, they laugh. After lifetimes of trudging all day in search of food, they are amazed that perfect strangers now give them all they need and ask nothing from them in return.


This is absolute nonsense. Leave aside Ferguson's use of problematic terms like "hunter-gatherer societies" or his claims about monkeys, fruit and the future. More important is the fact that, by 2003, members of the Nukak had had contact with Christian missionaries for 30-odd years; many had seen huge swathes of their territories invaded and destroyed to grow coca, as well as graze cattle, to meet distant consumer demand, and many had been effectively made refugees by a civil war. Didn't Ferguson think to mention any of that? Indeed, the Nukak had experienced a "demographic catastrophe", as Carlos Franky calls it in his 2011 Phd thesis, with approximately 40% dying 10 years before "this sudden emergence" and "unexpected wandering" even took place: hardly "a tribe time forgot," as Ferguson calls them, "cut off from the rest of humanity …"...




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