Toward the end of the colonial era, there seemed an imperative to collect, record, and catalog as much about the disappearing cultures encountered by colonial Europe as possible. From the perspective of the 19th-century traveler, government official, and academic, it seemed that cultural traditions were rapidly becoming extinct following the perceived lure of the modern world to those living in a traditional world. Cultural survival seemed impossible.
The mindset predominant during this era framed these cultural worlds in a “pre-” and “post-colonial” context. To the European, a pre-colonial world contained cultural traditions “found” by the civilized world to be in a kind of timeless equilibrium. The concept of “tradition” as something close to static and unchanging became a pivotal marker distinguishing these cultures as they were before colonial “discovery” and after. However, one has to question this notion of “tradition” and examine more closely what it implies in the context of cultural survival. Was it really the tantalizing “gifts” of the modernizing world seducing peoples of other cultures to abandon their cultural traditions in such a way that survival became an issue?
The survival of a culture may be threatened by the imposition of other cultural forms that significantly alter existing forms and belief systems. Religious conversion is an example that is readily found in many examples of threatened cultural survival. Loss of language poses a further threat to a culture’s survival, given the unique ways in which culture is expressed and transmitted through language. Further, the inability to pursue one’s livelihood may have a detrimental effect on cultural survival. To herdsmen of the cattle cultures in eastern Africa, the removal of cattle from their care severely disrupts their view of the world and themselves within it. Cultural survival is threatened when the central focus of that culture is destroyed.
Of a more extreme nature, cultural survival becomes a major concern when a population decreases to such an extent that significant institutions can no longer be maintained. A classic example is the once prosperous Mandan Indians of North America. In the middle of the 18th century, an estimated 9,000 Mandan lived along the upper Missouri. Significant ritual activity required large numbers of Mandan participation. When waves of smallpox epidemics swept through the villages, these rituals could not be performed due to the sheer loss of life. The epidemics eventually diminished the population to approximately 63. Under such circumstances, cultural survival is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
People have always negotiated cultural change as new ideas, opportunities, or changing circumstances have arisen. Borrowings and reconfigurations of “other” ways of doing things have been an aspect of human culture from the beginning. The concept of survival is not an issue when these processes occur gradually and with the full involvement of the people in question. However, when this is not the case and change is imposed by outside forces (and sometimes inside forces brought about by revolution), cultural survival becomes an issue. The central questions are “What do we mean by survival?” and “What are the conditions that affect the way one culture ‘survives’ better than another?” “How does one measure ‘survival’?”
- Bodley, J. H. (1990). Victims of progress. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
- Steward, J. H. (Ed.). (1967). Contemporary in traditional societies (3 vols). Urbana: University of Illinois Press.