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By Cliff Orloff


Order of magnitude improvements in transportation and communications over the past fifty years have had transformative effects on the cultures of remote peoples, such as the Yanomami in the Amazon and the Akha in the mountains of Southeast Asia.




One hundred years ago, international travel was a slow, laborious and expensive process. Back then, travel to a remote region was an exotic and expensive adventure that took many months. By the mid 1960s airlines were using Boeing 707s to offer student charter flights at low cost to far flung destinations. The 707's speed, long range, high seating capacity and operating economics revolutionized airline travel. International tourism to remote places became relatively inexpensive and it flourished among the backpack set. That same expensive trip that took many months could now be done in days. Mass market jet travel took off.




Historically, remote subsistence farmers lived on the fringe of the money economy if they were connected at all. For them, the trek by foot to market was a long and exhausting journey. Going to market was a special event, done a few times a year at most, in order to get necessary provisions. Starting in the 1990s those same villagers could get to market weekly, some even daily, using motorbike taxis specially equipped with knobby tires that could traverse steep and muddy footpaths.


Now they could get their goods to market and earn some money. But as subsistence farming changed as a result of entering the market economy, with access to machines and technology, fewer and fewer farmers were needed to grow enough food. As more and more young people, who might have become subsistence farmers, enter the money economy for access to employment, goods and entertainment, the traditional lifestyle that centered around the production of food is undergoing change. What was once a proud life creating sustenance for the community too often becomes a laborer at the bottom rung of the economic ladder.




By the 1960s, canoes with small motors were traversing narrow tributaries of the Amazon and getting to villages that formerly took many days or weeks by walking. This led to missionaries and anthropologists moving deeper and deeper into the Amazon, introducing material goods in the process. It is hard to overstate the benefit of having a machete in the jungle. To have better access to material goods, remote indigenous Indians moved closer to navigable waterways, and as a result, started to have increased contact with the outside world. Some Indians became cheap labor for the miners who came with the recent Amazon gold rush.




In the mountainous regions of southeast Asia, access to the electrical grid was impossible. In the 1990s, villages near rivers and streams started using simple waterwheels to generate electricity to charge batteries so they could watch satellite TV at night. Now the waterwheels are being replaced with solar panels, making electricity available almost everywhere.




With battery power, satellite television flourished in remote villages that had any connection to markets. They could sell a pig to buy a TV.  This brought the whole world within sight and showed remote villagers what the outside world had to offer.




While satellite television was amazing, it was one way communications. When the Internet arrived it brought worldwide instant two-way communications. But it was expensive.




The mobile phone went from being an expensive gadget to an inexpensive necessity in a relatively short period of time. It became a must-have first acquisition for even the poorest people and now has almost universal global penetration. Instant two-way communications is cheap and portable, bringing global culture to virtually everyone on the planet.




We don't know much about the culture of our Paleolithic ancestors for the 200,000 years their way of life dominated human life on earth. It wasn't until the Agrarian Era that cultural traditions developed. And for most of the last 5,000 years they changed very slowly. Over the last hundred years cultural traditions have started to change more rapidly as the dominant peasant society morphed into wage earners and city dwellers.


But in extremely remote areas those forces that created rapid cultural change were not present, and traditional cutural practices were preserved. Over the last fifty years the pace of change has dramatically increased due to new technology and extended to even formerly remote peoples. The lifestyle of our hunter-gatherer ancestors may be lost forever.


Homemade, traditional clothes gave way to the universal outfit of jeans, T-shirts and sneakers as global communications drive a global culture. Advances in transportation and communications in the 21st century mean an end to isolation and an end to a way of life. We have but a very short time to document the rich cultural heritage of our ancestors in those small pockets of the globe where they can still be found.


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