I just finished watching BBC 2’s Horizon with Prof. Alice Roberts. And from the get-go, I knew it was going to make me cross, although there was a roll call of the great and good of Palaeolithic archaeology and genetics popping up to share great research. Chris Stringer, Svante Paabo and others- pretty big time.
So why was I angry? The title was just so inappropriate. I blogged earlier this week about it being Baby Loss Awareness week. It’s also the week in which Columbus Day falls, a week in which indigenous communities and their supporters have called to be recognised as a time to remember the genocide inflicted on these people in the Americas and elsewhere.
So, really really not a good time for a show using the words “Lost Tribe” in the title to be on telly. And for those words to be repeated at regular infuriating intervals throughout the show. And used in sentences like “bred with Neanderthal tribes,” which stink of eugenics and dehumanisation.
The word “tribe” is problematic as it was used to denigrate indigenous communities consistently and systematically for a very long time. It was part of a colonial discourse which refused to recognise these people as fellow human beings, but saw them as evolutionary back-alleys, ready to be absorbed into whiteness, one way or another: through murder, epidemic, aggressive acculturation, sterilisation or intermarriage (which veiled a good deal of rape).
The idea of a “lost tribe” is even more tied to this discourse. The vision of a Victorian explorer encountering an uncontacted community is wrapped up in these words, and every time uncontacted people in the Amazon are intrusively photographed from the air it pops up again. It is the language of lazy tabloids, of sneering colonial officials, of dehumanisation and the degradation of human beings. It is not the language that should be used on a scientific television programme.
And don’t give me that crap about accessibility and capturing interest with familiar tropes. The end does not justify the means. Words have power, as you on the tellybox know. You should know better.