What Some of the World’s Last Hunter-Gatherers Have to Say

An ancient saying he learned from his subjects, the Lamalerans, showed the journalist Doug Bock Clark how to tell the story of a tribe with no recorded history.

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Doug McLean

What is lost when a culture disappears? That’s the question at the heart of a new book about the Lamalerans, a tribe of about 1,500 living on a remote, eastern Indonesian island in the Savu Sea. The Lamalerans are one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer groups: For hundreds of years, they have fed themselves by hunting sperm whales, some of the world’s largest mammals, using nothing but small boats and handmade harpoons. But this perilous endeavor—an almost unthinkable feat of coordination, athleticism, and bravery—will probably prove less difficult than resisting the homogenizing forces of the outside world.

The journalist Doug Bock Clark spent months at a time living with the Lamalerans to write The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific With a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life. In a conversation for this series, he explained how one Lamaleran saying—an ancient plea for unity—taught him how to tell the story of a tribe with no recorded history, whose ancestral knowledge survives only in the memories of a select few. The saying helped Clark develop the unorthodox interviewing technique he used for the book, which involved speaking with large groups of people at a time—letting individuals correct, refine, and deepen one another’s narratives.

Although the authorial “I” has become a hallmark of narrative nonfiction, Clark barely appears in his own book, instead weaving tribal voices together just as a whaler might braid the cables of his harpoon line. The New York Times’ Dwight Garner has called the result a “feat of journalism” with “the texture and coloring of a first-rate novel.” Clark’s writing and investigative reporting have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, GQ, Wired, Rolling Stone, and The New Republic, and he was the winner of the 2017 Reporting Award. He spoke with me by phone.

Doug Bock Clark: I was on a Fulbright scholarship to Indonesia, living on a semi-remote island, when I first heard about the Lamalerans. At first, I didn’t actually believe they were real. The people I lived with at the time would sometimes tell me fabulous-sounding stories—that dinosaurs lived up in the jungles on the volcano above town, and other things I knew weren’t possible. I thought the Lamalerans were like that: a story, nothing more.

But one day I was able to look them up on the internet. And I was amazed to see that there really is a tribe of people who hunt 60-ton sperm whales with bamboo harpoons. They were only a few hundred miles east of me, so I decided that I would go and see them. I spent about two weeks at the end of 2011 island-hopping down the archipelago until I reached Lembata, a backwater island so remote that today other Indonesians call its region “The Land Left Behind.”

My first memory is of walking down the beach, which is kind of the center of things—it’s where the boats are, and where the tribe hangs out. I was a complete stranger, an American walking alone with a backpack. One of the guys called me over, and people started to gather around me. The first thing he did was grab the prow of a boat, which is basically a large phallic symbol coming off the front of the vessel. “Mine is bigger than this,” he said. I don’t know if he understood that I was basically fluent in Indonesian, but I made a raunchy joke back. And from that moment, I was in.

Part of the discovery for me was about the pleasure of seeing the world through the lens of a foreign language, especially through the untranslatable idioms that reveal the way a culture thinks. For instance, there is a phrase, nuro menaluf, which literally means “hunger” and “spoon.” This is something people will yell to one another as they’re rowing after a whale—the oars move in a way that resembles the motion of a spoon when you’re eating rice very quickly. It’s such an evocative phrase, and an example of how Lamaleran expressions, symbolism, and ways of thinking tend to revolve around food. You can see how the primal sense of getting up every morning to go find what you’re going to eat that day completely shapes their language and culture. The same way that office jobs and the internet shape our minds, their hunt shapes theirs.

To take down a 60-ton sperm whale with bamboo harpoons, you need to coordinate dozens and dozens of men. Then, once you actually catch a whale, you have the problem of—well, one person can’t own the whole whale, right? That guy would never be able to eat it all, and everyone else would starve.

So the Lamalerans have evolved something anthropologists call “reciprocal altruism”: Basically, anytime anyone gets some prey, they just share it out until everyone has some. Any single boat might only catch one whale a year, but they’ve evolved these systems where everyone shares out everything they get, which means that everyone always has enough. So it’s maybe not surprising that a profound sense of communal sharedness is central to Lamaleran life.

After nearly a year of living with the Lamalerans—on and off, over the course of three years—I’d generated a huge volume of notes: multiple Word files of hundreds of thousands of words. My challenge was to distill that vast bulk of material into a compelling single narrative. In the beginning, I thought I would tell the story of the tribe through the perspective of one young man as he learns to hunt and master his tribe’s traditions. The story I was trying to tell was a very traditional Western coming-of-age story, focused around the experience of a young apprentice harpooner, Jon.

I spent several months working with this in draft form, but it just wasn’t working. I kept feeling that this one person’s story just couldn’t capture everything about the tribe. Then one day, while reading over an interview, I was reminded of one of the most important sayings in the Lamalerans’ native language: Talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou. Translated, it means, “One family, one heart, one action, one goal,” and almost all of the Lamalerans’ oral histories reference it at some point as the primary directive from the ancestors to the tribe.

There was this moment—this sudden sparkle of realization—when I realized that the book’s hero wasn’t Jon. It was really about the tribe itself, and the ways it’s trying to reckon with the outside world as it encroaches, pressuring it and forcing it to change. Once I realized that my job was to tell everyone’s story, it was like this light bulb went on. Over the next two or three days, I got up, scrapped the outline, and rewrote—merging the individual perspectives together, thinking about relationships rather than individual characters, and weaving their stories together like a braid.

This approach started to influence my reporting in my remaining time in Lembata, where I realized that interviews were best conducted in a group setting. As a Western journalist, my instinct was to sit one-on-one with a subject in a quiet, secluded place—the cashew-nut orchard, or up in the mountains, anywhere I could have some time alone with the person. But then I realized, what better way for people to tell me their story than communally, sitting around the fire or with a jug of palm wine, the way they’ve been doing for hundreds of years?

When I started interviewing that way, something incredible happened. It was as if the group would speak in a tribal, communal voice, which added all these layers of detail an individual source could never have provided. You could almost watch as the group worked though the event, adding layers of information, refining specifics, resolving disputes of memory—almost like watching a Wikipedia page being made in real time. I came to see how much everyone’s combined, communal memory is stronger than just an individual’s recollection, which can often be faulty, subjective, or full of holes. And so the goal for me, as a journalist, was to become part of that. I didn’t want to be this objective-seeming eye in the sky as much as one voice in this larger chorus of voices.

The UN estimates that there are about 370 million indigenous people living what’s considered a “traditional” lifestyle today, and almost all of them are undergoing the same shocks the Lamalerans are. In the last generation or two, outside forces have started to transform their lives—whether that’s culturally, through Hollywood movies or Western pop songs, or physically, through changes in climate that have turned oceans more acidic or disrupted the monsoon rains they depend on.

That’s what I found so poignant about the Lamalerans’ situation: They are facing a monumental choice. Do they want to join the modern world, with everything that industrial civilization offers, for better or for worse?  Do they want to try and maintain their traditional lifestyle, against all odds? Or will it be possible to find a balance of some sort, without losing touch with the traditions that make their culture unique? And the difficult thing is, that choice may not be made freely.

When a culture fades away, that’s not just a tragedy for that group of people. We all lose out. The Lamalerans, and the many other indigenous tribes worldwide, know their environment many, many times better than outsiders—better even than biologists and other scientists. So to begin with, we lose a huge trove of practical knowledge. And in a global monoculture that’s just variations on the same industrial society, it’s much easier for something to go very wrong. Humanity is only the aggregation of all of its cultures, and the loss of any one of them is a diminishment to everybody.

I’ll continue to think about Talé tou, kemui tou, onã tou, mata tou in my life and work. I’m grateful to the Lamalerans for teaching me this: The idea that we all are one, paradoxically, means being strong enough to accept the differences in others. Our oneness becomes richer when it’s more diverse, when it’s large enough to contain all of us.