The BBC is celebrating David Attenborough’s 90th birthday and last night he/they presented two films from Attenborough’s oeuvre. The first was from 1971 and called ‘Blank on the Map‘, about an expedition into ‘unexplored’ parts of Papua New Guinea (where hundreds of languages are or were spoken) hoping to find the unknown people whose settlements had been spotted from the air. While DA gave off the enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge we know him for, the context was full of colonialism and Western arrogance. They tramped through the jungle with 160 porters (the white men in their khaki didn’t do carrying, it seems), and when they found a house, empty but with warm ashes in the fire, they thought nothing of going in through a sturdily closed door and having a nose about – even in his commentary today DA did not comment on this except to say they were taking a risk of being shot at.
In 1971 he spoke of the expedition hoping to introduce these people gently to the outside world, so that if/when the outside world came in to exploit any mineral resources that might be discovered, these indigenous people would fare less badly than others in similar circumstances. The outsiders offered them glass beads, salt and newspaper (for rolling tobacco) in exchange for food (which the visitors didn’t really need), so that they would establish a more equal trading relationship, he said. Of course there was no question of equality and the idea that there might be something the outside world could learn from them, other than ethnography, didn’t occur to anyone, it seems…
This was followed by a more recent film, about a carving Attenborough had bought at auction. It turned out to be, as he hoped, an authentic Easter Island piece, with a provenance deriving from Captain Cook’s visit in 1774. In the course of the film, he told the story of the Easter Island people, who had come from Polynesia, thrived, multiplied, created the famous stone statues, but then evidently gone into decline, having cut down all the trees on the island, leaving themselves stranded and impoverished by the time Cook’s ships arrived.
Some people think the Easter Island statues were made by aliens visiting us long ago. But the unstated moral of these two films might be expressed in a variation on that image: one day little green explorers will arrive on earth to wander through the relics of its ancient inhabitants, wondering what became of them and how they could have been so short-sighted as to destroy the foundations of their ecosystem, when they had the skills to build such monuments.