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See Inside September 2010

Last of Their Kind: What Is Lost When Cultures Die?

The world's cultures have been disappearing, taking valuable knowledge with them, but there is reason to hope

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Over the past decade geneticists have proved that all people alive today are descendants of a relatively small number of individuals who walked out of Africa some 60,000 years ago and carried the human spirit and imagination to every corner of the habitable world. Our shared heritage implies that all cultures share essentially the same potential, drawing on similar reserves of raw genius. Whether they exercise this intellectual capacity to produce stunning works of technological innovation (as has been the great achievement of the West) or to maintain an incredibly elaborate network of kin relationships (a primary concern, for example, of the Aborigines of Australia) is simply a matter of choice and orientation, adaptive benefits and cultural priorities. Each of the planet’s cultures is a unique answer to the question of what it means to be human. And together they make up our repertoire for dealing with the challenges that will confront us as a species in the millennia to come.

But these global voices are being silenced at a frightening rate. The key indicator of this decline in cultural diversity is language loss. A language, of course, is not merely a set of grammatical rules or a vocabulary. It is the vehicle by which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Each one is an old-growth forest of the mind. Linguists agree, however, that 50 percent of the world’s 7,000 languages are endangered. Every fortnight an elder dies and carries with him or her into the grave the last syllables of an ancient tongue. Within a generation or two, then, we may be witnessing the loss of fully half of humanity’s social, cultural and intellectual legacy. This is the hidden backdrop of our age.

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