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Bruce Parry on going tribal

The TV show Tribe, or Going Tribal, is watched by millions worldwide. Rapt viewers know the score: ex-marine tough guy Bruce Parry meets tribe, struggles for acceptance, hunts, makes friends, waves tearful farewell.

The only people, it seems, who don't rave about the show are anthropologists, some of whom dismiss it as exoticism or exploitation. But would the rest of us have known about these vanishing tribes without Parry? Could living with so many of them give him a perspective denied to anthropologists and ecotourists? Can we learn something new about being human? Lucy Middleton hunted him down.

LM: Why do we need to know about tribal people?

BRUCE: These cultures are in a massive state of flux and many are under threat. We need to realise the impact we have on others. Take sustainability. What we buy comes from so far away that we have no idea what consumerism is doing to the rest of the world. I've just got back from living with the Penan people of Sarawak, Malaysia, who are losing their lives, livelihoods and their forests because of the outside world buying hardwoods. Forget demonising the loggers, we are the reason these things are happening. I also think tribal people are incredibly important to us as a global society, because we're a homogenising roller coaster of capitalism that's sweeping the world - and it's a one-way train. Learning about a different culture is like having a mirror on our society - we can see there are other people doing life differently.

LM: What was one of the biggest things you learned?

BRUCE: About conflict. I stayed with some people in south-west Ethiopia called the Suri, the stick-fighters, and they told me about their sworn enemy, the Nyangatom. They were riddled with this self-perpetuating hatred - which is true for all of us. There are many layers to all wars. I'm not suggesting they are black and white, but I stayed with the Nyangatom and guess what? They were lovely people too. They were indoctrinated against each other for no reason other than that's the way it has been for a long time. I heard the leaders of both tribes geeing people up and preying on their emotions, talking about those who have been lost in battle, about how they must stay together and fight for the memory of lost ancestors. Look at Northern Ireland, where people talk about their lost relatives - leaders there also use emotion to perpetuate the conflict. It's just propaganda.

LM: You talk like a pacifist, but you were a marine...

BRUCE: Yes, the experience of living with tribes has brought me closer to being a pacifist than ever before. Until people forget the past and act with their minds rather than their emotions, conflict will never end. It's all about cultural interaction, realising that people aren't what they have always been made out to be. And there are ways of trying to end conflict, such as creating a school and sending all the kids to it so they mix. If people are left festering and their leaders perpetuating the myths of hatred, it's never going to end. The head is a more important tool than the heart.

LM: So the roots of conflict are always the same?

BRUCE: Regardless of how or where our cultures have been shaped by history, geography, politics and so on, deep down we're more similar than you would think. We all have the same motivations - to propagate and to survive. Survival can manifest itself in aggression towards other people because they're taking that ability to survive away from you. Peoples who don't need to worry so much about survival look to something larger, better, to doing good. We're all going about these things in our own different environments.

LM: You've been dubbed by some as an anthropologist. Is that how you see yourself?

BRUCE: Absolutely not. I'm not an academic and don't pretend to be. I have an inquisitive mind and love to analyse, but that's it. I know that there are some anthropologists who are a little upset with what I'm doing and I was very worried before the first series came out, but now I hold my head high. I'm not claiming to know or understand everything about these people. What we're trying to do is overturn preconceptions about indigenous people. I'm not preaching to the converted, but to people who normally watch Big Brother. I'm really glad to be part of something that has changed the way that whole nations look at other people. I'm just a middleman. By trying to break down the barriers between the presenter and the people, and experiencing the lives of tribal people, I want to popularise what the real anthropologists are doing.

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07-07-2011