Is it Still?
While doing anthropological "field work" in a remote section of the Brazilian outback, Claude Levi-Strauss handed out sheets of paper and pencils to a tribe of native Brazilians known as the Nambikwara. They had never seen or used paper or pencils before, had never written or drawn "aside from rudimentary decorations - the dots and jagged lines with which they adorned their gourds. After initially ignoring the paper, the Nambikwara began scribbling a series of wavy lines, from left to right across the page. Unprompted, they had begun 'writing.' The leader of the Nambikwara went one step further, requesting a notepad from Levi-Strauss. Quizzed on ethnographic points, he 'wrote' answers in the pad, handing his doodles to Levi-Strauss. When later, during bartering between two different factions of Nambikwara, the leader made a great show of 'reading' the list of exchanges and beneficiaries from a sheet of scribbles.
"Somewhere in those scrawled lines lay meaning, not of the literal kind, but in a metaphorical sense. The Nambikwara had intuitively grasped the power of paper, notebooks, pens and markings in Western culture... The leader's approach had been a pragmatic one, slotting into an alien culture with a certain ritual fluency, trading symbols alongside beads, arrowheads and lengths of cloth. Writing, Levi-Strauss concluded, was first about power, and only afterward used for the purpose of aesthetic or intellectual enlightenment. Far from being mankind's crowning cultural achievement, it had initially been used to create hierarchies between the scribes and the illiterate masses. 'The primary function of written communication,' Levi-Strauss concluded, 'is to facilitate slavery.'"