A Study in Conflict Between Island Cultures (Repost)

It doesn’t get much play in the publicly-available cultural anthropology literature, but there’s an island in the Pacific where an interesting conflict has played out over generations.

The island, which has an untranslatable name – generally rendered in English as  “Ryeezahn” –  is occupied by two tribes, the Kritsi and the Syenz, which have been at war for generations, a war temporarily restrained in an uneasy peace.

The root of the conflict, as visiting anthropologists have documented, is unequal resource distribution brought on by a drastic inequality in living space. The size of the Syenz territory is more than 20 times that of the Kritsi.  

The Kritsi demand that the Syenz tribe cede some of their territory to them. The Syenz people have a standing counter-offer: Though they cannot give away any part of their homeland, they will welcome any Kritsi who would like to move from Kritsi territory and live on Syenz land. The Kritsi flatly refuse to move, declaring that the offer is a blatant attempt by the Syenz to subvert and destroy the beautiful Kritsi culture.

One interesting feature of the conflict is a ridge of rock that forms a natural dividing line on the island, with the Syenz on the larger side of the ridge, the Kritsi left to the tiny side. Early anthropologists on the island placed no significance on the ridge, thinking it merely a convenient geological divider, but they were eventually moved, after years of hearing tribal legends, to invite geologists in to study the ridge and its surrounding land mass.

Examining the mineral content and residual salinity of various sites on the island, geologists were able to document, as islanders claimed, that most of the island is artificial, and the ridge divides what was the original land surface into near-perfect halves. The Syenz tribe today occupy a much larger territory solely because they have discovered a way to actually enlarge their portion of the island! The current large size of their territory is directly due to the application of the technique over the last 300 or so years.

Ryeezahn Island sits atop a huge sea mount, and is blessed with a surround of very gradually sloping sea floor for scores of miles, so much so that even miles off the actual beach, the water is only a few fathoms deep.

Syenz tribe members paddle out into the water of the surrounding ocean with baskets of living coral, which they break off the ample coral growths offshore, and dump them in pre-selected areas. The coral gradually grows into huge forests extending outward from the land mass, and over the course of time, coral in the shallower areas accretes sand and oceanic debris, until eventually a bit of new land emerges.

In their language, each risen bit of land is called a “fect.” Once enough fects have been raised in a particular area, the large bit of new land is called a “noan.” Although in their language, they say “the noan,” as if each new noan is all part of one single body of noans.

Anthropologists are fascinated by an enduring mystery separating the two cultures. Though the Kritsi appear fully aware of the island-building technique – the Syenz make no secret of it – the Kritsi only mimic the practice in primitive fashion, gathering each evening to chant at the sky, entreating the sky gods to grant them greater land area.

Regardless, the effect of the generations-long practice provides a clear advantage. The noan on the Syenz side has increased the size of the island in their favor, while the Kritsi are forced to live on their original small portion of the island.

The larger living area and additional resources – the Syenz tribe has more land for farming and hunting, and more of their children survive to adulthood – have made possible dramatically lopsided wealth and resources. The Syenz today have substantial industries including weaving, boatbuilding, farming, herding, art, even a community of dedicated teachers who do nothing but train the youth in island building and the various professions.

By contrast, the single industry of the Kritsi side is fishing, using traditional techniques thousands of years old.

Though it is easily possible to cross the dividing ridge, the Kritsi remain fiercely separate from the Syenz. In their enduring dislike of their fellow islanders, Kritsians make frequent mention of the unfairness, greed and blatant hatred of the Syenz, accusing them of being the sole instigators of the generations-long war against the peace-loving Kritsi.

Yet to anthropologists, it appears the Kritsi are the warlike ones. Paradoxically, even in the midst of Kritsi claims of their own peacefulness and Syenz aggression, both the Kritsi and the Syenz have lore that clearly describes Kritsi raids and killings on the Syenz side, with raids in reverse apparently nonexistent. The Syenz tribe has for generations gone peacefully about its business, and the Kritsi literally have nothing the Syenz want. The Kritsi seem blissfully unaware of the conflict between their peace-loving rhetoric and their own warlike actions.

Kritsi youth are forbidden on pain of death to trespass onto Syenz land, but the stricture is placed on them only by their own tribe. Syenz welcome visitors, and indeed many on the Syenz side of the ridge are either former Kritsians or descendants of former Kritsians, defectors who ventured across the ridge, found the wealthy, open society there to their liking, and settled there permanently.

The few Syenz youth attempting to cross the ridge and become Kritsians are not impeded by their Syenz elders. The worst they suffer is gentle ridicule by their peers. In the main, though, the choice is respected.

Meanwhile, the Kritsi grumble continuously about having been cheated. Both tribes’ lore clearly speaks of the day generations back when the island was divided in perfect half, giving each tribe its due portion. Though they had nothing to do with enlargement of the island, the Kritsi protest frequently and loudly that they should still own fully half the island, rather than their meager one-twentieth portion.

Obviously the two tribes share genetic markers – they are in fact the same tribe. Though the Syenz often offer to teach the Kritsi their techniques, the Kritsi tribe violently rejects the idea.

Anthropologists note that Kritsi culture is already permeated with Syenz benefits, and that in fact the Syenz freely give gifts to the Kritsi. For instance, the Kritsi use boats, knives, spears and other hunting and fishing tools, built with Syenz metal, wood and technology. In fact, as is obvious to all objective observers, the Kritsi would be forced to live even more horribly primitive lives without the benefits of the nearby Syenz. Yet the stubborn Kritsi refuse to credit Syenz contributions to their lifestyle.

Unsurprisingly, the Kritsi are steadily losing young people to the Syenz tribe. Even in the face of death threats, young Kritsians frequently cross the ridge and embrace Syenz technology, becoming students and helpers in island-building. Kritsi parents utterly reject the ones who do this, calling them traitors and vowing to punish them severely should they ever return.

Adding to the story, more distant legends, passed on by elders on both sides, documents that the Kritsi once ruled the island utterly, so that there was a single tribe under harsh Kritsi rule. Early on, any proto-Syenz passing on the lore of raising fects and attempting to build the noan was burned to death. But those early Syenz courageously passed on – and used – the techniques in secret, until eventually the Syenz tribe became large enough and organized enough to resist Kritsi threats.

The Kritsi once staged full-out attacks in an attempt to conquer the Syenz and reclaim Syenz territory. Even today, though the Kritsi honor the truce in public, they stage frequent guerrilla raids to capture and brainwash Syenz children into the Kritsi lifestyle. Given their own small portion of the island, and its correspondingly meager resources, they cannot muster enough force to beat the Syenz. In fact, they have to steal from the Syenz people even to have the materials and techniques to create weapons. Some researchers even go so far as to claim that the Kritsi are now fully dependent on the Syenz, and could not even survive without Syenz generosity (and determined Kritsi theft).

Although a few researchers, and certainly the Kritsi themselves, expect that the tribes will remain eternally divided, most studying the conflict expect that the Kritsi will eventually be completely absorbed into Syenz society, with its vast advantages, and the Kritsian culture will become extinct.

According to some, it will not be all that long.

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  • michaelpowers

    People change slowly. We think ourselve more evolved than those that existed centuries ago, but in essence we are the same people – prone to superstition, and so unwilling to be wrong. Pity.

  • http://www.facebook.com/corey.finney.1 coreyfinney

    Very fascinating, but not surprising. I’d never heard of such a primitive form of land-building before.

  • Drager

    Fun little metaphor. I like the word play.

  • http://NewEnglandPatriots'blog New England Patriots’blog

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  • bradleybetts

    Wow, that was incredibly interesting :) thanks! It showcases the best and worse of the human condition; the ingenuity of the Syenz (I’m incredibly impressed with the noan building technique. Humans can be so clever sometimes) contrasted with the bigotry, superstition and aggressiveness of the Kritsi.

  • bradleybetts

    … and the possibility of this being a Poe has just entered my mind. Very good, Mr. Fox, very good.

  • lurker

    It took me until halfway before the feeling crept up that it was all metaphor. And then I thought: what a great starting point for a science fiction/ fantasy story. I can see a lost traveller, stranded on Kritsi land…

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    So, in the illustration which one is ‘Bill Nye’? I mean they are both rather obviously wearing pocket protectors.

  • Psychopomp Gecko

    Any relation to the Nacirema tribe of North America?

  • F [disappearing]

    I’ve read this before. I read it again anyway, with great enjoyment.

  • Francisco Bacopa

    Read this back when you first posted this. I was fascinated at first because there are so many artificial coral reefs along the Texas Gulf Coast from oil rigs that I found the idea of artificial coral cultivation as a land creation technique fascinating, but when you got to “Kristian” I understood this was parable. But even knowing it was a parable, it was still excellent on a second reading.

    BTW, The artificial coral reefs on the oil platforms were seeded from the Flower Gardens reef due south of the Texas/Louisiana border. If the Mississippi Delta dead zone, an oxygen depleted area almost the size of South Carolina, gets far enough west to kill the Flower Gardens, the corals at the abandoned rigs might reseed it when conditions are better again. Bleaching isn’t an issue as the Garden is pretty deep.

    Here’s the NOAA site: http://flowergarden.noaa.gov/

  • opposablethumbs

    Love the parable – and you tell it so well, too. Thank you! :-D

  • c2t2…

    Still one of my favorite posts from you!

  • BCat70

    I read this article the first time it was posted- was totally fooled and looking on the web for more info until I was halfway down the article. Its a great story.

  • Perchloric Acid

    It wasn’t until after I had read the comments that I realized that one of the tribes was the SCIENCE tribe.

    • http://www.facebook.com/corey.finney.1 coreyfinney

      Me too. D’oh!!!

  • http://www.facebook.com/corey.finney.1 coreyfinney

    Seriously though, there are miltant and vulgar expressions on both sides of the fence when it comes down to it. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s true. For instance, my dad told me about a college professor who disrupted his sermon one Sunday rushing up the center aisle making a big scene, spouting off very loudly and agressively.

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