Cultural Anthropology in The Emerald Forest


In my Cultural Anthropology class, we’re required to watch a few films and analyze the culture represented in them. Here are two write-ups based on the movie The Emerald Forest, 1989 and the native South American tribes in it. If you haven’t seen the film, no worries. It’s entertaining but honestly not one of my favorites. If you have a Cultural Anthropology class that requires similar essays, hopefully this helps!




In the film The Emerald Forest, both individuals change cultures, and cultures change individually. Three indigenous groups of people live in the Amazon Forest close to the work of outsiders on a dam. This construction puts the people’s ways of life in danger. The three groups of natives; the Bat People, the Fierce People and the Invisible People all develop a new system of economy in order to adapt to the more modern people’s coming to the area. Each indigenous tribe had to change where or how they get food, how they defended themselves and had a change of territory. The bat people for example (from what I could gather without subtitles) were living amongst some of the more modernized people. It seemed that they traded with them for, perhaps, food and supplies. This would mean that the bat people probably moved to live closer to the modern peoples in order to benefit from their trade. Another tribe, the Invisible People, lived further from the developed region but were still somewhat displaced by the dam construction. From what it seemed, the Invisible People (named so because of their elusiveness in the forest even from nearby tribes) were hunting closer to the Fierce People tribe than before. The Invisible people may have kidnapped Tommy as a child because of a need for more young boys in their tribe. This is an economical point since the tribe survives so heavily on the animals that each hunter can supply. The Fierce people exhibit a more direct economic change when compared to the other two tribes. Being a war-loving and cannibalistic tribe, they become fascinated by the weapons that the modernized people possess and eventually find a way to trade for them by kidnapping the women of the Invisible People tribe and selling them for guns.

These three groups of people, although they live in the same general area and probably come from the same ancestors, acted in different ways to the construction of the dam and introduction of the modern world. The Bat People were not only welcoming to the new trade opportunities but also seemed to have their defenses down while cooperating with the modernized men. The Fierce People were only interested in the weapons, metal and edible flesh of the modern men who entered their village. They also became interested in trading for their weapons in order to destroy the village of their rival the Invisible People. And lastly, the Invisible People were wary of civilization but were welcoming to outsiders, like Tommy and his father further in the story. This change of culture could be because of how important Tommy was to the chief, and this comfortability led the chief to be welcoming towards the modernized man that was Tommy’s father. The Invisible people, later on, walk through the Brazilian city, an action that probably would have never happened since they practice such a secretive culture. This change in actions tells us that members of a culture go out of their norms when the situation calls for.

Seeing that each of these tribes reacted do differently from one another, it can be concluded that no sweeping generalization can be made about how indigenous peoples act towards the modernization.

Once Tommy’s father saw the dam from the perspective of the Invisible People (the emic point of view) he saw the dam as a problem that put his son’s tribe at risk. Although the dam was his life’s work, he blew it up in the name of the tribe his son called his own. This shows that even in this case, the point of view means everything when considering the construction of modern technology and its effects on indigenous people.



The movie, Emerald Forest, gave me some more idea about the flexibility of culture. The biggest impression it made on me was how easy it was for outsiders (the father of Tommy) to communicate with others, specifically in a language close but not identical to their own. There was no subtitles on the film (I’m not sure if there was supposed to be?) but it was fairly easy to understand the social cues and ceremonies without hearing the conversations about what’s going on. This makes me reflect on what makes human communication and more deeply, how we can relate to one another through our ceremonies (like Tommy’s wedding) funerals (after the village was burned down by the cannibalistic tribe) and the welcoming of Tommy’s father into the tribe by rubbing the paint on his face.
Indigenous cultures go through several changes when large-scale projects happen in their area. According to the film Emerald Forest, indigenous peoples can become desperate for resources and grow more hostile toward one another. More modern technology like dams, guns, metal, and even the act of prostitution can become incorporated into their society as either something that takes away (like a dam takes their river away that they may have relied on for food) or gives them a new resource to use (like guns, or women as a commodity to get a one over other tribes). This becomes an issue for the natives because it can disrupt their economy and ideas of life as well as relations with other peoples. One thing that I found interesting about this subject in the movie is when a cannibalistic culture becomes interested in the guns that the non-natives had. These natives traded the women of another tribe, the Invisible people, for the guns. The non-natives then prostituted the women out to other men.
In the Emerald Forest movie, Tommy becomes completely inducted into the culture of the ‘Invisible people’ to the point where the chief seemed to entrust him to become a leader himself. Of course, this movie is not real life, but according to the ideology in it, this is possible. Culture is not inbred. I’ve seen in other sources and my own life that culture is learned and can be at any time as the textbook states. I’ve watched several documentaries about feral children, not the same since there’s no culture involved but it’s interesting that young children can grow so accustomed to situations unfamiliar that it becomes their life like there was no other before it.
Can a culture adapt to new conditions? Absolutely, cultures begin out of conditions. Food, a big part of the culture, is decided for each culture by conditions like the resources (plant and animals) in their area for example. This is also seen by how cultures combine. One example I think of is Mexican culture. A combination of central Native American culture and Spanish culture. This contributes to the food, clothing, artwork and even dance. This also reminds me of something people say, “white people have no culture”. This is something I’ve heard in person and online. Obviously, there’s no one ‘white people’ (because of so many light-skinned people in different nations) and there are in fact cultures of different light-skinned people. To get back to the prompt, cultures in the US are conglomerates of German, Irish, English, Native Americans, and countless others. The peoples who moved their lives to the Americas in the hundreds of years of immigration combined their traditions and beliefs with each other and the people who already lived there. Culture is an ever-changing beast that is always subject to the nuances of the time and places the people that are involved.

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