Travel Tuesdays - Living Culture

Welcome to “Travel Tuesdays,” a resource for those whose plans have been deferred and a distraction for people who enjoy armchair travel.  Each week we’ll suggest a virtual destination for you to visit.

All of these ideas are curated and brought to you by Lorraine Rubinacci!

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Travel Tuesdays, May 11, 2021 - "Living Culture"

Prior to working at the Ames Free Library, I coordinated an educational project centered on the biodiversity of Southeastern Massachusetts. In a nutshell, I helped students discover the richness of life around us.  Recently I stumbled upon a parallel project created by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization).  Its “Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage” aim to preserve the rich diversity of human cultural practices.     My prior knowledge of UNESCO’s work involved its designated World Heritage Sites, places like Machu Picchu and Chartres Cathedral, physical places that are significant to humankind.  In contrast, the “intangible” lists emphasize culture as a process.  UNESCO’s website defines “intangible cultural heritage” this way:   “Cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from our ancestors and passed on to our descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.”   Since 2008, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage has been accepting nominations for cultural practices to be recognized.  There are now 584 “elements” on the list.  Let’s look at a few of them.   Some elements on the “Representative List” are well-known traditions that we readily associate with a particular country or region.  There’s Sauna culture in Finland and the Craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking in Switzerland.  Date palm, knowledge, skills, traditions and practices reflect practices in fourteen different countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa including Bahrain, Jordan, and Tunisia.  Similarly, the Mediterranean Diet  was recognized for a cluster of seven nations including Greece and Italy.

Mediterranean Diet

G.steph.rocket, CC BY-SA 4.0


Familiar as these practices are, it should be noted that UNESCO’s evaluations look at the complete spectrum of participants, the broad range of transmitted skills, and the full ramifications on a society.  In other words, they pay attention to the meaning and impact of a custom, not just its performance.  In the case of the Mediterranean diet, the assessment considers the ingredients, the farms, the processing, the cookware, the recipes, and the social bonds developed through communal meals.

Customs from 131 countries are included on the list; many will not be familiar to American readers.  You may know Reggae music of Jamaica, but have you heard about Spain’s Wine horses?  And how many customs from Malawi can you name?  For a gentle introduction to the subject of living culture, read “29 Cultural Traditions Join UNESCO’s Living Heritage List,” a 2020 article in The Washington Post

If you have followed any of the above links, you already know that each tradition has its own page, images and video.  The UNESCO website offers a wealth of information.  I am going to highlight several elements just to illustrate the dazzling range of the list (and of human culture.)

The citizens of Vanuatu, a South Pacific archipelago, are renowned for their Sand Drawings.  The technique is beguiling:  the artist creates the design by moving one finger in a graceful, continuous motion.  Lovely as they are, the drawings also bridge language barriers and record information such as local history and mythology.  The artist in UNESCO’s video made me smile with his story of how a local bird got its coloration.  Birders I’ve known tell similar stories to help with identification.

Sand Drawing from Vanuatu

PhillipC, CC BY 2.0

Next, consider the Grass mowing competition in Kupres, Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Energetic and boisterous, the competition pits scythe-wielding men in a race to hand cut a large field of hay.  The capacity to do this job well is essential in an agricultural region dependent on cattle.  The entire town participates in cheering, eating, donning traditional outfits, and otherwise contributing to the tradition.

Grass mowing competition custom in Kupres

If you recall, I used the plural word “lists” to describe UNESCO’S undertaking.  In addition to the “representative list,” they maintain a list of customs that are “in need of urgent safeguarding.”  The Whistled Language of Turkey is in the latter category.  Developed in the mountainous town of Kuşköy, this “bird language” enables residents to communicate over long distances without traversing the steep terrain.  Through a precise use of the mouth and hands, practitioners create a wide range of sounds that represent the Turkish language and allow full communication. For a short demonstration of the technique, watch “This Turkish Language Isn’t Spoken, It’s Whistled,” a mini documentary from Great Big Story.


Today, the bird language of Kuşköy may seem like a delightful eccentricity, but it is by no means the first, or only, whistled human language.  Researchers have “identified more than 70 groups across the world who can use whistles to express themselves with all the flexibility of normal speech.”  For a broader perspective, read “The Beautiful Languages of the People Who Talk Like Birds.”  Far from irrelevant, whistled languages may help us to understand the very origins of human speech and the brain’s capabilities -- if we sustain them.  As you can well imagine, cell phones have impacted communications in these remote areas. No one would deny that it is easier to make a phone call than to learn to speak a new language.  Yet, human skills, creativity, independence and heritage are lost in the process.

Another custom at risk of disappearing is the endearing Coaxing ritual for camels practiced in rural Mongolia.  Herders sing, chant, and play gentle musical instruments to coax a mother camel into accepting a rejected or orphaned calf.  Successful application of the ritual saves the calf and preserves the mother’s milk which is essential for the herders sustenance.  Based on the supporting video, the coaxing also seems to preserve the mother’s well being and to strengthen the bonds between camels and people who live in a very harsh environment.

Camel Farm in Central Mongolia in May

Alexandr frolov, CC BY-SA 4.0

This ancient, pastoral lifestyle is threatened by climate change (drought = starvation) and by the migration of young people to urban areas. The world’s intangible cultural heritage is threatened on many fronts ranging from educational standardization to deforestation. Economic pressures and conflicts cause displacement of peoples, which results in a loss of significance and transmission of traditions.  UNESCO’s website illustrates these challenges with an interactive visual that draws connections between customs and threats to their survival.  In many cases, globalization, new technologies, and environmental degradation play a role in reducing cultural diversity.


No doubt, humans need to be adaptable, and marvelous creations do result from new challenges and interactions. Yet, it’s important to realize that these cultural practices aren’t quaint relics; they are current activities, ones that contribute to identity and that connect people to their past.  Each reflects hard-earned knowledge, skills, and problem solving strategies, including strategies of how to connect with other people.  Just as a diversity of organisms adds strength and richness to an ecosystem, diverse cultural practices offer a variety of survival tools, a range of thinking skills, and a measure of delight in being human.

Sustaining a tradition doesn’t require locking it in amber.  One of the first elements added to the representative list in 2008 was the Language, dance and music of the Garifuna, a Central American people of African and Amerindian descent.  While I can’t comment on the current state of Garifuna society, I do know that many people were introduced to their culture through the recordings of The Garifuna Collective, a band that fused Garifuna language and songs with R&B, jazz, and rock and roll.  Led by Belizean musician and Garifuna cultural ambassador, Andy Palacio, the group went on to produce the best-selling album, Wátina.

Umalali featuring the Garifuna Collective

Peace Corps, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

And guess what’s highlighted on Google’s homepage today!  “Discover Woolaroo:  preserving global languages” is a new Google Arts & Culture app that supplies indigenous words for familiar objects in the cell phone user’s own environment.  If nothing else, such efforts call attention to languages and their cultural value, and that might be a necessary step towards sustaining them.  Much like the “List of Intangible Cultural Heritage,” Woolaroo recognizes that “language adapts with the times.”  For now, Woolaroo offers ten uncommon languages including Yugambeh (Aboriginal Australian), Yiddish, and Louisiana Creole.  So, until next week, I wish you a Māori goodbye, “Kia ora.”

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