In a Candoshi village in the heart of Peru, anthropologist Alexandre Surrallés puts a small colored chip on a table and asks, “Ini tamaara?” (“How is it?” or “What is it like?”). What Surrallés would like to ask is, “What color is this?” But the Candoshi, a tribe of some 3,000 people living on the upper banks of the Amazon River, don’t have a word for the concept of color. Nor are their answers to the question he does ask familiar to most Westerners. In this instance, a lively discussion erupts between two Candoshi about whether the chip, which Surrallés would call amber or yellow-orange, looks more like ginger or fish spawn.
This moment in July 2014 was just one among many similar experiences Surrallés had during a total of three years living among the Candoshi since 1991. His fieldwork led Surrallés to the startling conclusion that these people simply don’t have color words: reliable descriptors for the basic colors in the world around them. Candoshi children don’t learn the colors of the rainbow because their community doesn’t have words for them.
Though his finding might sound remarkable, Surrallés, who is with the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, isn’t the first to propose that this cultural phenomenon exists. Anthropologists in various corners of the world have reported on other small tribes who also don’t seem to have a staple vocabulary for color. Yet these conclusions fly in the face of those found in the most influential book on the topic: The World Color Survey, published in 2009, which has at its very heart the hypothesis that every culture has basic color words for at least part of the rainbow.
The debate sits at the center of an ongoing war in the world of color research. On the one side stand “universalists,” including the authors of The World Color Survey and their colleagues, who believe in a conformity of human perceptual experience: that all people see and name colors in a somewhat consistent way. On the other side are “relativists,” who believe in a spectrum of experience and who are often offended by the very notion that a Westerner’s sense of color might be imposed on the interpretation of other cultures and languages. Many researchers, like Surrallés, say they stand in the middle: While there are some universals in human perception, Surrallés argues, color terms don’t seem to be among them.
It is almost incomprehensible at first to imagine that the rainbow is not viewed similarly by all people, that there might be more, or fewer, colors in the world than we thought, or that someone might not bother to give colors a name. And yet once one gets beyond the initial, startling blow of these ideas, they begin to seem obvious. There are, after all, no actual lines in a real rainbow. There’s no reason to think that orange is any more or less a legitimate color than, say, cyan, or that one culture’s list of colors is more “real” than another’s.
Or is there?
Read more: Sapiens