Where cultural anthropology meets entertainment, Discovery Channel’s Last One Standing

Last Thursday I caught Discovery Channel’s new reality television show called Last One Standing. The premise of the show is that they take six men and place them in different ethnic groups around the world to learn the respective fighting style and compete on behalf of the ethnic group. It is macho and over produced.

But I actually saw some promise behind all the testosterone and dramatic camera angles.

Since the show targets male machismo, it has potential to educate people of other cultures, while being entertaining to the general public. I hate to break it to y’all, but this is very important in modern television. Unfortunately, not everyone is down to watch the run-of-the-mill anthropology documentary. The world still operates on the plebian mentality of ancient Rome. People like to see their gladiators fighting. That’s why the WWE is still around… and this is where I see Last One Standing occupy a unique niche.

You ask,”How so?” Well I was watching Last One Standing with two of my friends who are not anthropologists. They are far removed from thinking anthropology. In fact one works in information technology and the other is a mechanic. The closest they have gotten to understanding other cultures is to work out accents of their coworkers. Sounds harsh, but they really aren’t all too open to learn how other people live.

That all changed while watching Last One Standing where I observed their eyes spark up as they saw how other people live, how they fight, and the unique cultural practices the producers of Last One Standing showed in the first episode. Even more interesting, these friends of mine spent time after the show researching more about the ethnic group they just were introduced. While what my two friends did are in no way indicative of how the rest of the Discovery channel viewer-ship will act, I figure more two people just learned more about an ethnic group and they weren’t even forced to do so. And that’s a success to me.

Let me give you a run down. The first episode placed the men with the Kalapalo, which are one of the 16 subgroups of the Xingu Indians who occupy the upper run of the Río Xingú in the Brazilian Mato Grosso. The Kalapalo were first contacted in the 1920. They are small ethnic group, between 400-500 individuals. Their spoken language is classified under the Southern Guiana branch of the Karib language family, with their closest linguistic relatives being the Yekuana (Makiritare) and the Hixkaryana.

During the first episode, three of the six visiting men were selected to be representative warriors for the Kalapalo during one of their ceremonies where neighboring tribes come to wrestle. Richard, Brad and Rajko had to show their manhood by first enduring scratches from piranha teeth. Next, salt and chili powder was rubbed into their open wounds and they were not to show any signs of pain. You can read the personal accounts of Richard and Brad in the first entry of blog the Discovery Channel has set up for the show. You may think that this is some sort of masochistic initiation ritual that one would expect from a fraternity. And in part it is. The Kalapalo test all their warriors this very way.

After Richard, Brand, and Rajko passed the test the ceremonies commenced. This is were I saw my friends switch. They saw the Kalapalo bring spirit logs to the arena. The spirit logs represented loved ones who recently passed away. The Kalapalo mourned beside the logs and it brought a much more human feel to this otherwise brutal event.


The Kalapalo commenced the ceremonies with dances and songs. For the visiting men, I could see how this was a life altering event for them. Many of them commented on how as participant they had a unique opportunity to experience the effects of the being in a trance like state with the rest of the village.

During the last third of the show, was the transition into the fighting. And there was nothing all too culturally enlightening with that. The Kalapalo did have a unique fighting style and rules for the competition that could be someone’s doctoral dissertation in itself, but really who are we fooling? That was what the show is ultimately about; to see men wrestle and battle it out. But I stand by opinion that if people are gonna be educated at the same time entertained then that’s a win-win situation.

Now a good portion of you may think that’s a really ignorant thing to say. Shows like these over exotify, objectify, even take advantage of ethnic groups all to raise up their rankings and sell advertisement space.

That’s where you and I differ.

People will take advantage of others to sell something. But I see that if someone out there learns more about the Kalapalo, then its one of those lesser of two evils. Perhaps a show like this will influence a future anthropology student to go and write a dissertation of Kalapalo fighting rules… to document their lifestyle and preserve their heritage in some sort of written text. That’s wishful thinking. But as it stands, tribes like the Kalapalo, are being marginalized. If we don’t start educating people of how we all live, then they’ll all be lost to time.

Again, you may differ… and I’m down to hear your opinions. So please feel free to share them with me.

In case you wanna catch the next episode of Last One Standing here’s the information. It airs on Thursdays at 9 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. If you want to learn more about the Kalapalo click the read more link to see a bibliography of literature on them.

BASSO, Ellen B. La biografía de los Kalapalo como historia. In: ——–; SHERZER, Joel (Coords.). Las culturas nativas latinoamericanas a traves de su discurso. Quito : Abya-Yala ; Roma : MLAL, 1990. p. 17-46. (Colección 500 Años, 24).

——–. A história na mitologia : uma experiência dos Avoengos Calapalos com europeus. In: COELHO, Vera Penteado (Org.). Karl von den Steinen : um século de antropologia no Xingu. São Paulo : Edusp/Fapesp, 1993. p.311-46.

——–. A husband for his daughter, a wife for her son : strategies for selecting a set of in-laws among the Kalapalo. In: KENSINGER, Kenneth M. (ed.). Marriage practices in lowland South America. Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1984. p. 33-44.

——–. Kalapalo biography : psychology and language in a South american oral history. American Anthropologist, Lancaster : American Anthropological Association, n. 91, p.551-69, 1989.

——–. The Kalapalo indians of Central Brasil. New York : Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1973.

——–. A Kalapalo testimonial. L’Homme, Paris : École des Hautes Études en Sciences Soc., v. 33, n. 126/128, p. 379-407, abr./dez. 1993.

——–. A musical view of the universe : Kalapalo myth and ritual performances. Filadélfia : Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. 359 p.

——–. O que podemos aprender do discurso Kalapalo sobre a “história Kalapalo”? In: FRANCHETTO, Bruna; HECKENBERGER, Michael (Orgs.). Os povos do Alto Xingu : história e cultura. Rio de Janeiro : UFRJ, 2001. p.293-307.

——–. The use of portuguese relationship terms in Kalapalo (Xingu Carib) enconunters : changes in a central Brazilian communication network. Language and Society, n.2, 1973.

——–. Xingu Carib kinship terminology and marriage : another view. Southwestern Journal of Ant., Albuquerque : Univ. of New Mexico, v.26, n.4, p.402-16, 1970.

GALVÃO, Eduardo. Diários do Xingu (1947-1967). In: GONÇALVES, Marco Antônio Teixeira (Org.). Diários de campo de Eduardo Galvão : Tenetehara, Kaioa e índios do Xingu. Rio de Janeiro : UFRJ, 1996. p. 249-381.

HIEATT, Marcela Stockler Coelho de Souza. Faces da afinidade : um estudo do parentesco na etnografia xinguana. Rio de Janeiro : UFRJ-Museu Nacional, 1992. 154 p. (Dissertação de Mestrado)

VILLAS BÔAS, Orlando. Encontro com os Kalapalo. In: ——–. A vida de Orlando Villas Bôas : depoimento. Rio de Janeiro : Editora Rio, s.d.. p.29-34.

WÜRKER, Estela (Org.). A saúde da nossa comunidade : povos Matipu, Kalapalo e Nahukua – Livro de Ciências-Saúde. São Paulo : ISA, 1999. 38 p.

7 thoughts on “Where cultural anthropology meets entertainment, Discovery Channel’s Last One Standing

  1. Thanks for the heads-up on this show. And all the very useful and interesting-looking references. I’m not sure how I feel about programs such as this, but I’m willing to defer judgement until I have a chance to watch one. (I don’t have cable, so that may be a while, unfortunately.) By the way, I don’t recall ever seeing an Amerindian ceremony where people hold hands — and dance in a circle either — so the photo you’ve included is intriguing. Do you happen to have any more info on this?

    Peter N. Jones and I are currently involved in a series of collaborative posts on our respective websites on some related topics, regarding the rights of indigenous peoples and the protection/dissemination of their traditions. I urge anyone reading here with an interest in such issues to take a look at what we’ve been up to — and comment. The dialogue begins on post 84, “Prelude to a Collaboration” on my blog and continues on Peter’s blog, with his post entitled “Cultural Equity, Indigenous Peoples, and Homogenization: Part I.”

  2. Just so you know WWF is the World Wildlife Fund. The sued the old WWF and forced them to change to WWE..world wresting entertainment.

  3. Ohh thanks for correcting that. I totally didn’t know that. Sad thing to admit but I was once watching what is now the WWE and wondered to myself why they changed their name. Now I know! I’ll change the text.

  4. If you really want to talk about anthropology in pop culture, you’ve got to look at science fiction.

    I’m a layperson with an interest in mythology, anthropology and history, and peek at your blog on a regular basis. And the view from here is that anthropology and mythology is everywhere I look.

    Current science fiction has taken a turn toward horror/goth, but the classics were essentially based on anthropology and mythology. Asimov’s ‘The Foundation Trilogy’, a very involved storyline written in simple language, talks of broad cultural changes that affect a ‘lost colony’ of historians who use capitalism and religion to grow into a ‘galactic’ power. He also introduced the concept of ‘psycho-historians’, mathematicians who have learned to quantify human political behavior and predict the fall of the current culture and the rise of a new order.

    Another is Herbert’s ‘Dune’ (I don’t want to talk about the movie), another great pop classic that delves into organized religion and the use of drugs for religious and capitalist purposes. And then, of course is Phillip K Dick and the Star Wars phenomenon, which is based to some degree on Campbell’s work in mythology.

    I grew up reading sci-fi, and only later began to connect the dots to anthropology, travel and a cross-cultural enthusiasm.


  5. I just watched the Last One Standing episode and came across your page. I was searching for info about the tribe, b/c at one point the narrator said that the villages hold the wrestling matches as substitute for war. (Since I’m already writing, it probably wouldn’t hurt to ask if anyone reading knows any good books, websites, or articles
    about the motivations for and influence on these societies that replacement ‘war games’ has had.. ? carrick.baugh@gmail.com)

    About the show.. (and I’ll start by mentioning that I’m not an anthropologist) I don’t see much issue with it. These people hold their tradition in high regard and I think the producers and participants really show respect for it as well. The show’s tone is certainly a bit machismo, but so is the tradition. It also doesn’t objectify and certainly doesn’t mock the indigenous people, thankfully. Beyond the anthropology lesson viewers receive, there seems to be a greater lesson about identifying with different cultures (participants live with the families and express respect for their traditions/values) and being a kind respectful and engaged guest. Seems more educational for the ‘lay person’ than the stale docs most are used to seeing.

  6. If we wish to talk about anthropology and sci-fi you have to include Star Trek. Part of my decision to pursue a professional career in anthropology came from watching the original Star Trek as a child with my father (in syndacation, of course!). I would argue that many episodes could be considered ethnographies of imaginary cultures. The “prime directive” was a concept that had a profound effect on me. It is something I reflect upon when considering ethics and anthropology.

    As far as “Last One Standing” (LOS) is concerned I understand your point about it being a catalyst for further exploration of a culture. What I take issue is that it is aired on the Discovery Channel where most people believe truth is presented. Not everyone necessarily learns critical thinking skills. I would therefore argue that LOS, with its authority from its airing on Discovery, has the potential of producing sensationalism and could give an overemphasis on what might be considered essential characteritics of any society such as aggression and warfare.

    While I have not seen this show – I’m finding it quite hard to gather the the “gumption” to turn it on… So I cannot comment outside of speculation.

  7. I believe this is an extended version of “Last Man Standing” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Last_Man_Standing_(TV_Show)) which was aired on the BBC this year. I found it very entertaining, and somewhat informative. It struck me as more of a travel show than an anthropological affair, they were their for a specific reason after all: to learn the sports of other cultures (it’s not just ‘fighting’ by the way, the BBC version featured a long-distance run, a canoe race and even cricket). The whole series was produced in a very culturally sensitive way, and it never pretended to be something more than it was. So I agree with you, very entertaining and somewhat educational as well.

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