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The Ignoble Savage

published August 2003
Science reveals humanity’s heart of darkness
magazine cover

In 1670 English poet John Dryden penned this expression of humans in a state of nature: “I am as free as Nature first made man … /When wild in woods the noble savage ran.” A century later, in 1755, French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau canonized the noble savage in Western culture by proclaiming that “nothing can be more gentle than he in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the pernicious good sense of civilized man.”

From the Disneyfication of Pocahontas to Kevin Costner’s eco-pacifist Native Americans in Dances with Wolves and from postmodern accusations of corruptive modernity to modern anthropological theories that indigenous people’s wars are just ritualized games, the noble savage remains one of the last epic creation myths of our time. Science reveals a rather different picture of humanity in its natural state. In a 1996 study University of Michigan ecologist Bobbi S. Low analyzed 186 preindustrial societies and discovered that their relatively low environmental impact is the result of low population density, inefficient technology and lack of profitable markets, not conscious efforts at conservation. Anthropologist Shepard Krech III, in his 1999 book The Ecological Indian, shows that in a number of Native American communities, large-scale irrigation practices led to the collapse of their societies.

Even the reverence for big game animals that we have been told was held by Native Americans is a fallacy — many believed that common game animals such as elk, deer, caribou, beaver and especially buffalo would be physically reincarnated, thus easily replaced, by the gods. Given the opportunity to hunt big game animals to extinction, they did. The evidence is now overwhelming that many large mammals went extinct at the same time that the first Americans began to populate the continent.

Ignoble savages were nasty to one another as well as to their environments. Surveying primitive and civilized societies, University of Illinois anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley, in his 1996 book War before Civilization, demonstrates that prehistoric war was, relative to population densities and fighting technologies, at least as frequent (measured in years at war versus years at peace), as deadly (determined by percentage of deaths resulting from conflict) and as ruthless (judged by the killing and maiming of noncombatants, women and children) as modern war. One pre-Columbian mass grave in South Dakota, for example, yielded the remains of 500 scalped and mutilated men, women and children.

In Constant Battles, a recent and exceptionally insightful study of this concept, Harvard University archaeologist Steven A. LeBlanc quips, “Anthropologists have searched for peaceful societies much like Diogenes looked for an honest man.” Consider the evidence from a 10,000-year-old Paleolithic site along the Nile River: “The graveyard held the remains of 59 people, at least 24 of whom showed direct evidence of violent death, including stone points from arrows or spears within the body cavity, and many contained several points. There were six multiple burials, and almost all those individuals had points in them, indicating that the people in each mass grave were killed in a single event and then buried together.”

LeBlanc’s survey reveals that even cannibalism, long thought to be a form of primitive urban legend (noble savages would never eat one another, would they?), is supported by powerful physical artifacts: broken and burned bones, cut marks on bones, bones cracked open lengthwise to get at the marrow, and bones inside cooking jars hacked so that they would fit. Such evidence for prehistoric cannibalism has been uncovered in Mexico, Fiji and parts of Europe. The definitive (and gruesome) proof came with the discovery of the human muscle protein myoglobin in the fossilized human feces of a prehistoric Anasazi pueblo Indian. Savage, yes. Noble, no.

Roman statesman Cicero noted, “Although physicians frequently know their patients will die of a given disease, they never tell them so. To warn of an evil is justified only if, along with the warning, there is a way of escape.” As we shall see in part two of this column, there is an escape from our disease.

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