Anthropology: Our Ancestors Were Not Noble Savages

Recent studies have confirmed that mortality from violence is very common in small-scale societies today and in the past. Almost one-third of such people die in raids and fights, and the death rate is twice as high among men as among women. This is a far higher death rate than experienced even in countries worst hit by World War II. Thomas Hobbes’s “war of each against all” looks more accurate for humanity in a state of nature than Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage,” though anthropologists today prefer to see a continuum between these extremes…motives include revenge for previous killings, jealousy over women, capture of women and children and, less often, theft of material goods.

Come to think of it, sounds just like the Trojan War.

Source: The Wall Street Journal.

Comments (7)

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  1. Evan C. says:

    Rousseau has a very dark perception of humans in the state of nature. It is interesting that his interpretation of history leads to a social contract that creates an association of humans who engage in direct democracy though there is a tinge of socialism dashed throughout The Social Contract

    Looking at Hobbe’s theory, it is also no wonder that Locke became the basis for modern Western democracy. Incredible to think that early H. Sapiens or H. Habilis smashed each others heads in with dull rocks millenia before Rousseau, Locke and Hobbes theorized ideas that shape the magnitude of democratic government and allow us to organize into a society that has witnessed incredible technological and population growth in a short period of only 200 years.

  2. Buster says:

    It is interesting that huner gatherer societies were far more violent than ours. Going back to medieval Europe, death was a constant companion. Infant mortality was high; nearly half didn’t make their 5th birthday. Common diseases killed people in droves — not to mention war and famine. With death so common, I would think that life would take on less significance.

  3. Studebaker says:

    I had an economic development professor who explained the notion that primitive societies are environmentalist is also a myth. Primitive populations use and abuse whatever resource they have at their disposal in order to survive. An example is slash & burn farming, where they clear and burn a plot of land for crops. Typically, the potash left from burning is only useful for a year or two before it has to be abandon and another plot burned. It takes 20 years to rejuvenate. He wasn’t saying primitive poplulations are bad – just rational actors living in their environment.

    He did say that primitive societies use far less energy because all energy supplied comes from human or draft animals. As I recall, a simple weed eater motor has more productive power than an oxen. They cook with manure or firewood, don’t drive cars, don’t live in big houses that have to be heated, don’t buy many consumer goods. These all requires energy.

  4. Andrew O says:

    Interesting article. I presume that in the far future our society will be looked down upon by comparative statistic on violence.

  5. A.D. says:

    Very interesting article. I can honestly say I’ve never thought about this.

  6. Jordan says:

    Hobbes described life in a state of nature as “brutish and short.” Conflict cleavages have always had greed and grievance at its root. Now we just hide it with political and moral sophistication. Man’s first inventions were rape and the club, after all..

  7. H. James Prince says:

    “Next month he’ll publish a memoir, ‘Noble Savages,’ detailing (as the subtitle puts it) ‘My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes—the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists.'”

    During my time in academia, I was unnerved by the sheer and unbridled hostility shown to any “heretic” researcher or scientist. When I was younger, I had the naive view that the Spanish Inquisition was over. It isn’t – the Academic Pontificate just uses different methods of execution and torture.