The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage
By Steven LeBlanc with Katherine Register
(First published in The Massachusetts Sierran, Fall 2003, Volume 9, Number 3)
Anthropologists have carefully examined the lives of hunter/ gatherers and farmers living in noncomplex societies and determined that these people, both the few such groups that survived into the twentieth century and the many who lived in the long period of human history known only from archaeology, were unlike us in three important ways.
First, neither hunter/gatherers nor pre-state farmers engaged in warfare. War emerged with civilization, first introduced to the world by the early Mesopotamians who gave us writing, the wheel, and so much more. Earlier peoples may have had feuding or battle- as-ritual, but not actual wars in which soldiers aim to kill a lot of the enemy.
Second, these non-complex societies lived in harmony with nature. Unlike ‘civilized’ peoples from Babylonia onward, who have deforested hills, silted up estuaries, and driven numerous species to extinction, people in simpler societies lived in harmony with nature, often taking great care not to upset the balance of species and resources. They were the original ecologists.
Third, the people whose lifeways are the simplest and most natural of all—the world’s hunter/gatherers—are the best able to achieve harmony with nature since they have developed ways to keep population growth within sustainable levels. They achieved this by nursing infants for three or four years, which leads to such a long natural spacing of births that zero growth is achieved.
Archaeologist Steven LeBlanc, curator of collections at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard, has written Constant Battles to inform us that it ain’t necessarily so.
Despite endorsement of the three principles outlined above by virtually every anthropology professor now publishing, the effort to produce a single example of a society that eschews war, lives in harmony with nature, and has achieved zero population growth has born little fruit. Of the cultures known to archaeology and ethnology—and there are well over 1,000—only about a dozen have been described as actually achieving even one of the three hallmarks imputed to all pre-state societies.
LeBlanc examines this very brief list and finds that they all fall into one of a few categories. There are groups like the Hutterites, undoubtedly pacifist, but only able to be so because they live entirely within a nation state that takes care of defense. There are groups like the Siriono of Amazonia, studied by anthropologists in the 1940s when introduced diseases had so decimated their numbers that the handful of surviving Siriono could not possibly overexploit the resources of an environment that had once supported many times their number. And there are groups like the Warrau of Venezuela, studied when they had just been given steel axes and other metal tools that made it possible to easily fashion dugout fishing canoes and chop down palm trees to get at the nourishing pith. Steel made it possible for the Warrau to live in unprecedented plenty.
In other words, when people suddenly live in great plenty, either because they are able to exploit resources in new ways or because some catastrophe has left only a few survivors in a lush ecosystem, they may indeed live in peace and without degrading their environment.
As for a group that lives in peace and plenty because it has carefully preserved the local ecosystem and/or successfully kept population growth below zero so that the ecosystem would be able to sustain the group in comfort going forward, LeBlanc asserts that none exists.
I have recently spent an extended period in Tozzer Library researching a book intended to portray those human groups that have maintained zero population growth and achieved a sustainable balance with their environment. I did, of course, understand that I would have to mention some groups only in passing since space would obviously permit going into detail with regard to only a few of the more interesting ecologically sustainable cultures. In the end, I did not have to leave out a single instance of humans living in balance with nature because I could not find a single society that met the criteria. This was true even though I was not requiring that these societies be pacific, merely that their environmental adaptation be sustainable.
Every human group tends to grow over time. According to LeBlanc’s compellingly written account of the human story, this incessant growth has always meant that societies sooner or later outgrow their resource base. At that point they set out to expropriate someone else’s resource base, whether with stone-tipped spears, bronze battle-axes, or Black Hawk helicopters.
LeBlanc’s depictions of hunter/ gatherers are especially chilling. He describes women digging up an entire patch of wild tubers, then selecting only the large ones as worth the trouble of carrying back to camp. The rejected tubers are left on the ground to wither, a digging method that precludes a future harvest from that patch. And when hunter/gatherers fight, they aim to kill. The purpose of warfare in a world of hunter/gatherers, after all, is to eliminate competition for resources.
LeBlanc carries the reader along by the force of his argument. He sets out to persuade us that “the warfare and ecological destruction we find today fit into patterns of human behavior that have gone on for millions of years.” And he succeeds.
Diana Muir, a regular contributor to the Sierran, is working on a new book on the role of overpopulation in history.