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Tuesday, June 7, 2011


Let us begin, somewhat arbitrarily, with the seventeenth century. As a consequence of voyages of exploration to the Western Hemisphere and to the South Pacific, a genre of narrative accounts of the manners and mores of primitive peoples developed in the vernacular languages of western Europe [I use the term "primitive" here not descriptively - much more of that later - but in an effort to evoke the way in which the narrative accounts of the time were written. I shall return to the concept of the primitive in anthropology, ethnography, and popular discourse.]

There had, of course, been European reports of voyages to distant places earlier, during the eleventh, twelfth, and thirteenth centuries - by those who went on the crusades, by Prester John, by Marco Polo, and others - but those voyages were, by and large, to societies that the narrators recognized as exhibiting a stage of economic, cultural, and political development at least as advanced as had been reached by the kingdoms, principalities, and dukedoms of Western Europe - if not more advanced. The new narratives spoke of primitive peoples who wore little or no clothing, subsisted by fishing, hunting, and minimal farming, people who spoke utterly strange languages and knew absolutely nothing of Christianity, Judaism, or Islam. Unlike the Chinese, the Saracens, or the Mongols, these people had no cities, they seemed to have little or no formal government, and their weapons, such as they were, were quite inferior to those of the Europeans [in contrast to those of the Chinese, Mongols, or Saracens.]

The voyagers brought to their novel experiences two sets of images and concepts, in terms of which they interpreted and reported what they had encountered. The first was the Biblical image of the Garden of Eden - the myth of a golden past, before Adam's hubris had caused him to be driven from that idyllic place. The second was the old, but recently renewed, classical debate in Western European literature and culture over the relative virtues of the civic and the pastoral, the life of the city and the life of the countryside. This debate flourished in the literature of the Roman republic and the early Empire, and was revived by Humanists in early modern Europe. You can see its effects in Rousseau's romantic celebration of pastoral life, in the seventeenth century French and English courtly music and dance, with its sentimental depictions of shepherds and shepherdesses, and by contrast in the Italian Renaissance celebration of city life [in Machiavelli and others].

The accounts of South Sea and New World voyages were taken up into these on-going debates as evidences or examples of the character of human nature absent the corrupting influences of civilization, cities, and modernity [that is, seventeenth-eighteenth century modernity, of course]. A great deal was written about natural man, about the ease and unforced virtue of the "primitive" peoples, as proof of the evils of city life. All of this found its way into political discourse, where it took up residence as the myth of the state of nature.

The first important point I wish to make is that these images, myths, and idylls resurface, however refined, transformed, denied, and revised, in the ethnographic notion of the primitive. The very same congeries of images, incidentally, deeply influences the romantic celebration, by environmental and counter-cultural groups, of living close to nature, and the concomitant attacks on urban or suburban life. There are also echoes in modern attacks on sexual prudery, in the celebration of nudity [among nature lovers], and in other even more unexpected places. In the material we are now discussing, we see echoes of these early images in the claims by Lee and associates, that primitive peoples achieve a comfortable caloric intake with a very light work week, thus apparently enjoying a standard of living considerably higher than that of most industrial workers in capitalist economies. This view of "primitive" peoples was given considerable scientific credibility by a series of studies by Marshall Sahlins, published in 1972 as Stone Age Economics, which undertook to show that hunter-gatherer communities were the first "affluent society" [a term popularized in a 1958 book of the same name by the great American economist John Kenneth Galbraith. Remind me to tell some anecdotes about my encounters with Galbraith.]

Anthropology comes into existence as an organized discipline with E. B. Tylor's massive Primitive Culture [1871], which is devoted mainly to an historical and developmental account of the movement in religion from primitive animism through polytheism to the monotheism of the higher religions - I use Tylor's terms]. The early credulous retailing of Edenic golden age myths and accounts of weird and wonderful peoples and practices gives way to a more disciplined account, of course. Nevertheless, inscribed in the new discipline [as po-mo lit-crits would say] is the fundamental structural notion of anthropologists as sophisticated, highly educated representatives of advanced European [later also American] society who make long, difficult, taxing, but exciting adventures to faraway places [which is to say, places far away from western Europe or the United States] where they encounter and study primitive peoples.

The Biblical story of the human race is replaced by an evolutionary account of the development of modem Homo Sapiens from "lower" life forms. Parenthetically it is virtually impossible, despite the most heroic intellectual efforts, to eliminate the evaluative notion of evolution -- as a movement from lower to higher life forms -- from the scientifically grounded notion of adaptive speciation. No matter how hard one tries to adopt the point of view of the trilobite or Nautilus, one keeps falling into the celluralist notion [if I may engage in a bit of playful parody] that multi-cellular life forms are higher than single-celled life forms, that vertebrates are higher than invertebrates, that mammals are higher still, and that primates with big brains, opposable thumbs, and speech organs are higher still. Not even Star Trek can, it would seem, rid us of this penchant for implicit evaluation.

At this point, images, metaphors, and penchants start to interact with some hard-won facts. Once again, I emphasize hard-won - we must resist the philosopher's tendency to undervalue sheer facts, treating them as easily obtained and of little intellectual value. Let me start with what could be established principally through a scholarly examination of written records and associated archeological remains. The historical account of human civilization, which is driven backwards in time through long, tedious investigations into ancient documents, inscriptions on clay tablets or stones, and careful archeological cross-checking of Biblical or Epic narratives, establishes something like a continuous narrative historical account for Mediterranean civilizations [including Egyptian, Minoan, and such] that take us back perhaps ten thousand years.

Extensive excavations of sites perhaps 6,000 to 10,000 years old reveal the remains of what can only be construed as cities, the size, complexity, and manner of construction of which compel us to posit a rather elaborate social and political structure capable of mobilizing the labor of large numbers of people performing differentiated and integrated functions [stone masons, hauling-sled designers and builders, quarriers, builders and sailors of ships, and so forth.] Such labor in turn presupposes a division of function that assigns to some people the task of producing more food than they need for themselves, the remainder being used to feed those who are doing the labor of city building, and so forth. Independent archeological evidence suggests strongly that the economic key to the emergence of cities is the domesticating of animals and the initiation of large-scale farming, or the raising of grain. These two developments, taken together, come to be called the Neolithic Revolution, and it is claimed [although all of these claims are open to serious dispute] that with the establishment of farming and domestication of animals [sheep, camel, horses, dogs, but, of course, not, even today, cats], it became possible to sustain larger and larger populations, leading to a veritable population explosion.

And that is as far back as the story can be pushed, so far as the written record is concerned. But ten thousand years is only ten percent or less of the span of existence of our biological species. What of the ninety thousand years, or perhaps much longer, of which we have only scattered fossilized remains? The answer to that question, as we shall see tomorrow, holds the key to the dispute between Wilmsen and Lee.


Steven Pierce said...

For your purposes, I'd think Tylor's publication of *Primitive Culture* was less important than Morgan's publication of *Systems of Consanguinity* at roughly the same time, and then several years later of *Ancient Society*. Tylor was more important as an institution-builder (and probably in popular understandings of the primitive), but Morgan's evolutionary account was ultimately the more long-lasting within anthropology. He was the greater influence on Marx and on Sahlins.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Many thanks for the comment. I did not know that [one more consequence of venturing beyond my area of expertise.] I recall that Morgan influenced Marx, but I was quite unaware that Tylor was, as you describe him, an institution builder. I hope you will stay with the blog and chime in when I wander astray!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

p.s. If you are the Steven Pierce currently teaching at Manchester, the research you describe on the web sounds quite fascinating. If you have an interest in writing a guest post for this blog, I would love for you to do so.