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In popular usage, ‘primitive society’ distinguishes ourselves from other people who have made little progress towards what we understand as civilization. There are very few such people left today: they live in scattered communities in deserts or rainforests, and they interest us mainly because we think of them as the living relics of our own distant ancestors. The comparison is usually unﬂattering. Until the beginning of the nineteeth century ‘primitive’ simply meant ‘ﬁrst’ or ‘earliest,’ but as the word was applied to the original inhabitants of territories colonized by European and American states, it acquired the connotations of inferior, backward, rude.
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In the evolutionary social science which developed towards the end of the nineteenth century, ‘primitive society’ came to be regarded as the deﬁning subject matter of the emerging discipline of anthropology. The new natural science of biology provided the basic inspiration, and physical anthropology remains one of the four subﬁelds of the discipline. However, although physical (or ‘biological’) anthropologists are much concerned with comparisons among primates they no longer distinguish human bodies as more or less primitive. We vary from one population to another in average body size, skin color, hair type, etc., and people within each community (neighbors or family members, young and old) look unalike, but unless we wish to be regarded as ‘racist’ we studiously avoid implying that any of these diﬀerences connotes inferiority or even some sort of adaptive advantage. Physically we are neither less ‘primitive’ nor more ‘modern’ than our ancestors 50–100,000 years ago.
It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that Darwinian hypotheses of the ‘ascent of man’ by natural selection have provided such a tenacious metaphor for distinguishing among human societies and cultures. For most social scientists for most of the twentieth century, being ‘primitive’ was a relative judgment about how people think and behave, not about their genes, brains, or bodies. Nineteenth-century explanations of social evolution construed Western civilization not just as the most successful human adaptation, but also as an inevitable and morally necessary path of progress. While metabolizing or copulating might have changed little over the millennia, there were certainly more and less civilized ways of dining or marrying. And it was signiﬁcant that only civilized modern man had the capacity to understand and explain the diﬀerence.
The ﬁrst generation of modern anthropologists sought a general, empirically valid deﬁnition of the ‘primitive,’ and used the word without inhibition. Tylor’s article deﬁning anthropology in the famous 11th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica (1911) may represent the apogee of the technical use of the term. Thereafter, ‘primitive’ continued to appear in the title of ethnographic monographs, more as a generic label for subject matter than as an analytical concept. By the middle of the twentieth century, even the label had gone out of favor in the social sciences. The dissolution of the European empires and the emergence of new, transnational political-economic interests brought a shift in intellectual attitudes. Ideas of ‘underdevelopment’ as a natural, primitive condition which would be relieved by technically-enhanced progress towards modernity, soon yielded to ideas of ‘underdevelopment’ as a political-economic predicament inﬂicted on citizens of the ‘Third World’ by the expansion of industrial capitalism from its metropolitan centers. Peoples in the new states who were once classiﬁed as ‘primitive’ were now identiﬁed as the least privileged members of a widely distributed ‘Fourth World,’ which included the impoverished citizens of ‘developed’ countries.
The phrase ‘Primitive society’ says more about changing interests, attitudes, and theories in anthropology than about the peoples to whom it once referred. In trying to come to terms with their designated subjects during a century of radical social change, anthropologists have buried ‘primitive’ society in layers of deﬁnition. These include speciﬁcation of a distinctive sort of social structure, mode of livelihood, spatial distribution, and mentality, all deﬁned (tacitly or explicitly) by a contrast with, and presumed progress towards, civilization as we understand it. Very occasionally an anthropologist will resort to ‘primitive’ as a portmanteau term: Hallpike (1976) uses it ‘simply as a convenient abbreviation for ‘‘non-literate, small-scale, face-to-face-societies with subsistence economies.’’’ Although the pejorative implications are resisted sternly, there is still an evident need to refer contrastively to people who have not yet been absorbed within the ambit of ‘literate, large-scale, impersonal societies with industrial economies.’ Rejecting one word around which a discipline was constructed is not enough to dismiss the assumptions about evolutionary progress which linger on in our understanding of the diﬀerences between ‘Us’ and the sorts of people who are ‘Our’ anthropological subjects.
The simplest and least obviously oﬀensive deﬁnition of the primitive has been the material circumstances of their lives. Anthropology as a discipline is still organized around a sequence of social types based on technical developments in the means of production. The prototypical human population of ‘hunter-gatherers’ lived in nature, taking what they needed day-by-day, whereas subsistence farmers were obliged to work on nature with tools and skills, taking possession of land and other resources, and thereby setting in motion the larger political and economic organization of the state. Technical complexity increased the division of labor, which produced societies in which larger numbers of people depended on more specialized functional relationships with each other. This was especially true of the second great technical revolution which began with the industrialization of cloth production in north-west Europe towards the end of the eighteenth century. With capitalism as its social vector, industrialism swept out to transform the world, creating among other things a new and palpable contrast between the modern and the primitive. It also produced the ﬁrst generation of social scientists whose role in the ever-expanding division of labor was to explain what was going on.
2. Social Structure
In the pattern of evolutionary contrasts which emerged in the writing of Morgan, Tylor, Rivers, and the other early anthropologists, the social world of the primitive was the small, technically, and socially ‘simple’ community. In this evolutionary formulation, ‘primitive society’ was almost a contradiction in terms, ‘‘society’’ being seen as the multiplication of roles and relationships in expanding populations, with heterogeneous individuals bound by new forms of rational contract into complex entities like the modern nation state. The primitive, by contrast, was a ‘society of clones’ (Kuper 1988), held together ‘mechanically’ (Durkheim’s term) by the relations of reproduction. Social anthropologists pieced together the logic of systems of descent and marriage which apparently gave these ‘homogeneous’ communities their cohesion. For example, the simple rule ‘reckon that you are the child of your father rather than your mother’ was enough to tease a whole population out into mutually-exclusive (patri-) lineages, conferring distinct political identities on people who might never actually meet each other. Debates raged about whether paternity or maternity was the more primitive mechanism of social solidarity. The ‘elementary structures of kinship’ (clans, demes, moieties, etc.) conferred statuses and roles by birth, but these ‘ascribed’ relationships were less useful as people were drawn into much larger ﬁelds of interaction in technically more advanced societies where survival and progress depended on geographical movement and the exercise of choice and imagination.
Governed by the biologically-derived moral mechanisms of kinship, the primitive tribe could manage without oﬃcials and rulers. From an imperial perspective, these emerging deﬁnitions of the ‘tribe,’ boosted by romantic writings of the period, were both intellectually attractive and administratively useful. The tribe suggested a prototypical democracy, a predominantly male political structure, and a paradigm of nationalism—the great seductive and destructive passion of the twentieth century. After two world wars which revealed the barbarity of civilization and cast doubts on who was more primitive than whom, the natural logic of the ‘tribe’ (as expounded, e.g., by Evans-Pritchard for The Nuer (1940) of the southern Sudan) was appealing. In the 1968 Encyclopedia, ‘Primitive society’ was broken down into seven cross-Bibliography: Anthropology, Culture, Evolution, Hunting and Gathering, North American Indians, and—the principal entry—Tribal Society. However, the ‘Tribal’ label could not stick. The year 1968 also brought the revival of the intellectual left, and the association of ‘tribalism’ with the ideologies and practices of imperialism quickly made it taboo. Anthropologists were now being accused of complicity in the task not just of identifying but inventing the tribes which had been the units of European and North American colonial government.
At this time, the other substitution for ‘primitive’ was traditional, the preferred counterpart for modern in the evolutionary scheme. But very soon this too was found to be pejorative, mainly because the innumerable books juxtaposing the two words in their titles seemed to presume an ethnocentric convergence on a Euro–American paradigm of modernity. ‘Traditional societies’ were scattered and diverse, stuck in the inertia of custom until history drew them inexorably into the global monotype of ‘modern society.’ In the 1980s such teleologies of modernization were rejected by scholars who deﬁned themselves philosophically as postmodern. They wrote critically of our historic and ideological self-centeredness and in praise of a diverse category of ‘The Other’, which stood mostly against the hegemony of (Western) scholarship itself. An emblematic study was Clastres’s (1977) account of the Tupi–Guarani indians of the Amazon, whose profoundly primitive social structure supposedly set up antibodies for the development of inequality, leadership, capitalism, the state, and the other vices of modern civilization. Such writing paved the way for a revival of sympathetic interest in the ‘primitive.’ Postmodern characterizations of ‘Otherness’ invoked a much older assumption about primitive society: its spatial isolation. Earlier anthropologists had pursued the prototypical primitive to the ends of the earth, especially Australia and Oceania, and ethnographic accounts of these tiny encapsulated communities in turn ﬂeshed out the deﬁnition of ‘primitive.’ Post- modern anthropologists pointed out that the (relatively) concerted forces of worldwide capitalism had tended to marginalize people physically remote from the metropolitan centers, making ‘peripheralness’ a common denominator of what had hitherto been called traditional, tribal, or primitive. The desire to see ‘Others’ entirely in their own terms as just ‘diﬀerent’ not only meant abandoning pernicious comparisons with ‘Us’ but also the assumption that the ‘Others’ had anything speciﬁc in common among themselves— some generic sort of ‘traditional’ culture or ‘primitive’ social structure.
Most problematically, it was not even safe to assume that everyone had essentially the same sort of body, because biology or physiology themselves were only historically speciﬁc sets of ideas for coming to terms with the human condition. This deliberate aﬀront to science has exacerbated a split in anthropology, set in motion by the invention of ‘sociobiology’ in the 1970s. With ‘evolutionary psychology’ as the link, a new genre of anthropology is pursuing genetically endowed physical mechanisms which shape culture, for example, through the processes of language acquisition or mate selection. From this point of view, ‘primitive society’ as represented by today’s vanishing hunter populations are living testimony to the ‘Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness’ in which modern man was physically constructed and mentally endowed. Virtual banking or an appreciation of Beethoven is fundamentally as ‘primitive’ as gnawing bones. These exciting speculations have captivated public attention, putting the denser, relativistic theories of idealist anthropologists at a disadvantage.
However, it is ironic that the radically Cartesian postmodern approaches to society have taken the psychic unity of human beings entirely for granted: it is not our minds which diﬀer, but the way they are culturally made up. This returns us to some very old and persistent mental assumptions underlying the meaning of ‘primitive’ in its various transmutations.
In drawing analytical metaphors from biology or botany the social sciences and humanities have not always kept pace with theoretical advances in the natural sciences themselves. The nineteenth century evolutionist idea of recapitulation was absorbed by the emerging social sciences, and lingers as a latent assumption about human Behavior in forms which biological scientists would now barely recognize. The original formula, as speciﬁed by Ernst von Haeckel, was that the life history of the individual organism repeats, from the embryo onwards, the stages of its species evolution (‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’). Transposed to the social domain, this fostered the notion that children are primitive—and, by a facile converse, that primitives are children. Thus, Lubbock (1875) was fascinated by ‘The similarity of savages and children,’ and struggled to prove that the childish trait of phonetic reduplication (words like bonbon) was an infantile characteristic of primitive languages, absent from civilized English, French, German, and Greek. For social philosophers like Henry Sumner Maine, primitive society was ‘the infancy of man,’ and as late as 1953 Robert Redﬁeld commended the human race for its tendency ‘to grow up.’
The metaphoric transfer of this early biological concept to society and culture continues to create much confusion. Although it is implausible that a modern child could be reliving the traumatic experiences of ancestral adults, the idea that children relive primitive urges remains at the heart of Freudian psychology. Indeed, in his study of Totem and Taboo Freud (1938 ) pursued the argument to ‘resemblances between the psychic lives of savages and neurotics.’ The logic of recapitulation leads inexorably to the conclusion that the metamentality of ‘culture’ is, for primitive people, childish and crazy, and that their world is a kindergarten which can only beneﬁt from some civilized parenting—a good excuse for colonization and imperialism. This elaborate equation of the mad, the childish, and the primitive is extraordinarily tenacious, despite many attempts to sort out the confusion. Margaret Mead, for example, sought to demonstrate that primitive Melanesian children were actually ‘more rational’ than their ‘animistic’ parents. This subverts Enlightenment assumptions that rationality increases as a function of both of individual and species development. But for such a devout idealist and anti-evolutionist as Mead, it also raises disturbing question about how children everywhere come ready-equipped with this sort of scientiﬁc rationality, and think straight until ‘enculturation’ ﬁlls their primitive minds with superstitious rubbish.
Anthropologists have always traded on public fascination with the magic and superstition we associate with primitive (and childish) thought. Given its persistence in modern society, religion itself has not been an acceptable marker of the primitive. The discriminating variable here is, once again, scale: the universalistic ‘World Religions’ (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) deal with the mass of individual souls, while the narrow-minded particularistic religions of primitive society connect people spiritually to community and locality (‘animism’, ‘fetishism’) often through the biosocial idiom of descent (‘ancestor worship,’ ‘totemism’). These peculiarities of primitive thought have interested French anthropologists particularly, immersed as they are in the idealist tradition. Inspired by Franz Boas, Kroeber, Mead, Benedict and other American anthropologists tried very explicitly to reject the evolutionary premises, and pursued a relativistic interpretation of culture (rather than ‘society’) which sought to avoid the prejudices of a superior western civilization. However, the central conundrum of relativism seems inescapable: how can we distinguish one culture from another if we have no agreed deﬁnition (some sort of ‘metaculture’) of what culture is in the ﬁrst place? Simply to insist that all human beings have the mental capacity to ‘do’ culture evades the issue of how that capacity is physically embodied, how it constrains Behavior, and (the evolutionary question) how and why we need it.
The most fundamental belief, which very few modern anthropologists would dare challenge, is of psychic unity, a conception of the human mind as inhabiting a standard brain which may determine how but not what we think. In the idealist tradition, what we think is determined outside of ourselves in an integral, self-reproducing system of ideas—culture, with a ‘mind’ of its own. The trouble is how to reconcile the enormous diﬀerences in culture with the primitive sameness of our minds. A symptom of lingering evolutionism has been the association of this primitive mentality with a closeness to nature.
This is captured in the old term savage, a synonym for primitive which appeared in anthropological titles well into the twentieth century, though increasingly in ironic quotation marks (Levi-Strauss (1966) The Sa age Mind; Goody (1971) The Domestication of the Sa age Mind; LaFontaine (1981) The Domestication of the Sa age Male, etc.). Although in French ‘sauvage’ still has a more benign, Rousseauian ring, the English connotations of ﬁerceness and intemperateness latterly made it at least as stigmatic as ‘primitive.’
Seeking a general and objective axis of intellectual diﬀerence, many anthropologists have settled on literacy as a key technical distinction between primitive and modern mentality. Thus, in the early 1930s, Margaret Mead uses the word ‘primitive’ to refer to those peoples who are completely without the beneﬁts of written tradition, and in 1953 Robert Redﬁeld declared ‘I shall use ‘‘primitive’’ and ‘‘preliterate’’ interchangeably’ (he also used a range of cognate terms including ‘folk’ and ‘precivilized’). By the 1970s preor nonliterate had become the favored term for the societies traditionally discussed by anthropologists, and it remains a key universal classiﬁcation for those working in the idealist tradition.
A ﬁnal reason for the persistence of notions of the primitive within and beyond anthropology is plain old-fashioned nostalgia—the old image of the noble savage as a counterpoint to the vices of civilization. Anthropologists are notorious for their populist commitment to the people among whom they have their main (usually ﬁrst) ethnographic experience. Indeed, it has often been said that anthropologists are people seeking a special sort of redemption in the notion that the moral virtue lacking in so-called civilized society may be rediscovered among simple people who are more in tune with nature. Defense of primitive peoples, usually in conjunction with the protection of their forest or desert environments, has become a respectable political commitment for many anthropologists. Despite Marx’s rage against populist utopianism, his own material laws of history imagined a return to the perfect altruism of primitive society. This image of our natural selves before we were corrupted by the rise of capitalism was inspired by the ethnographic vision of ‘Ancient Society’ in North America constructed in the mid-nineteenth century by one of the founding fathers of anthropology, Lewis Henry Morgan. Marxists have been rebuked for urging the violent recovery of this old society without oﬀering any plausible account of its structure. That it should somehow combine the beneﬁts of the scale, technical expertise, occupational specialization and intellectual achievements of modern industrial society directly contradicts most of what has been learned about primitive society.
Today, the idea of the primitive lives on in a schizophrenia of admiration and disgust. On the one hand, popular writers like Robert Kaplan have promised the return of the modern world to barbarism, while anthropologists like Paul Richards explain that what appears as primitive lapses in Sierra Leone or Cambodia is a wholly modern circumstance—the global failures of industrial capitalism. In whatever guise, the concept of the primitive seems irrepressible in our imagination of ourselves, lurking in the shadows as we struggle to detach our vile, ancient bodies from the dream of a transcendent modern mind.
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