July 3, 2006

IN THE ASIA TIMES, a look at primitive authenticity:

Two billion war deaths would have occurred in the 20th century if modern societies suffered the same casualty rate as primitive peoples, according to anthropologist Lawrence H Keeley, who calculates that two-thirds of them were at war continuously, typically losing half of a percent of its population to war each year.

This and other noteworthy prehistoric factoids can be found in Nicholas Wade’s Before the Dawn, a survey of genetic, linguistic and archeological research on early man. Primitive peoples, it appears, were nasty, brutish, and short, not at all the cuddly children of nature depicted by popular culture and post-colonial academic studies. The author writes on science for the New York
Times and too often wades in where angels fear to tread. [3] A complete evaluation is beyond my capacity, but there is no gainsaying his representation of prehistoric violence.

That raises the question: Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, does popular culture portray primitives as peace-loving folk living in harmony with nature, as opposed to rapacious and brutal civilization?

I think it has something to do with the new misanthropy, and with the same kind of voyeuristic idealization that led Marie Antoinette to play peasant.

I haven’t read Wade’s book, but it sounds interesting enough that I’ve ordered it.

UPDATE: Here’s more on Wade’s book, from Arnold Kling.

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