Fwd: Bones Reveal Some Truth in 'Noble Savage Myth'

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Tue Apr 16 2002 - 15:02:53 BST

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    A perspective on the 'violence' thread.

    - Wade

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A48202-2002Apr14.html

    Bones Reveal Some Truth in 'Noble Savage Myth'

    By Jack Lucentini
    Special to The Washington Post
    Monday, April 15, 2002; Page A09

    A romantic-sounding notion dating back more than 200 years has it that
    people in prehistory, such as Native Americans, lived in peace and
    harmony.

    Then "civilization" showed up, sowing violence and discord. Some see
    this claim as naive. It even has a derisive nickname, the "noble savage
    myth."

    But new research seems to suggest the "myth" contains at least some
    truth. Researchers examined thousands of Native American skeletons and
    found that those from after Christopher Columbus landed in the New World
    showed a rate of traumatic injuries more than 50 percent higher than
    those from before the Europeans arrived.

    "Traumatic injuries do increase really significantly," said Philip L.
    Walker, an anthropology professor at the University of California at
    Santa Barbara, who conducted the study with Richard H. Steckel of Ohio
    State University.

    The findings suggest "Native Americans were involved in more violence
    after the Europeans arrived than before," Walker said. But he emphasized
    there was also widespread violence before the Europeans came.

    Nevertheless, he said, "probably we're just seeing the tip of the
    iceberg" as far as the difference between violence levels before and
    after. That's because as many as half of bullet wounds miss the
    skeleton. Thus, the study couldn't detect much firearm violence, though
    some tribes wiped each other out using European-supplied guns.

    The findings shed light on a controversy that has stirred not only
    living room discussions, but also an intense, sometimes ugly debate
    among anthropologists.

    It involves two opposing views of human nature: Are we hard-wired for
    violence, or pushed into it?

    Anthropologists who believe the latter seized on the findings as
    evidence for their view. "What it all says to me is that humans aren't
    demonic. Human males don't have an ingrained propensity for war. . . .
    They can learn to be very peaceful, or terribly violent," said R. Brian
    Ferguson, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in Newark.
    Ferguson contends that before about 10,000 years ago, war was virtually
    nonexistent. But experts on the opposing side also said the findings fit
    their views.

    "A 50 percent increase is the equivalent of moving from a suburb to the
    city, in terms of violence," said Charles Stanish, a professor of
    anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles. "This shows
    the Native Americans were like us. Under stress, they fought more."

    Both sides called the study, which was presented Friday at the annual
    meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in
    Buffalo, a valuable contribution. "Walker's one of the best. This guy's
    as solid as a rock," Stanish said.

    Walker and colleagues examined the skeletons of 3,375 pre-Columbian and
    1,165 post-Columbian Native Americans, from archaeological sites
    throughout North and Central America.

    The North Americans came mostly from the coasts and the Great Lakes
    region, Walker said.

    Pre-Columbian skeletons showed an 11 percent incidence of traumatic
    injuries, he said, compared with almost 17 percent for the
    post-Columbians.

    Walker said his findings surprised him. "I wasn't really expecting it,"
    he said. Yet it undeniably suggests violence, he added. Most of the
    increase consisted of head injuries in young males, "which conforms
    pretty closely to the pattern you see today in homicides."

    The researchers defined "traumatic injury" as anything leaving a mark on
    the skeleton, such as a skull fracture, a healed broken arm, or an
    embedded arrow point or bullet.

    Walker said that although part of the increased injury rate doubtless
    stems from violence by whites themselves, it probably reflects mostly
    native-on-native violence. "In a lot of cases, such as in California,
    there weren't that many Europeans around -- just a few priests, and
    thousands of Indians," he said.

    Walker said the higher injury rate could have many explanations.
    Increased violence is normally associated with more densely populated,
    settled life, which Native Americans experienced in modernity, he said.
    Disease could also touch off war, he said.

    "Here in California, there was a lot of inter-village warfare associated
    with the introduction of European diseases. People would attribute the
    disease to evil shamanic activity in another village," he said.

    Ferguson cited other factors. The Europeans often drew natives into
    their imperial wars, he said.

    "Sometimes, the Europeans would enable someone to pursue a preexisting
    fight more aggressively, by backing one side," he added. Other times, he
    said, Europeans got natives to conduct slave raids on one another.

    Natives also fought over control of areas around trading outposts, to
    become middlemen, he said. "Sometimes that was a life-or-death matter,
    since it meant the difference between who would get guns or not."

    Stanish agreed. "Obviously, having an expanding imperial power coming at
    you is going to exacerbate tensions," he said. "They're pushing you.
    They're going to push you somewhere -- into other groups."

    "You're also going to get competition over access to the Europeans, who
    are a form of wealth," he added. Native Americans fought over areas rich
    in fur, which the whites would buy.

    Yet Native American warfare was widespread long before that, Stanish
    said.

    The natives' ancient practice of using human scalps as trophies is well
    documented.

    Native Americans before Columbus were probably about as violent as
    Europeans then, Stanish contended.

    Ferguson didn't dispute this; indeed, he said, there was a time of
    unusually heavy violence among Native Americans before Columbus, around
    1325. "There was some of the worst evidence of warfare that we see
    anywhere in the world anytime," he said.

    However, he added, "if you go back a couple of thousand years before
    that, it's questionable" whether Native Americans warred.

    Keith F. Otterbein, an anthropology professor at the State University of
    New York at Buffalo, said the skeleton findings contribute to a
    balanced, middle-of-the-road view.

    "The folks who are saying there was no early warfare -- they're wrong,
    too. There is, in fact, a myth of the peaceful savage," he said.

    Otterbein said the controversy won't end here; both sides are too
    ideologically entrenched.

    "Underlying the 'noble savage' myth," Stanish said, "is a political
    agenda by both the far right and far left. The right tries to turn the
    'savages' into our little brown brothers, who need to be pulled
    up. . . . On the left, they have another agenda, that the Western world
    is bad."

    2002 The Washington Post Company

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