Dim Beginnings

Since ancient times, historians and chroniclers have cited reports of travelers about people beyond the edge of civilization, usually to underscore their own superiority. But with the first colonial encounters in the New World, philosophic attempts by Europeans to find lessons in “savage” societies became more insistent. Montaigne, in 1580, held up Brazilian cannibals as a mirror to civilization and found much to admire:

There is no sort of traffic, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no name for a magistrate or for political superiority, no custom of servitude, no riches or poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupations but leisure ones, no care for any but common kinship, no clothes, no agriculture, no metal, no use of wine or wheat. The very words that signify lying, treachery, dissimulation, avarice, envy, belittling, pardon—unheard of.

And:

They still enjoy that natural abundance that provides them without toil and trouble…all necessary things…. They are still in that happy state of desiring only as much as their natural needs demand; anything beyond that is superfluous to them.

Even their warfare was “wholly noble and generous.” Although some of these claims in fact describe true features of the hunting-and-gathering way of life—magistrates and agriculture arose when they became both possible and necessary—others (no occupations but leisure; no dissimulation or envy) are as fanciful as fairy tales.

In the middle of the next century, Thomas Hobbes, with a different philosophic aim in mind, likened the state of nature to a time of war,

wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Here too, we have partial truths, and some of the same ones; certainly (and impressively) hunter-gatherers had nothing to rely on but “what their own strength and their own invention” furnished them. But we now know that the last part of this quote is false. Montaigne, a critic of his own society, conceived of a superior state of nature; Hobbes, against the background of the English civil war, wanted one that justified authoritarian solutions. Both offered implausible descriptions.

They did, however, express the need for stories about human origins. Today we have a different kind of story, the one being literally pieced together by scientists who hunt fossils. Reconstructing early humans physically is harder than finding their fossil remains, and hardest of all is imagining them as living people who hunger …

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Letters

The Old Way’ March 29, 2007