4. Realities of Tribal Lifeways

Submitted by Jacques Roux on January 8, 2007

According to anthropologist Lorna Marshall, whose research on the !Kung has been reported by the primitivist-beloved Marshall Sahlins, "Except for food and water (important exceptions!) . . . they all had what they needed or could make what they needed." Marshall's notation that food and water can be "important exceptions" to primitive "affluence" is well taken. Fifth Estate's George Bradford compassionately concedes that "primal humans" are "capable of experiencing occasional hunger" but reassures us that they "sometimes [chose] hunger to enhance interrelatedness, to play, or to see visions." It remains to be seen how well the primitivist notion of "hunger as a means of play" will catch on with the modem public.

Furthermore, anthropologist Edwin Wilemsen notes that living !Kung cultural practices observed by anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins or Lorna Marshall are themselves the product of millennia of adaptation: the !Kung used to hunt elephants, practiced horticulture and other types of farming, and had skirmishes with chiefdoms in eastern Africa that drove them into their current habitat (the Kalahari Desert), where they are observed by contemporary researchers. This is contrary to what Fredy Perlman implies in a statement that "the !Kung people miraculously survived into our own exterminating age." Of course, it is technically true that the !Kung have survived, as have Native Americans and Aborigines, but Perlman implies the !Kung are a kind of living anachronism whose tribal ways preserve life in "the natural state." As well, University of Illinois-Chicago anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley notes that the !Kung "homicide rate from 1920 to 1955 was four times that of the United States and twenty to eighty times that of major industrial nations during the 1950s and 1960s." Far from representing a pristine picture of "primitive man," in other words, !Kung society, as any other, has changed over the centuries to adapt to changing needs. This all underscores the point that existing hunter-gatherer tribes do not necessarily provide a window back into time.

In this regard, amateur primitivist pseudo-anthropology warrants a strong caution from Kenneth L. Feder, a practicing anthropologist at Central Connecticut State University. He writes that knowledge of early human "social systems-how they related to each other within groups, how they defined 'family,' who they considered suitable mates-is, perhaps, forever out of reach. We are relegated to using living primates or hunting and gathering groups of human beings, neither of whom should be considered all that reliable as models for prehistoric hominid behavior." But trifles such as scientific knowledge do not prevent the Green Anarchy collective from proclaiming that prior to 8,000 B.C.E. "a natural state of anarchy . . . had prevailed for about 2 million years."

Thanks to research by other historians, archaeologists, and anthropologists, we know that other non-industrialized peoples besides the !Kung did not always live in egalitarian social formations, either. For example, he 500 nations that existed in North America before 1500 represented a diversity of cultural, political, and economic systems. Some native societies were resolutely patriarchal, such as the Powhatan Confederacy that settlers at Jarnestown, Virginia encountered in the 1600s. Others incorporated matriarchal and democratic aspects of governance into tribal life; Iroquois women, for example, made most of the important decisions in their society. (A matriarchal society, it is important to remember, is still of course a hierarchical society.) Moreover, Native Americans domesticated corn and tobacco, eventually teaching Europeans how to grow them. These facts are important for those attempting an honest evaluation of non-European tribal lifeways. It is impossible to abstract the estimated 12,000 native cultures of the "New World" before 1492 into one composite "noble savage" or "primitive man" type.

Of course, native tribes did not live in a nation-state system such as Europeans developed, nor did they have property rights as Europeans conceived of them. However, natives did fight back when they felt settlers encroached too far inland. In other words, many tribes apparently held some basic notions of territoriality, evidenced not only in skirmishes with Europeans but in inter-tribal conflicts as well.

Most, if not all, native societies practiced some type of religion. The rich variety of Native American creation myths is known to many. Anarchism, by contrast, has traditionally posited atheism - in fact, antitheism - as the only belief system congruent with the scientific understanding of reality. This is also quite opposed to primitivist icon Ted Kaczynski's belief in "the Grandfather Rabbit, the grandfather who was responsible for the existence of all other rabbits." Kaczynski notes this supernatural being "was able to disappear, [and] that is why you couldn't catch him and why you would never see him.... Every time I shot a snowshoe rabbit [in the wild], I would always say 'thank you Grandfather Rabbit."' Similar pagan beliefs (or delusions) were widely held by other hunter-gatherer cultures.

Of course, this does not mean that anarchists wish to forcibly impose atheism on others. In an anarchist society, people would be free to believe whatever they wanted. But an anarchist society worthy of the name would not allow those holding religious beliefs to impose them upon others, nor would religious beliefs be allowed to influence decisions of production and distribution. Although individual belief in mystical forces would be tolerated, most anarchists would probably continue to criticize the irrationality of those who believed in the supernatural. The cultural climate of most Native American societies was far from atheist or irreligious; in fact, tribal belief systems often served to legitimize the unequal distribution of power between tribal members, and permeated almost every aspect of everyday life.

Before European influence, many native systems of exploitation were already in place, as well. The Mexica (Aztec) Indians of Central America, for example, who began as roving bands of mercenaries, had by 1400 established a broad empire centered on the worship of the war god Huitzilopochtli. The Mexica exacted tribute from subjugated villages and sacrificed as many as 20,000 humans per year to their imperial deity. The Incas built an empire in South America that was even larger than that of their Central American cousins. Of course, European societies were (and are) bloodier on a mass scale, and certainly more expansive, as history has clearly shown. These are facts that need not be forgotten in any honest evaluation of other social systems. But neither should they lead us to idealize other social systems.

Zerzan and other primitivists often claim that pre-civilized social groups enjoyed lifestyles of ease, relatively free from disease and hardship. For example, the Green Anarchy collective writes, "Prior to civilization there generally existed . . . strong health and robusticity." Before European civilization, however, it is not clear that many natives always enjoyed either, let alone both. Historians James L. Roark, Sarah Stage, and others write: "At one site in western Kentucky, which dates to about 2500 to 2000 BC, archaeologists found enough burials to allow them to calculate that the life expectancy at birth for these Woodland people was slightly over 18 years." According to estimates by researchers at the UCLA Gerontology Research Group, Homo sapiens' average life expectancy 50,000 years ago was 10 years, owing to death by disease, predators and accidents. In addition, hunter-gatherers developed other ailments associated with their lifestyles: at one Hopewell site dating to about 100 B.C.E., excavations revealed that hunters "tended to have arthritis of the elbow associated with stress to the elbow joint from using spear throwers." Of course, in a primitivist society such painful conditions would simply have to be endured.

Additionally, the mound-building peoples of the Mississippian culture developed forms of hierarchy and domination as well:

One Cahokia burial mound [dating to approx. 1000 C.E.] suggests the authority a great chief exercised. One man - presumably the chief - was buried with the dismembered bodies of several people, perhaps enemies or slaves; three men and three women of high status, perhaps the chiefs relatives; four men, perhaps servants or guards, whose heads and hands had been cut off; and fifty young women between the ages of -eighteen and twenty-three who had evidently been strangled. Such a mass sacrifice shows the power a Cahokian chief wielded and the obedience he commanded.

In Running on Emptiness, Zerzan claims, 'The foraging Comanche maintained their non-violent ways for centuries before the European invasion, becoming violent only upon contact with marauding civilization." But in War Before Civilization, according to John Johnson, anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley produces evidence that "Contrary to arguments that tribal violence increased after contact with Europeans, the percentage of burials in coastal British Columbia bearing evidence of violent traumas was actually LOWER after European contact (13 percent from 1774 to 1874) than the very high levels (20 to 32 percent) evidenced in prehistoric periods." Additionally, it is known that even without European help Comanches harassed Wichita settlements in present-day Texas into the 18th century. The Wichita had themselves moved to the Red River area by the 1700s to escape hostile Osage Indians in the Midwest.

A side note is in order before continuing: Some primitivists may protest that focusing on the less-than-romantic realities of native tribal history "plays into the hands of" those who unjustly oppressed the American Indians. That is, by stating that natives engaged in internecine warfare or were mostly patriarchal, etc., one is merely "playing into the hands of' European conquerors, who highlighted native "savagery" in order to oppress them. This "plays into the hands of'-type argumentation stunts many discussions on the left, and so it is worth quoting George Orwell, who wrote:

Whenever A and B are in opposition to one another, anyone who attacks or criticises A is accused of aiding and abetting B. And it is often true, objectively and on a short-term analysis, that he is making things easier for B. Therefore, say the supporters of A, shut up and don't criticize: or at least criticize 'constructively,' which in practice always means favourably. And from this it is only a short step to arguing that the suppression and distortion of known facts is the highest duty of a journalist.

For purposes of argument, we could say that Orwell's "A" above represents primitivism, while "B" represents apologists for European exploitation. (Of course, the argument of this pamphlet is on the side of neither A [primitivism] nor B [European exploitation], but rather on the side of "C" [an anarchist society].)

It is very important to recognize the stupidity and destructiveness of the "if you're not with us, you're on the side of our enemies" accusation. In the first place, a moment's reflection reveals that both sides in a dispute can easily hurl this canard at those who refuse to side with them. It also introduces an absurd contradiction: if both sides are correct that "if you're not with us, you're on the side of our enemies," those who refuse to take either side are guilty of simultaneously taking both sides. In practice, the only purpose of this accusation is to intimidate critics and to silence dissent. (It's very disturbing that anyone who calls him or herself an anarchist would ever stoop to such slimy tactics.)

Getting back to the question of the characteristics of primitive societies, it is known that European conquerors were far more brutal in their rape and plunder of native lands than almost any native societies ever were to each other. This fact, however, need not distort any accurate depiction of what tribal lifeways were really like. We deserve an honest picture of events; we gain no real understanding by filtering them through ideological biases. And from such an honest picture, we can admit that there were many, many admirable things about native societies, but that few, if any, represent desirable alternatives to our current social situation, much less alternatives that conform to anarchist ideals of direct democracy and the removal of religious authoritarianism from the public sphere.

The Green Anarchy Collective shifts course, however, and argues that, despite the primitivist citation of many native societies, the only truly ) acceptable primitive societies were in fact those that existed before the invention of writing approximately 1 1,000 years ago. In other words, the prehistoric societies of non-literate peoples are those that primitivists really wish to model their utopia on. (Again, see the Zerzan, Blair, and Green Anarchy document "Notes on Primitivism.") Some other primitivists do not wish to recede this far into the past ("only to the Iron Age," say some), but for the moment, it is worth studying the Zerzanian/Green Anarchy contention.

So, what did prehistoric human social formations actually look like? What were the values of prehistoric hominids, and around what principles - if any - was their social life organized? Without the written record, their social ideas remain largely a mystery. It is unfortunate that Emory University historian Michael P. Roark, et. al., have to remind us that "[no documents chronicle [prehistoric] births and deaths, comings and goings, victories and defeats. No diaries chart their daily lives. No letters record their thoughts and emotions. No songs or stories capture their musings about who they were and what was important to them."

Of course, elementary concessions to logic do not impede primitivist fantasy. Referring to ways of life that existed in the dark eras of human prehistory, John Zerzan complains in Future Primitive that nowadays Neanderthals are "much-maligned." Contrary to the strong health and "robusticity" primitivists attribute to the Neanderthal, anthropologists Christopher Stringer and Clive Gamble note, "The high incidence of degenerative joint disease in Neanderthals is perhaps not surprising given what we know of the hard lives they led and the wear and tear this would have produced on their bodies. But the prevalence of serious injuries is more surprising, and indicates just how dangerous life was, even for those who did not manage to reach 'old age' in Neanderthal societies." As well, it is important to remember that prior to their becoming extinct more than 30,000 years ago, according to Ian Tattersall, curator of physical anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, "[p]hysical differences in the Neanderthal species were so distinct that they would have represented a completely separate species from homo sapiens." There was also "no biologically meaningful exchange of genes between the two species." In other words, anatomically modern humans (homo sapiens) coexisted with Neanderthals in Europe as a different species, and did not develop from them, as some primitivists ignorantly insinuate. "[M]odern humans are the sole surviving twig on a branching bush produced by evolution," Tattersall reminds us. "We're not the pinnacle of a ladder that our ancestors climbed, but an altogether different experiment." In fact, Zerzan's "much-maligned" and genetically different species, the Neanderthal, is thought by many anthropologists to have been wiped out through warfare with homo sapiens (the Cro-Magnon) - that is, our direct ancestors - despite the naive, speculative Green Anarchist statement that "civilization inaugurated warfare."

If primitivists wish to posit a certain conception of social organization as ideal for the future of humanity, then let them do so. But to say humans have already lived in anarchist societies in the sense imagined by the classical anarchist tradition is untenable. To misrepresent the scientific record, to conjure out of the past examples for which evidence is sketchy at best, to speculate wildly about how prehistoric humans lived and to assert such speculations as fact - this is to commit nothing less than fraud. In this regard, primitive pseudoscientific ramblings resemble those of T.D.Lysenko, the Soviet geneticist and agricultural commissar, who attempted to make nature's laws appear to conform to the ideological biases of Leninism, often by falsifying his data. Very much like fundamentalist Christians opposed to the theory of evolution, ideology-driven primitivists play with the paleo-anthropological record, discarding data that conflicts with their predetermined conclusions.

Doubtless, it is valuable to trace the origins of warfare, the state, and other forms of violent domination. Anarchists since Peter Kropotkin have done this. Nevertheless, Columbia University anthropologist Morton H. Fried reports, "There are no authentic written records from which the development of a pristine state can be directly read." Coercive hierarchical structures are generally thought to have arisen through control over nascent agricultural surpluses, aided by religious beliefs and ultimately a sacerdotal caste that legitimized inequality. It seems perverse to suggest that, rather than eliminating the unjust social relationships that remove food surpluses from public use, we get rid of the food surpluses themselves! But again, that is what many primitivists want.

Also, only the most misinformed could agree with the wildly untenable primitivist claim that in prehistory - that is, history for which there is no written record - humans lived in "a state of natural anarchy...for about 2 million years." And even if it could be proven that they did (and it cannot), what would this mean for us now?

Regardless of what human societies did for the two million-year period for which scant knowledge exists, whether what happened was admirable or atrocious, we still find ourselves in the present dealing with forms of oppression that exist now. That hominids have the capacity to live in stateless societies was well known before primitivists took to photocopiers and the Internet to remind us. So, too, has history told us of the human capacity for cruelty and violence - two things not limited to technological civilizations. These facts shed light on the human condition, but they do not dictate our future. The past suggests that a statist society is not inevitable, but it also does not necessarily tell us what is to be done in the modem era. The past defines possibilities,' but it is still up to humans in the present to decide what their future will look like. From the data we have, it seems clear that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of the earliest hominids would not be a viable, much less desirable, option for many.