The myth of the ‘brutal savage’ and the mindset of conquest


The ‘brutal savage’ meme has enjoyed a resurgence in popular culture and establishment narratives, writes Stephen Corry, despite abundant evidence that it’s fundamentally wrong. But it suits today’s dominant mindset of conquest, conflict and colonialism all too well, and serves to justify the ongoing genocide and expropriation of surviving Indigenous Peoples today.

The last few years have seen an alarming increase in claims that tribal peoples have been shown to be more violent than we are. This is supposed to prove that our ancestors were also brutal savages.

Such a message has profound implications for how we view human nature – whether or not we see war as innate to the human condition and so, by extension, broadly unavoidable.

It also underpins how industrialized society treats those it sees as ‘backward’. In reality though it’s nothing more than an old colonialist belief, masquerading once again as ‘science’. There’s no evidence to support it.

The American anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, is invariably cited in support of this brutal savage myth. He studied the Yanomami Indians of Amazonia from the 1960s onwards (he spells the tribe ‘Yanomamö’) and you’d be hard pressed to find a book or article on tribal violence which doesn’t refer to his work.

Popular writers such as Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond frequently make much of Chagnon’s thesis, so it’s worth giving a thumbnail sketch of why in reality it proves little about the Yanomami, and nothing about human evolution.

Rejected by anthropologists, alive and well in popular culture

First, it’s important to dispatch a red herring from the murky cauldron being cooked up by the brutal savage promoters: They often point to Darkness in El Dorado, a book by Patrick Tierney, which attacked Chagnon’s work, but went too far.

Tierney raised the possibility that one of Chagnon’s colleagues may have deliberately introduced a deadly measles epidemic to the Indians. That simply wasn’t true: In fact, the epidemic was inadvertently started by American missionaries.

That Tierney was wrong on this single point is now used to claim that all his and other writers’ criticisms of Chagnon have been discredited. They haven’t. In any case, were a single error deemed to negate a whole thesis, then pretty much all science, as well as journalism, the law and a lot else, falls apart.

Anyway, let’s set Tierney aside. For decades, Napoleon Chagnon’s findings have been rejected by almost all of the many other anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami, and in most countries his work simply isn’t taught. He had rather faded from anthropology in the United States too, until his recent resurgence as the darling of establishment attitudes.

According to Chagnon, brutality is a key driver of human evolution. How did he come upon such a disturbing ‘discovery’? Basically, he counted how many Yanomami men boasted that they were unokai and he told us this means they’ve killed people. He then crunched the numbers to show that unokai are similarly successful in love as they are in war, and that by fathering more children than non-killers, they ensure the next generation is as murderous as they are.

Accidental misunderstanding or deliberate falsification?

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