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La destruction des Indes, part of the triptych by Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié (Private collection).
© Edouard Duval-Carrié

The term implies the idea of a beginning. It refers to people who live as they did at the dawn of human history? A tempting hypothesis, but one that leads to serious misunderstandings, says Lévi-Strauss, explaining in this August-September 1954 Courier article why the notion of primitive society is an illusion.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

There was a time when if you spoke about savages everyone had a fairly clear idea what you were talking about. Etymologically, the savage was a man of the forest, and the term denoted those people who lived in close contact with nature. The German naturvölker (nature folk) conveyed this idea directly.

But apart from the fact that all savages do not necessarily live in forests (think of the Eskimos), the word soon took on a figurative meaning which quickly became derogatory. Then too, the idea of living in close contact with nature is ambiguous; farmers live in much closer proximity with nature than city dwellers yet both belong to the same civilization.

Scientists came to realize that you could not classify the people of the world according to how close or how far removed they were from nature. In fact what distinguishes mankind from the animals is that man, with his universal use of language, his fabricated implements and tools, and his submission to customs, creeds and institutions, belongs to a higher order than any living thing in nature. The world of man is a world of culture that is rigorously and unequivocally opposed to nature whatever the level of civilization. Every human being talks, makes implements and behaves according to set rules whether he lives in a skyscraper or in a thatched hut in the middle of the forest. And it is this that makes him a human being, not the particular materials he builds his house out of.

Modern anthropology prefers therefore to use the word primitive to designate the people who used to be called savage. There are an enormous number of primitive societies – several thousands according to a recent estimate. But trouble starts when an effort is made to describe the characteristics of such societies.

What common denominator?

First of all, we can discount the factor of numbers, which is the size of the society. Of course, size does have meaning from the global point of view, for societies comprising several million members appear only rarely in the history of mankind and are found only in a few great civilizations. Moreover, these civilizations appeared at different historical epochs and in regions as far apart as the East and Far East, Europe, Central and South America. Yet below this level there are differences so great that the factor of numbers or size can have  no absolute value. Some African kingdoms included several hundred thousand members, Oceanian tribes several thousand, but in the same regions of the world we find societies made up of a few hundred persons or even at times of only a few dozen.

In addition, such peoples (for instance, the Eskimos and some Australians tribes) are often organized in an extraordinarily flexible way: a group is able to expand on festive occasions or during certain periods of the year, so as to include several thousand persons, while at other seasons it splits up into small self-sufficient bands of a few families, or even of single families. Obviously if a society consisting of 40 members and another of 40,000 can both be called primitive for the same reasons, the numerical factor alone doesn’t provide an explanation.

Cultures existing outside industrial civilization

We may perhaps be on firmer ground if we consider another feature, undeniably present in every culture we call primitive: each of them is, or was at least until very recently, outside the range of industrial civilization. But here again, the yardstick will not work. Consider the case of Western Europe. It has often be stated, and rightly, that the way of life in  western Europeans scarcely changed from the beginning of historic times until the invention of the steam-engine; there was no fundamental difference between the life of a patrician in Imperial Rome and that of a well-to-do Frenchman, Englishman or Dutchman of the 18th century.

Moreover, neither Rome in the second centur y B.C. nor Amsterdam about 1750 is comparable with a Melanesian village of today or with Timbuktu in the middle of the 19th century. Civilizations which preceded the birth of our industrial civilization should not be confused with those which existed outside it, and would probably have remained outside for a very long time if industrialization had not been imposed upon them.

The fact is that when we speak of primitive peoples, we have the factor of history (or time) in mind. The very word primitive implies the idea of a beginning. Then can we say that primitive peoples are those which have retained or preserved to the present day a way of life that goes back to the beginnings of human society? This is an attractive hypothesis and it is valid within certain limits. But it is also liable to cause serious confusion.

First, we know absolutely nothing about mankind’s actual beginnings. The earliest traces we have discovered – arms and implements in chipped stone some thousands of centuries old – are certainly not the very first products of the human brain. They already reveal complicated technical skills which must have developed little by little. And above all, these techniques are found to be the same over vast stretches of the earth’s surface implying therefore that they had time to spread, to influence one another, and to become homogeneous.

In the second place, the peoples whom we call primitive are all- or nearly all- familiar with at least some of the arts and techniques that appeared extremely late in the development of the civilization. Although the oldest chipped stone implements may date from 400,000 or 500,000 years ago, agriculture, stock rising, weaving and pottery appeared only about ten thousand years ago, perhaps less. Thus the “primitiveness” of peoples who cultivate gardens, breed pigs, weave loincloths and make cooking-pots is quite relative in the time span of the total duration of human history.

But we can ask another question: after all, do not at least some of these peoples continue to follow a way of life much older than ours, much more like that of man in the earliest ages? At once, some examples come to mind: the aborigines of Australia or of South America. They lead a nomadic life in semiarid regions, live by hunting, and by picking and gathering from the earth what food they can. They are ignorant of weaving or pottery, and until quite recently used stone implements. The natives of Australia had no knowledge even of the bow and arrow, while those of Tierra del Fuego had only a very rudimentary type.

People without history?

Nevertheless, the progress of ethnological knowledge provides the explanation. It has shown that is these cases and in all the others that could be mentioned; the apparently primitive state is not the result of any miraculous preservation of an ancient mode of life, it is the effect of regression. The Australians can only have reached their continent by boat, so they must at some time have known the art of navigation, and since forgotten it.

A change of environment to an area which lacks good quality clay often explains the disappearance of pottery sometimes even from human memory. Language often proves that peoples, whose low level of civilization might suggest their immobilization and isolation in the same place from the most distant times, have in fact been in contact for thousands of years with all kinds of much more highly developed populations. Far from these alleged primitives having no history, it is their history that explains the very special conditions in which they have been found.

For it would be absurd to think that, because we know nothing or almost nothing of their past, primitive peoples have no history. Their remotest ancestors appeared on the earth at the same time as our own. For tens and even hundreds of thousands of years, other societies preceded theirs and throughout that time lived, endured and therefore changed as ours did. They knew wars, migrations, periods of want and prosperity. They had great men who left their stamp on technical knowledge, on art, morals and religion. All this past exists; only they know little about it and we know nothing.

The latent presence and pressure of a past that has disappeared are enough to show the falsity of the word primitive, and even of the idea of a primitive people. But at the same time we must take note of a feature which all societies have in common and which distinguishes them from ours. It is the reason for applying to them all the same term, however inappropriate it may be.

Primitive – a misleading term

All these societies –from the powerful empire of the Incas, which succeeded in organizing several million men into a politico-economic system of exceptional efficiency, down to the small nomadic bands of plant-gatherers in Australia– are comparable in at least one respect: they knew or still know nothing of writing.

They could preserve nothing of their past save what human memory was able to retain. This remains true, even for the small number who have, for lack of writing, developed some systems of mnemonics (such as the Peruvian knotted strings or the graphic symbols of Easter Island and of certain African tribes). Although these societies are not, strictly speaking, more “primitive” than ours, their past is of a different kind. It could not be a past preserved in writing and thus available at any moment to be used for present advantage.

It was a fluid past which could be preserved only in small quantities, and the remainder, as it came into existence, was condemned to be forgotten with no hope of recovery.

To borrow a simile from the language of navigation, societies with some form of writing have a means of logging their course and therefore of keeping on the same track for a long period. On the other hand, societies without some form of writing are reduced to following an unsteady course, which may in the end (although the distance covered in the same in both cases) bring them back very near to their starting point. Or at least it deprived them of the means of systematically drawing away from it, that is to say, of making progress.

Therefore I cannot too strongly warn that readers – and even scientists themselves- should beware of ambiguous terms like savage, primitive or archaic. By taking the presence or absence of some form of writing as the sole criterion in our study of our societies, we shall, in the first place, be invoking an objective quality which implies no philosophic or moral postulate. And at the same time we shall be relying on the only feature capable of explaining the real difference that distinguishes certain societies from our own.

The idea of a primitive society is a delusion. On the other hand the idea of a society with no form of writing makes us aware of an essential side of mankind’s development; it explains the history and enables us to foresee and perhaps influence the future of these peoples.

Claude Lévi-Strauss

Known for his studies and research at the University of Sâo Paulo in Brazil and the Institute of Ethnology in Paris, Claude Lévi-Strauss was formerly Deputy Director of the Musée de l'Homme in Paris. He was the director of research in the religious science section of the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes and Secretary-General of International Council of Social Sciences in Paris.