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Noble Savages

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

Remember the Tasaday, that tiny Stone Age tribe living in caves deep in the Philippine jungle? According to the 1972 National Geographic article that made them famous, the Tasaday, completely isolated from civilization, had no words for war or weapon, no sense of private property. Men and women shared in food gathering and child care. Despite the two-to-one male-female ratio, there were no fights over women, and no wife sharing. They had no official leader; instead, “we decide things together,” they said. To complete their saintly profile, they ate a mostly vegetarian diet. They were the living embodiment of Rousseau’s notion of the noble savage: “Man is born good, it’s society that corrupts him.”

This was the time of the Vietnam war and of second-wave feminism, and it is no wonder that the discovery of the Tasaday made such an impression. Clad in orchid leaves, spending a mere two hours a day gathering food and the rest relaxing and telling stories, the gentle Tasaday proved that most of the evils of modern life—war, capitalist greed, sexism—were not ingrained in our DNA but artifacts of civilization, and as such could be overcome.

In subsequent years, unfortunately, the legend of the Tasaday was dismantled. Instead of genuine Stone Age survivors, they were naive puppets exploited by the Marcos regime. Prior to their “discovery,” they had lived in huts, not caves, and worn regular clothes, not orchid leaves. They had been instructed by Marcos’s officials to take off their clothes and look poor so that tourists would give them money.

I was deeply disappointed, but I didn’t give up hope that somewhere on the planet a few remnants of the noble savage survived to keep alive my faith in human nature. Take, for instance, the Amazon. Surely in those millions of acres there lurked exemplars of Rousseau’s dream?  But no: both the Wairanu, famous for their slaughter of five American missionaries in the 1950s, and the Yanomamo, profiled by Napoleon Chagnon, showed that in a state of nature man (not in the generic sense) is fierce and cruel. He is ever ready to inflict pain and death to other men in fights not over resources as anthropologists had long believed, but over women, and pain and death on women when in the grip of jealousy or suspicion.

Ok, I said to myself. It’s pretty hopeless to find the noble savage among humans. But what about among the animals? Take the rare and endangered bonobo, the so-called “feminist ape.” Close relatives of the chimpanzee, and thus of ours, bonobos live in a matriarchal society in which disputes are settled not by blows and bites, but by sex in many varieties. We have bits of bonobo in our DNA, I reminded myself, and those bits will save us. But to my distress I then learned, not long ago, that bonobo males attack each other even more frequently than chimpanzee males.

And what about chimpanzees? Having devoured everything that Jane Goodall ever wrote for popular consumption, I knew about their less than attractive qualities, their penchant for deceit, their war raids, their cannibalism. But surely they possessed some charming traits that might, after seventy years of studying them, endear them to the great Jane? Wrong again. Dame Jane’s favorite animal is not, it turns out, the chimpanzee, but the dog. Dogs are faithful, she says, and they give unconditional love. Chimpanzees, on the other hand, are a lot like people, and like people some of them “are really not nice at all.”

So here we are. Not only does the noble savage not exist among humans, but the animals that most resemble us fail to meet Rousseau’s criteria. Strangely enough, to find the noble savage we have to descend the evolutionary scale, leaving us superior primates behind, all the way down to the dog (and, I insist, the cat). But here’s a more cheerful thought: maybe the recent, gradual progress in the way we think of and treat animals is a belated recognition that the true noble savages are to be found among the “lower” creatures—not only cats and dogs but cows and pigs and chickens, and in treating them as such we are ourselves ennobled.

Noble Savage (Photo by Alix Leopold,


7 Responses

  1. Still trying to cope with the idea that those who do NOT behave as if they wished for God’s kingdom on Earth seem to be winning way too much of the time in the greedy grubbing for money, possessions, and power.

    It is so hard to oppose them – all they have to do is be self-centered and single-minded about their quest for the goodies. All we have to do is… unite, and set up stops: Thus far and no more.

    The only reason it hasn’t gone completely to the billionaires is that they like to be served, and really prefer to be bowed down to, so they need us peasants.

    And, of course, they need minions to impose their will.

    The Our Father hints at better; humans don’t seem to go that way – and there isn’t enough ‘stuff’ on Earth for us ALL to be rich.

      1. It will work better when the more you earn, the higher your tax rate.

        And those who continue trying to be greedy at some point have to hand ALL the money over a certain number to the government anti-poverty and educational programs. Or whatever.

        We have made it possible for people to have SO much money they can buy politicians.

  2. In 1976, my Cultural Anthropology professor spent most of the semester focused on the Yanomamo. There was lots of violence within the tribe, as well as warring between groups and with other native populations. There was also a lot of homemade alcohol. LOTS of alcohol, and much chewing of coca leaves. And some pretty despicable behavior. The movies (many recorded by herself and her team) she showed in class hid nothing from the viewer. They were really not a nice people.

    My Physical Anthro professor LOVED bonobos and chimpanzees, and claimed their behaviors and personalities were so similar to humans that she was amazed each group within the species didn’t just kill each other off.

    I guess I agree with Goodall: I prefer dogs over people!

      1. Yes, I was! And I was fortunate to have had (mostly) interesting professors that opened up whole worlds in their classes. I’ve never regretted my curriculum choices, even knowing that the degree would mean very little in the real world. It was back in the days of employers preferring a college degree, but not caring about the discipline. Unless you were going into teaching, business, or certain sciences (Iike chemistry) geared to specific jobs, of course. I went onto banking after college, but chose my major to suit my interests

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