ADVERTISEMENT
  About the SA Blog Network













Cross-Check

Cross-Check


Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

Thanksgiving and the Myth of the Savage Savage

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Email   PrintPrint



The approach of Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday, has me brooding over recent scientific portrayals of Native Americans as bellicose brutes.* When I was in grade school, my classmates and I wore paper Indian headdresses and Pilgrim hats and reenacted the “first Thanksgiving,” in which supposedly friendly Native Americans joined Pilgrims for a fall feast of turkey, venison, squash and corn. This episode seemed to support the view—often (apparently erroneously) attributed to the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau—of Native Americans and other pre-state people as peaceful “noble savages”.

Native Americans, accused of Hobbesian savagery by modern scientists, actually treated Europeans kindly in some early encounters. This painting shows the legendary Thanksgiving feast between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag, who helped the newcomers survive and were eventually driven from their land.

As I’ve pointed out previously, prominent scientists now deride depictions of pre-state people as peaceful. “Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage,” Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker wrote in 2007, “quantitative body counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with ax marks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own.” According to Pinker, the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes “got it right” when he called pre-state life a “war of all against all.”

Pinker reiterated this claim in his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (which I reviewed for Slate). The Hobbesian thesis has also been advanced in other influential books, notably War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford University Press, 1996) by anthropologist Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois; War in Human Civilization by political scientist Azar Gat of Tel Aviv University (Oxford University Press, 2008); and Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage (Saint Martin’s Press, 2003) by archaeologist Steven LeBlanc of Harvard. Referring specifically to the pre-Colombian New World, Keeley asserted, “The dogs of war were seldom on a leash.”

Popular culture has amplified these scientific claims. In the 2007 HBO docudrama Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Chief Sitting Bull complains to a U.S. Army colonel about whites’ violent treatment of the Indians. The colonel retorts, “You were killing each other for hundreds of moons before the first white stepped foot on this continent.”

Native Americans definitely waged war long before Europeans showed up. The evidence is especially strong in the American Southwest, where archaeologists have found numerous skeletons with projectile points embedded in them and other marks of violence; war seems to have surged during periods of drought. But scientists such as Pinker, Keeley, Gat and LeBlanc have replaced the myth of the noble savage with the myth of the savage savage, which is contradicted by archaeological and anthropological studies.

In two momentous early encounters, Native Americans greeted Europeans with kindness and generosity. Here is how Christopher Columbus described the Arawak, tribal people living in the Bahamas when he landed there in 1492: “They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…. With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

How that passage—which I found in A People’s History of the United States by the historian Howard Zinn (Harper Collins, 2003)—captures the whole sordid history of colonialism! Columbus was as good as his word. Within decades the Spaniards had slaughtered almost all the Arawaks and other natives of the New Indies and enslaved the few survivors. “The cruel policy initiated by Columbus and pursued by his successors resulted in complete genocide,” the historian Samuel Morison—who admired Columbus!–wrote.

A similar pattern unfolded in New England in the early 17th century. After the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth in 1620 on the Mayflower, they almost starved to death. Members of a local tribe, the Wampanoag, helped the newcomers, showing them how to plant corn and other local foods. In the fall of 1621 the Pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest with a three-day feast with the Wampanoag. The event my classmates and I reenacted in grade school really happened!

The friendliness of the Wampanoag was extraordinary, because they had recently been ravaged by diseases caught from previous European explorers. Europeans had also killed, kidnapped and enslaved Native Americans in the region. The Plymouth settlers, during their desperate first year, had even stolen grain and other goods from the Wampanoag, according to Wikipedia’s entry on Plymouth Colony.

The good vibes of that 1621 feast soon dissipated. As more English settlers arrived in New England, they seized more and more land from the Wampanoag and other tribes, who eventually resisted with violence—in vain. We all know how this story ended. “The Indian population of 10 million that lived north of Mexico when Columbus came would ultimately be reduced to less than a million,” Zinn wrote.

The Arawak and Wampanoag were kind to us—and by us I mean people of European descent. We showed our thanks by sickening, subjugating and slaughtering them. And we have the gall to call them more savage than us.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Image credit: Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris of 1621 feast at Plymouth, courtesy of Wiki Commons.

*Self-plagiarism alert: I originally posted this column in 2010.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





Rights & Permissions

Comments 20 Comments

Add Comment
  1. 1. jerryd 10:00 am 11/27/2013

    Interesting you didn’t mention the most educated man there at the first Thanksgiving was an Indian that had went to Cambridge and Oxford in England IIRC and returned.

    Of course the real first Thanksgiving in the US was at St Augustine Fl many decades before then.

    Amazing how that and it’s the oldest US city is ignored as it was by the Spanish.

    Can you say English centric bias?

    Link to this
  2. 2. FrenchToaster 1:55 pm 11/27/2013

    This paragraph is amusing:
    “Native Americans definitely waged war long before Europeans showed up. The evidence is especially strong in the American Southwest, where archaeologists have found numerous skeletons with projectile points embedded in them and other marks of violence; war seems to have surged during periods of drought. But scientists such as Pinker, Keeley, Gat and LeBlanc have replaced the myth of the noble savage with the myth of the savage savage, which is contradicted by archaeological and anthropological studies.”

    The first two sentences assert ‘X’, here ‘X’ is American Indians engaged in organized violence – warfare – as supported by archaeological evidence, “war seems to have surged during periods of drought”. Those who have the dubious honor of knowing close combat know also that it is savage. The third sentence asserts ‘not X’ as supported by archaeological evidence.

    Nice “Science” writing! LOL!

    Link to this
  3. 3. M Tucker 2:07 pm 11/27/2013

    The obvious problem with the noble savage / savage savage debate is that the adherents want it to be a simple story. History is never simple and without documentation we can only rely on anecdotal accounts and archeological evidence that obviously can be interpreted in more than one way.

    Didn’t the Wampanoag people have rivals? Who were the Narragansett?

    Why must it be all one way or the other? Isn’t it possible that a third choice might apply? I think you can find anecdotal stories where the native people were at first kind and when Europeans returned the native people reacted violently.

    I think it is unfair to suggest that Europeans came to the New World with the intention of introducing the native people to European diseases. It is true that later some Americans did attempt to spread small pox among some tribes.

    Don’t attempt to see utopia among native cultures.

    Yes, Happy Thanksgiving!

    Link to this
  4. 4. plswinford 3:42 pm 11/27/2013

    I suggest the book by Jared Diamond, The World Until Yesterday. This book is about the actual life of some hunter-gatherers, not supposition from archaeology. It was all about group vs group.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Chryses 3:51 pm 11/27/2013

    FrenchToaster (2),

    “…Nice “Science” writing! LOL!’

    As I’ve posted here before, Mr. Horgan writes a political column, not a Science column.

    Link to this
  6. 6. MultiWoman 12:55 pm 11/28/2013

    Chryses: Be fair! His blog isn’t always political!

    Link to this
  7. 7. Marc Lévesque 10:53 am 11/29/2013

    @Related

    London Review of Books : The World until Yesterday – What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies? http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n22/james-c-scott/crops-towns-government,

    @FrenchToaster

    I think you misunderstood that paragraph. For me it reads : 1) Native societies practiced violence 2) Many individuals portray, or have portrayed, native societies as idyllic even though that is contradicted by the evidence, similarly, Pinker, Keeley, Gat and LeBlanc promote the idea that native societies in the past were very violent, more violent than current western societies, which is also contradicted by archaeological and anthropological studies.

    Link to this
  8. 8. rshoff2 2:45 pm 11/29/2013

    “And we have the gall to call them more savage than us.”

    Nail on the head.

    We are still savage, they/we all the same. Human animals.

    The part I cannot forgive in my fellow human is their arrogance and stubborn refusal to admit we are scum while instead believing that modern technology makes us any better than a skunk (actually, skunks can be cute critters).

    We are scum. And that’s ok. Happy Thanksgiving! Let’s open our eyes and try harder.

    Link to this
  9. 9. rshoff2 2:47 pm 11/29/2013

    @chryses, as though there is no politics in science?! Silo thinking….

    Link to this
  10. 10. Chryses 9:14 am 11/30/2013

    rshoff2 (9),

    “@chryses, as though there is no politics in science?! …”

    No, it was rather a comment to FrenchToaster that he shouldn’t expect much Science in Mr. Horgan’s Politics.

    Link to this
  11. 11. Chryses 9:37 am 11/30/2013

    MultiWoman (6),

    “… Be fair! His blog isn’t always political!”

    Always? No.
    Usually? Yes.

    Link to this
  12. 12. rshoff2 2:27 pm 12/2/2013

    @Chrysis, Fair enough. Although you seem to be implying that there is something wrong with political observations of science or that we can even divorce the broad sense of human politics from science. There is not and we cannot. Perhaps I’m wrong and you are being supportive. (?)

    Link to this
  13. 13. rshoff2 2:29 pm 12/2/2013

    The reason we cannot is because we ourselves are human, so it becomes circular.

    Link to this
  14. 14. rshoff2 5:12 pm 12/2/2013

    Thinking about this further, John seems to introduce a philosophical perspective on science which is really not about his politics.

    Although, philosophy may be an aspect of human politics, I think this is an important distinction. Besides, there’s an entire magazine and website dedicated to soft and hard science. It’s fantastic that they have a knowledgeable blogger who is interested in asking scientists and science laymen to put down analytics long enough to think outside of the box. Not only does he ask, but he gently guides us by introducing concepts.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Chryses 6:19 pm 12/3/2013

    rshoff2 (14),

    Most of the politics – Mr. Horgan’s included – I’ve seen have a basis (some more soundly than others) in philosophy.

    Gentle too is in the eye of the beholder.

    Link to this
  16. 16. rshoff2 11:56 am 12/4/2013

    I don’t know Chryses, I live in a world that is not at all gentle and came from a rigid, difficult, harsh (but loving) family. I find John’s approach very gentle.

    Also, most of the politics (traditionally speaking) I’ve seen is not sound does not have a sound basis in philosophy. It has a basis in marketing, a nice word for dishonest manipulation. Look at Washington, DC! (Or the capitol of any other country for that matter).

    But I do understand your points and appreciate your perspective.

    Link to this
  17. 17. z34aa 9:17 pm 12/4/2013

    I believe this article is flawed, and the whole debate itself to be flawed by the simple fact that it treats ‘pre-state peoples’ as if their level of societal organization were the only deciding factor in how ‘savage’ they are. (I guess by savage they mean doing things that we don’t approve of.)

    We are talking about societies and cultures all over the world at different times, and in vastly different circumstances. Is it so unbelievable that some peoples faced with different pressures reacted in different ways? That some were ‘savage savage’ and some were ‘noble savage’ and a whole lot were just ‘average savage’?

    Link to this
  18. 18. Chryses 10:23 pm 12/4/2013

    rshoff2 (16),

    “… I live in a world that is not at all gentle and came from a rigid, difficult, harsh (but loving) family. I find John’s approach very gentle. “

    Okay. Nothing there at variance with the proposition that Gentle is in the eye of the beholder.

    “… most of the politics (traditionally speaking) I’ve seen is not sound does not have a sound basis in philosophy …”

    I cannot agree with you about that. Whether it hails back to Locke, Hobbes, or Aristotle, virtually all political though has its origin in philosophy

    “… It has a basis in marketing, a nice word for dishonest manipulation …”

    Not so. Politics is rooted in one or another philosophical POV.

    “… Look at Washington, DC! (Or the capitol of any other country for that matter).”

    It is, as are the capitols of most democracies, a cauldron of competing philosophical propositions.

    “But I do understand your points and appreciate your perspective.”

    Civilized behavior promotes learning.

    Link to this
  19. 19. rshoff2 11:54 am 12/5/2013

    Chryses, I think I see an area of divergence in our perspective.

    “I cannot agree with you about that. Whether it hails back to Locke, Hobbes, or Aristotle, virtually all political though has its origin in philosophy”

    Perhaps what I’m considering is that politics today seems to be related to a marketing style behavior. I don’t respect the ‘political machine’.

    Perhaps you refer to the roots of the political ideology whereas I refer to the behavior of the people involved. Noun/Verb

    There are so many layers to the aspects of politics and whether it is a subset of philosophy or vice versa. I prefer to think we should be more philosophical in our approach to science and politics while leaving out the manipulative arguments. But we must be sure to do it diplomatically with integrity and gracefully accept the consequences.

    However, I see myself as flip flopping around with the meaning of politics and philosophy depending upon the context of the conversation. Words get in the way of so many concepts. Or do they help flesh out the details?

    In the end, I support John Horgan’s approach and appreciate his blogs regardless of whether or not I agree.

    Link to this
  20. 20. Chryses 5:29 pm 12/6/2013

    rshoff2 (19),

    “Perhaps you refer to the roots of the political ideology whereas I refer to the behavior of the people involved.”

    You may be right.

    “In the end, I support John Horgan’s approach and appreciate his blogs regardless of whether or not I agree.”

    That may be why you defend his political take on Science.

    Link to this

Add a Comment
You must sign in or register as a ScientificAmerican.com member to submit a comment.

More from Scientific American

Scientific American Holiday Sale

Give a Gift &
Get a Gift - Free!

Give a 1 year subscription as low as $14.99

Subscribe Now! >

X

Email this Article

X