It is considered insensitive, even Hobbesian, to use the word “primitive” in speaking of primordial cultures. Encyclopedia Britannica identifies the phrase primitive culture as belonging to “the lexicon of early anthropologists.” Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, father of cultural anthropology, wrote Primitive Cultures in 1871, before the savage horror of World War I shook confidence in civilization.
By mid-twentieth century, Rousseauian daydreams of nonviolent, ecologically wise, egalitarian tribesman had taken hold. The Noble Savage was no longer a myth, but a living victim of industrialized nations. By degrees, a new breed of radical academics — dubbed “barefoot anthropologists” by biologist Paul Gross — transformed distant, undeveloped areas such as the Amazon from sites of study to crime scenes. They distorted a research discipline into a forensic undertaking, thereby shifting a field of study away from the sciences and toward the humanities and its discontents. Effort at scientific inquiry was dismissed in favor of advocacy. Anthropology became the polemical handmaiden of a cause.
Anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon, a research professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2012. Induction crowned decades of controversy. His 1968 text, Yanomamö: The Fierce People, became a standard course book as well as a scandal to members of the American Anthropological Association. In 2013, Chagnon published a memoir of his long odyssey with the Amazonian tribe and the firestorm that greeted his field observations: Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes — The Yanomamö and the Anthropologists.
In Noble Savages, his first book for a non-specialist audience, he wrote:
Respect for science and the scientific method was beginning to weaken … by the end of the 1960s. The French thinkers, Derrida and Foucault in particular, began to influence curricula. … Postmodernism was incompatible with and often antagonistic toward the scientific approach. The very notion that the external world had an existence independent of its observer was challenged. Moreover, the scientific view was usually said to be exploitative and designed to keep the poor, the disenfranchised, ethnic minorities, or women in subordinate social positions.
Observations unflattering to indigenous culture are inadmissible evidence among bien pensant visionaries. Any observer in the field reporting something that disturbs militant anthropologists has become fair game for denunciation as racist, sexist, or fraudulent. It is in this camp of anthropological dogma that our barefoot bishops have hung their hammocks.
The Amazon Synod’s working document is a rigged up heir to academic postmodernism. Chasuble-deep in a fashionable mythos, the instrumentum laboris sets before us the hunter-gatherer life as a vitally important part of human diversity. It celebrates “cultural biodiversity” as if we inhabited a global garden of equally estimable human societies, each one its own loveliness. Not a bed of stinging nettles or toxic hogweed among them.
Chagnon wrote as a thirty-five-year veteran of research on the Yanomamö, largely unknown to the outside world until the 1940s and ’50s. He arrived among them in 1964, when few had any lasting contact with the outside world. By 2013, things were quite different among the peoples, and anthropology itself had changed politically:
It is now acceptable to denounce earlier anthropologists in the name of political advocacy of native rights and to deny what earlier anthropologist like me saw because this older image of the Yanomamö does not conform to what the activists want to see.
(This goes a long way to explain the crude brevity of Wikipedia’s dismissal of Allan Holmberg’s 1940s description of his field work in the Amazon. This brush-off of a classic work by the distinguished founder of Cornell’s Department of Anthropology is based solely on a single assertion by popular journalist Charles Mann, author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (a book endorsed by Howard Zinn). Devoid of any other citation to support sweeping dismissal, the entry contrasts with Dr. Holmberg’s N.Y. Times obituary, October 14, 1966.)
Despite Chagnon’s sympathy for indigenous grievances and his affection — often admiration — for individual natives, what he witnessed makes risible the instrumentum‘s gushing over their ancestral “lifestyles.” Begin with his inquiry into native practice of infanticide. Motives for it include a mother’s inability or refusal to care for two closely spaced babies, a taboo against twins, preference for male offspring (“There was a demonstrable shortage of females.”), and newborns with an obvious birth defect. An additional impulse was tribal taboo against sexual relations from the onset of pregnancy until a child was weaned at about three years of age. Infanticide was a practical means of ending a prolonged period of celibacy.
Enforcers of the practice appear to have been primarily the mothers themselves:
The Yanomamö say that the mothers are the ones who actually kill the newborn. … I have spoken to men who were angry that their wives killed a newborn without first discussing it with them. I had the impression that in many cases the mother decides sometime before the child is born to keep it or kill it and may not discuss her decision with others.
Pop anthropology reveres the healing wisdom of rainforest peoples. Wikipedia croons: “Brazilian indigenous people have made significant contributions to the world’s medical knowledge.” Because a significant percentage of modern medicines derives from rainforest plants does not mean that indigenous peoples had the botanical knowledge or means to create medicine as we know it. It is foolhardy to assert a causal relationship between modern medicine and maladaptive rainforest therapies. More often than not, these are a cauldron of taboos, counter-productive protocols, and superstitions that yield harmful, sometimes fatal, results.
Western methodology requires qualities of mind — ardor for rationality — that are choked by a culture of taboos. Chagnon wrote: “Most of their folk beliefs are almost the opposite of what sound medical practice recommends.” Yanomamö language has no word for what we call medicine. He used the Spanish word for it, medicina, known in the village he lived in. Depicted as “mönasönö,” tribesmen took the word to mean something close to magic.
One of Chagnon’s anecdotes provides insight into what constitutes a moral dilemma for today’s anthropologists vis-à-vis native custom. He tells of tending a warrior carried home from a raid with an arrow through his chest. The arrow tip was a near-lethal lanceolate-shaped one that traditional wisdom insisted be treated by depriving the victim of water. Dehydration worsened the man’s condition. Unwilling to let him waste away, Chagnon mixed his own medical supplies into a watery batch of sweetened mönasönö, against which there was no taboo.
Ultimately, the man survived, as much a testament to his constitution as to Chagnon’s ruse. But survival raised a dilemma in terms of correct anthropological procedure:
Some anthropologists would say I did something unethical because this act might give them hope and therefore make them dependent on modern medicine. And when I left my medicine would no longer be available. This would most likely cause them psychological harm. According to such logic it is better … not to make them dependent on modern medicine, to let them die. I disagree.
No anthropologist relinquishes his own dependency on modern medicine. What Chagnon’s comment suggests is that rainforest peoples are viewed less as individual persons than specimens of obsolete cultures. Their way of life, with its deprivations, cruelties, and dysfunctional beliefs, must be kept intact, preserved like flies in amber to serve the ideological preferences, and professional terrain, of a certain class of credentialed authorities.
The instrumentum‘s emphasis on “socio-cultural diversity” betrays the Church’s longstanding missionary history by switching sides. Once upon a time, missionaries saw themselves charged with discouraging behaviors deemed inhumane or unsound by the Christianity they brought with them. Now, in sanitized retrospect — and amid piecemeal acculturation — old missionary endeavors are derided as cultural annihilation. With tribal cultures politely condensed to cuisine, costume, and exotic dances, cultural diversity among rainforest peoples offers one more way to pin the tail on the Christian West.
By falling into the arms of ecologism — the new pedantry — the Vatican atones for having once nullified pagan animism, and its Spirit-willed assortment of ways to be human.
Maureen Mullarkey is a painter who writes on art and culture. Her essays have appeared in various publications, among them: The Nation, Crisis, Commonweal, Hudson Review, Arts, The New Criterion, First Things, The Weekly Standard, and The Magazine Antiques. She was a columnist for The New York Sun.