Primitive People: Innocent or Savage?

The photograph is arresting: three almost naked men with long flowing hair, one painted black and the other two painted bright red, shooting arrows into the sky to ward off some aerial evil.

The National Geographic Society recently released this and other photographs of what appears to be a group of Amazonian Indians who have never seen modern civilization. The photograph is stunning because we are well past the Age of Discovery, and yet here are some fellow humans who escaped discovery [LiveScience has since learned that the group's existence has been known since 1910, however they are said to be a tribe "uncontacted" by outsiders]. We pause and look, fascinated, because the idea of a bunch of people hidden in a forest, undetected and unspoiled, is just way too romantic.

Of course, we, people of the so-called modern world, have been caught up in feelings for "the noble savage" for more than two centuries.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, Western explorers wandered the globe and brought back fantastic tales of people living off the land, like animals, they described. At first, those people were considered ignorant savages, people with none of the "higher" aspects of European culture such as religion, art, or complex social systems. These groups were presented to the public as oddities, fearsome creatures that were less than human.

But philosophers such a Jean-Jacques Rousseau, great thinkers who had not actually ever seen one of these "primitive people," took the opposite view. The "savages," they contended, were regular human with souls, but they were more innocent, more natural, more what nature intended than citizens of the modern world.

In other words, these savages were not just noble; they were like very nice children.

And then in stepped anthropologists, trained observers who went here and there spending real time among those savages and discovered that just like people in cities, these isolated groups had their own brand of sophisticated culture and they were anything but innocent.

But even today, with that understanding in hand, we continue to be seduced by the idea that there might be people naturally much better than ourselves.

For example, in the 1970s, 26 people calling themselves the Tasaday were "discovered" in the Philippine forest. They were reportedly peaceful people living in caves unaware that civilization had passed them by. Anthropological research confirmed that although the Tasaday were isolated, there had been contact here and there in their history.

The real controversy is not whether groups have ever been contacted, but what to do when they have.

Should everyone stay out, preserving these groups like specimens in a museum, or should globalization be allowed to gobble up these people and change their lives, integrate them into the modern world?

And more importantly, who exactly gets to make that decision?

The recent photographs of those painted men railing against the very symbol of globalization — the airplane — reminds us that there are still people out there living the lives of our ancestors, and that they aren't necessarily interested in joining us in our so-called modern life.

Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).