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Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Original Affluent Society



Death of Minnehaha: The Romantic Indian

It ought to be a no-brainer.

I don't know about you, but to my mind, this Noble Savage fellow has long outstayed his welcome. Believing him to be a real person is beginning to look positively looney. But in fact, we are not free of him yet. Not only did he practice perfect sexual equality, while at the same time paradoxically allowing feminine dominance in all things; not only did he body forth the beautiful communist ideal; not only did he live in perfect peace with his neighbour, wanting only friendship and love. And not only did he get lots of hot, steamy love on demand. He also, apparently, was far richer than we, “the original affluent society,” to use the term popular in anthropology. And, unlike us, he got his material needs with little actual labour. None of this depressing nonsense about earning your living by the sweat of your brow. Remember, after all, this was Eden.

Surely, one might think, if one is prone to such activities, the average aboriginal is a lot better off with central heating, a no-leak roof over his head, perhaps a wide-screen TV, a refrigerator, a microwave, perhaps an iPod, a car, and such mod cons, than he once was living in skin tents, using stone tools, and wandering with the buffalo.

But no—it seems we modern miscreants have impoverished him.

According to Jared Diamond, he of Guns, Germs, and Steel, settled agriculture was, to use the title of a celebrated 1987 article he wrote for Discovery magazine, “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.” That's no small claim.

“Archaeologists studying the rise of farming,” Diamond explains, “have reconstructed a crucial stage at which we made the worst mistake in human history. Forced to choose between limiting population or trying to increase food production, we chose the latter and ended up with starvation, warfare, and tyranny.” Okay—we know this script. There are too many people. Apparently, people are a bad thing. Good thing we don't know any personally.

“[R]ecent discoveries suggest that the adoption of agriculture, supposedly our most decisive step toward a better life, was in many ways a catastrophe from which we have never recovered. With agriculture came the gross social and sexual inequality, the disease and despotism, that curse our existence” (“The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Discovery Magazine, May, 1987).

Sounds a whole lot like the same old story of Mr. Noble Savage, Marxist-feminist edition. Agriculture it seems brought sexual inequality, despotism, starvation, and warfare. Probably bad teeth too. But the new claim, and the living nub of Diamond's argument, is this: before agriculture, man was able to satisfy his wants with very little actual work. “[T]he average time devoted each week to obtaining food,” Diamond says, “is only 12 to 19 hours for one group of Bushmen, 14 hours or less for the Hadza nomads of Tanzania” (ibid). And if that were not enough, it seems the items on the modern menu, although more costly, are worse for our health: “At Dickson Mounds, located near the confluence of the Spoon and Illinois rivers, archaeologists have excavated some 800 skeletons that paint a picture of the health changes that occurred when a hunter-gatherer culture gave way to intensive maize farming around A. D. 1150. Studies by George Armelagos and his colleagues then at the University of Massachusetts show these early farmers paid a price for their new-found livelihood. Compared to the hunter-gatherers who preceded them, the farmers had a nearly 50 per cent increase in enamel defects indicative of malnutrition, a fourfold increase in iron-deficiency anemia (evidenced by a bone condition called porotic hyperostosis), a theefold rise in bone lesions reflecting infectious disease in general, and an increase in degenerative conditions of the spine, probably reflecting a lot of hard physical labor. 'Life expectancy at birth in the pre-agricultural community was about twenty-six years,' says Armelagos, 'but in the post-agricultural community it was nineteen years'” (Diamond, op. cit.).

Bruegel, The Harvesters
What a pack of fools our ancestors must have been. Imagine giving it all up for a mess of potage.

But how can nutrition be better for scavengers than for farmers? Isn't scavenging a bit iffy, like dumpster diving?

Diamond expands upon the point. “First, hunter-gatherers enjoyed a varied diet, while early farmers obtained most of their food from one or a few starchy crops. The farmers gained cheap calories at the cost of poor nutrition. ... Second, because of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed” (ibid.).

This thesis is not new with Diamond, writing in the late Eighties. Any guesses when it actually emerged?

Would “1960s” surprise you? 

That was when the original studies of the Hazda and other foraging groups were undertaken. This is when the watershed “Man the Hunter” conference was held, in 1966, just in time for the summer of love. At which, it seems, the entire field of anthropology wheeled around at once to the premise that primitive man had it better than we do.

Bushmen, Bushwomen, and Bushbabies.

The times, of course, were a'changing. Civilization in general meant to those of us there at that time eternal war and slow radiation death from the atom bomb. And even aside from a certain age of man, anthropologists in particular might be expected to be especially receptive to this Noble Savage message. They have given their life to the study of foraging societies. Why would they do this, if they did not hope or want to believe that such societies had something of value to tell us? Argue that primitive societies knew something of vital importance that we do not know, and suddenly it is a glorious thing to be an anthropologist.

And so, the Noble Savage's Affluent Society premise came to be, says David Kaplan, “widely accepted by anthropologists”; the “enlightened anthropological view” (“The Darker Side of the 'Original Affluent Society'” Journal of Anthropological Research, 56:3, Autumn, 2000, p. 301, 303). It has been ever since. Don't just ask Jared Diamond. Only last year, 2015, Yuval Harari summed it up in his best-seller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. “Rather than heralding a new era of easy living,” Harari writes, “the Agricultural Revolution left farmers with lives generally more difficult and less satisfying than those of foragers. Hunter-gatherers spent their time in more stimulating and varied ways, and were less in danger of starvation and disease. . . The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”

Right. Got it. Let's look at the claims in turn.

First, as we have already heard from Engels and the Marxists, agriculture caused class divisions, and the birth of tyranny and social oppression. As Diamond puts it, “Besides malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic diseases, farming helped bring another curse upon humanity: deep class divisions. Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources, like an orchard or a herd of cows: they live off the wild plants and animals they obtain each day. Therefore, there can be no kings, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others. Only in a farming population could a healthy, non-producing elite set itself above the disease-ridden masses” (ibid).

There is an immediate logical flaw apparent here. If only with agriculture was there enough excess food for anyone to devote their time to anything besides agriculture, how can it concurrently be true that people had more food, and acquired it more easily, before agriculture? Secondly, Diamond's thesis that those not producing food are “parasites” itself requires a pretty distinctly Marxist understanding of the world. Who's to say those folks too were not providing value from their work? Is food production the only thing of value to mankind? Is there nothing to be said for the existence, say, of some sort of government, to protect one's rights and goods from one's neighbour, or the tribe over the next hill? Would paying some to govern be so terrible? Not to mention underwriting the trades: milling, tailoring, pottery, storage, cartage, that sort of thing. Better off without them?

It takes a Marxist to see the mere division of labour as oppression.

Second, as we have already seen from Gage, Friedan, Steinem, and the girls, old Noble Savage was a ladies' man. In primitive society, as is only just, women got everything they wanted. Diamond notes, as a supposed contrast, that primitive New Guinea agriculturalists require their women to do all the heavy labour. “Women in agricultural societies were sometimes made beasts of burden. In New Guinea farming communities today I often see women staggering under loads of vegetables and firewood while the men walk empty-handed” (ibid.).

Yali people of New Guinea

Of course, here Diamond contradicts Engels, who saw women doing all the work as irrelevant to their supposed emancipation. But let's leave that aside. Is what he says even true of agricultural society? Diamond offers no control. Let us grant, against Engels, as seems obvious, that the lot of women in primitive New Guinea agricultural societies is worse than that of Canadian women today. But the proper comparison is with women in hunter-gatherer societies, not modern post-industrial women, and Diamond offers no examples of this.

As it happens, we have a few. We find that the observations of the early Jesuits conform exactly to Diamond's--in describing practices among Canadian Indians. Here, too, women did all the heavy labour.

The problem is, these were hunter-gatherers, not farmers.

Accordingly, quite obviously, the oppression of women was not because of agriculture. Why would it be? Women's lot improved with agriculture, even if this took a little time. Women doing hard labour was more probably due to the constant warfare and petty banditry one is going to get without effective government. The men, being stronger, always needed their arms free in case of surprise attack.

Now we get down to what is truly novel about this anthropological argument: primitive society was materially better off. At least if you think only in terms of food.

Diamond makes much of the variety of available food sources: “It's almost inconceivable that Bushmen, who eat 75 or so wild plants, could die of starvation the way hundreds of thousands of Irish farmers and their families did during the potato famine of the 1840s” (ibid.) “[B]ecause of dependence on a limited number of crops, farmers ran the risk of starvation if one crop failed” (ibid).

But wait a nanosecond. Early foragers may well have had more food sources than 19th century Hibernian pastoralists. But there does not seem to be anything making this limited variety a necessary feature of agriculture. A farmer might just as easily keep a vegetable garden, cows, and chickens for eggs. What farmer, left unregulated, doesn't? Nothing even prevents him from, in a pinch, shooting a passing wild duck. He has, in effect, the hunter's food sources, plus his own. Hard to see how the additional food sources are a minus.

An Gorta Mor (Potato Famine) Memorial, Dublin

He does not need to, and a wise farmer does not, put all his land into a single crop, or even just a few. That's not even good for the land.

In the case of the Irish, the problem was political, not practical. The native Irish were permitted to farm only tiny plots of land, too small to sustain their families with anything but potatoes. Their crops were effectively limited by government regulation; any other crops were exported.

Nor is it obvious that there is such a great diversity of food sources available in, say, a Canadian prairie winter. Here, the sedentary farmer has a definite advantage. Not needing to wander, he can store the harvest for the fallow months. A forager must follow the food sources, and cannot keep anything in reserve. If by chance there is no game today, he does not eat.

Ouside of Loblaw's, no great variety of foods is available in a Canadian winter. No fruit grows, no green shows. It's meat or nothing. Even most animals are in hibernation.

The notion that primitive societies were “affluent,” absurd on its face, is made possible by the corollary that, like good Buddhists, in a “zen” way, “they limited their wants.” So they were affluent strictly in the sense of achieving subsistence with relatively little work.

One can see the mark of the Sixties here. Out of the rat race, no nine-to-five job, no materialist hangups, living off the land, lots of free time for recreational drug use. Wish, meet fulfillment.

And it is actually true enough. Primitive tribesmen are not as busy as we aging former yuppies are. If not to the extent Diamond would have us believe. The Sixties studies show that Kalahari Bushmen had a “work week . . . of 2.4 days per adult,” (Lee, The !Kung San. Men, Women, and Work in a Foraging Society, 1979, pp. 250-280). Aborigines in Arnhem Land were clocked in at 15-20 hours per week (Kaplan, op cit., p. 303). Looking at all such studies, Sahlins (1972:34), choosing his words carefully, concluded that “Reports on hunters and gatherers of the ethnological present--specifically on those in marginal environments--suggest a mean of three to five hours per adult worker per day in food production'” (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 303).

Traditional food of Australian aborigines.

Okay; that sounds pretty good. Almost like a governmnent job. But note, what is being measured is food production alone. Going out and hunting down a plump gazelle or picking mongongo nuts might take less time than accountancy, but it might involve a bit of food preparation as well, more than you need if you seize your food at the local Loblaw's in exchange for bits of paper and tiny pieces of shiny metal. When you add in butchering, peeling, processing, cooking on outdoor fires without the aid of a microwave, plus the maintenance of hunting tools, plus the commute to the hunting grounds, “the total work week for the bushmen on the lowest of estimates,” says Kaplan, “turns out to be between 6 and 7 eight-hour days (not counting child care)” (Kaplan, op. cit.).

The scavengers may still have the better deal. It is tough to get a fair comparison, because it is actually arbitrary what one includes in “work.” The average Hottentot does not punch a time clock. Travel time? Child care? Shopping? Washing the dishes? Business lunches? Meetings with the boss, or fellow villagers? By one attempted estimate, Kaplan to the contrary, Kalahari residents spend 44.5 hours a week at their “job,” if male, 40 hours if female. But a mainstream Canadian male spends, by the same rough measure, 40 hours at paid work, and then another 40 weekly taking care of business that must be taken care of without being in his job description (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 308). Advantage, still, to the Indians and aborigines. Just not as much advantage as might appear at first.

But now let's consider another factor. Granted that primitive tribes are able to fill their large intestines with less work. But isn't there something to be said for the quality of the food this labour produces? Wouldn't many of us prefer to work a little harder to pay for the food we like, say, pesto, as opposed to mac and cheese?

Hunters and gatherers cannot have the choices we do. If it is a porcupine we find on today's hunt, it is porcupine for supper. And lunch. And breakfast.

Fortunately, they come with toothpicks.

During the survey of foraging practices among the aborigines of Arnhem Land, anthropologists came upon a bit of a problem. The locals actually had access to charity food from mission stations. They could get flour, rice and sugar. And usually did. In order not to falsify their data, the anthropologists had to go to some lengths to convince the natives to abstain from these preferred foods for the course of the experiment. By the fifth day, tired of the “traditional” diet, a significant proportion of the men wanted to drop out (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 306).

Arnhem Land, north Australia: lush, tropical and full of mission stations distributing food.

Sometimes spare time is not worth the effort.

Kaplan at least hints at the issue: “In 1980 the nut crop was a good one, but Wilmsen indicates that it was barely touched because most people [Bushmen] preferred maize meal. Hitchcock and Ebert ... also note that there are foragers in the Nata region of the Kalahari who have access to mongongos but choose not to exploit them in any quantity, presumably because they 'do not taste good'" (Kaplan, op. cit.).

Here, as it happens, we may also have an explanation of the better nutrition among hunter-gatherers than among early agriculturalists, as revealed by their skeletal remains.

Foragers may have a varied diet. Of necessity. But farmers have a choice as to what to eat. Given choices, people do not always make the best ones. Ask Adam and Eve.

People invariably prefer some foods to others. Some dislike spinach, some cannot stand olives. I can't get my fourteen-year-old boy, for example, to ever vary from macaroni for supper.

People will usually, given the choice, eat what they prefer. That will probably end up limiting their diet. Early farmers would have known little about good nutrition. They just knew what they liked.

Probable result: an overall decline in health. Not from scarcity, but from abundance.

The next issue is this, and we have already at least hinted at it: although food may have taken little time to acquire, was there always food to be had?

In fact, nothing was more obvious to early visitors to these shores than the extreme material poverty of the Indians. Father Bressani speaks of “this almost unexampled poverty” (Jesuit Relations 39, p. 246). Bressani was a seventeenth-century Italian. Keep in mind, when you read such observations, that peasant life in the Italian countryside in the seventeenth century was not itself all skittles and Chianti.

Wigwams, Quebec

Father LeJeune speaks of the state of Indian shelter. Apparently, there were no wide-screen TVs. “If you go to visit them in their cabins, ... you will find there a miniature picture of Hell, — seeing nothing, ordinarily, but fire and smoke, and on every side naked bodies, black and half roasted, mingled pell mell with the dogs, which are held as dear as the children of the house, and share the beds, plates, and food of their masters. Everything is in a cloud of dust, and, if you go within, you will not reach the end of the cabin before you are completely befouled with soot, filth, and dirt” (Jesuit Relations 17, p. 13).

Fleas were an endemic problem, commented upon by every observer. Champlain laments, of life among the Micmac, “They have a great many fleas in summer, even in the fields. One day as we went out walking, we were beset by so many of them that we were obliged to change our clothes” (Champlain, Voyages 1, Ch. 14). Lie down with dogs, and you get up with fleas.

And now we come to the food. The Hurons had it better than most. “A little Indian corn boiled in water, and for the better fare of the country a little fish, rank with internal rottenness, or some powdered dried fish as the only seasoning, — this is the usual food and drink of the country; as something extra, a little bread made of their corn, baked under the cinders, without any leaven, in which they sometimes mix some beans or wild fruits; this is one of the great dainties of the country. Fresh fish and game are articles so rare that they are not worth mentioning” (Father LeJeune, Jesuit Relations 17, p. 15).

But these were early semi-agriculturalists. It was worse for the wandering hunting tribes. “The roving Barbarians, before knowing the French, lived solely by hunting or fishing, and, through necessity, fasted more than half the year—… frequently lacking the means of preserving game or fish a long time, when these abounded, as they had no salt; while the smoke which they used in place of salt, was not adequate for preserving provisions a long time; whence they frequently died of hunger, or sometimes inflicted death out of pity” (Father Bressani, Jesuit Relations 39, p. 243).

Among these Indians, Bressani writes, hunger is a near-constant companion. And Champlain witnesses the same: “These people suffer so much from lack of food that they are sometimes obliged to live on certain shell-fish, and eat their dogs and the skins with which they clothe themselves against the cold” (Champlain, Voyages 2, Ch. 4).

The Romantic Indian: Portuguese/Brazilian "Indianism" painting


Champlain reports an encounter with the Innu one winter, when Quebec had just been founded.

“On the 20th, some Indians appeared on the other side of the river, calling to us to go to their assistance, which was beyond our power, on account of the large amount of ice drifting in the river. Hunger pressed upon these poor wretches so severely that, not knowing what to do, they resolved, men, women, and children, to cross the river or die, hoping that I should assist them in their extreme want. Having accordingly made this resolve, the men and women took the children and embarked in their canoes,… we heard them crying out so that it excited intense pity, as before them there seemed nothing but death. ... [T]hey reached the shore with as much delight as they ever experienced, notwithstanding the great hunger from which they were suffering. They proceeded to our abode, so thin and haggard that they seemed like mere skeletons, most of them not being able to hold themselves up. I was astonished to see them, and observe the manner in which they had crossed, in view of their being so feeble and weak. I ordered some bread and beans to be given them. So great was their impatience to eat them, that they could not wait to have them cooked. I lent them also some bark, which other savages had given me, to cover their cabins. As they were making their cabin, they discovered a piece of carrion, which I had had thrown out nearly two months before to attract the foxes, .... This carrion consisted of a sow and a dog, which had sustained all the rigors of the weather, hot and cold. When the weather was mild, it stank so badly that one could not go near it. Yet they seized it and carried it off to their cabin, where they forthwith devoured it half cooked. No meat ever seemed to them to taste better. I sent two or three men to warn them not to eat it, unless they wanted to die: as they approached their cabin, they smelt such a stench from this carrion half warmed up, each one of the Indians holding a piece in his hand, that they thought they should disgorge, and accordingly scarcely stopped at all. These poor wretches finished their repast” (Voyages, vol. 2, Ch. 5).

Odd that the anthropologists seem never to have read these historical accounts. But that is the way with anthropologists. It turns out that even the early Sixties studies themselves discovered much of the same among the Kalahari bushmen they observed, but somehow entirely missed mentioning it in their published reports. Kaplan notes that during the legendary "Man the Hunter" conference, Lora Marshall commented: "The !Kung we worked with are very thin and . . . constantly expressed concern and anxiety about food." In a 1989 piece, Harpending and Wandsnider are quoted to assert that "Lee's studies of the !Kung [Bushmen] diet and caloric intake have generated a misleading belief among anthropologists and others that !Kung are well fed and under little or no nutritional stress" (Kaplan, p. 309, quoting Wilmsen, 1989). “Konner and Shostak [quoted again by Wilmsen, 1989] are quite emphatic that nutritional stress and its health consequences among the !Kung are hardly in the eye of the beholder: Deprivation of material things, including food, was a general recollection [of !Kung adults]” (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 309). “Periodic food shortages,” Kaplan continues, “have been observed among all recent hunters and gatherers” (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 321; Eaton, S.B., M. Shostak, and M. Konner, 1988, The Paleolithic Prescription. New York: Harper and Row). All of them.

There you go again: the Noble Savage archetype is powerful enough to in most cases supercede the evidence of our own eyes.

It is perhaps true that it takes only forty-four hours a week to get enough food to live on, if you are a hunter-gatherer. But it turns out that said food may oft times simply not be available.

By contrast, in many progressive municipalities, Loblaw's stores are open 24 hours.

There is, contrary to popular and fuzzy hip thought, no “balance of nature.” Nature usually follows a patternless pattern of boom and bust, one absurd extremity following upon another. A nice warm wet spring, and prey animals have a population explosion. Leading to a boom in predators, which then deplete the prey, causing a collapse in predator numbers as well as prey. Rinse and repeat. General starvation is a predictable part of the “great circle of life.” A hunter-gatherer lifestyle locks one in to these natural cycles, leading to inevitable periods of mass death.

Sadly, some have even recently died under the glamour of the Noble-Savage-Affluent-Society myth. Consider the now-famous case of Chris McCandless, only 24 years old, who sought to disappear “Into the Wild” of Alaska, and died quickly of either poisoning from eating the wrong wild plant, or simple unadulterated starvation.

Last picture of Chris McCandless alive

Because he was a modern, this was memorable enough to be worth a best-selling book. Had he been a pre-contact aboriginal, it would not have even been news.

The 1960s Noble Savagist surveys, deliberately or not, did not account for possible slow periods in the good old merry-go-round of life, or rather slaughter—slow periods that, in Canada, will come predictably and severely every winter, for perhaps the odd seven months in a row. The studies of Bushmen and aborigines were “best-case” scenarios. Anthropologists were among their subjects for only a few days or a few weeks, at the most abundant time of the year. As Kaplan notes, “Although carried out under less contrived conditions than the McCarthy-McArthur survey in Australia, [which, note, was even worse in this regard] Lee's investigation [of the Bushmen] suffers from some of the same shortcomings: for example, to buttress his argument concerning Bushmen well-being, Lee would like to extrapolate his findings from one portion of the seasonal cycle to the entire cycle, even though he is aware of the significant difference between the dry season and the wet season. Between August and October, water is limited and food scarce. Lee's survey was done from July 6 to August 1” (Kaplan, op. cit., p. 307).

There may indeed be a good reason why all studies of existing hunter-gatherer societies are done in the tropics. The tropics may be the only place where hunting and gathering is even remotely viable. As my Filipina wife maintains, it is not easy to starve in the tropics. Some kind of fruit is in season at al times of the year; the woods are thick with birdsong.

There is never the ghostly silence of a Canadian winter.

"Iracema"; Portuguese "Indianism" painting

Although there might be famine at any time, wind and weather permitting, this is when, according to the early French journal-keepers, Indian starvation inevitably appeared. For a period stretching perhaps from November to May, with nothing green other than pine needles growing, possible food is limited to ice-fishing and a few non-hibernating animals. Not easy to find at the best of times. Not easy to run down and kill, especially without rifles. Samuel de Champlain reports: “The savages who dwell here are few in number. During the winter, in the deepest snows, they hunt elks and other animals, on which they live most of the time. And, unless the snow is deep, they scarcely get rewarded for their pains, since they cannot capture anything except by a very great effort, which is the reason for their enduring and suffering much” (Champlain, Voyages, Volume 1, Ch. 6). Deep snow was the one thing that allowed them to overtake the prey, if they were equipped with snow shoes. The animals, by contrast, often got bogged down in the deep drifts.

As evidence that women in foraging societies supposedly had higher status, Diamond offers this consideration: “nomadic hunter-gatherers have to keep their children spaced at four-year intervals by infanticide and other means, since a mother must carry her toddler until it's old enough to keep up with the adults.” (Diamond, op. cit.).

A bit of a non sequitor, surely. Diamond to the contrary, this does not sound like a good thing, for either males or females. Better for women? Aren't a certain proportion of those dead children female? Or is it that, to Diamond or to other noble savages, children are not human? To me it sounds like a terribly evil thing, that we should all be glad to have put behind us. That is, if we really have.

Diamond's point is the usual feminist one that motherhood is oppressive to women. It gets awkwardly in the way of free sex, in any case.

Our point is different. The traditional Indian lifestyle, because of the severe food contraints, did not leave a lot of margin for the social safety net we have in modern Canada come to expect. Most kids, it seems, were killed as a matter of standard practice. Estimates for infanticide of female children in traditional Canadian native cultures range from 50 to 80 percent (Schrire, Carmel; William Lee Steiger, "A matter of life and death: an investigation into the practice of female infanticide in the Arctic". Man: the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society 9: 162).

Thr Inuit killed children by throwing them into the sea. The Yukon tribes stuffed their mouths with grass and just left them to die. Dene traditions were similar. Such practices lasted into the 1930s and 40s, when contact with the mainstream culture, and welfare payments, ended them.

Eskimo mother and child.

Father Jouvency reports of the Innu, “the women, although naturally prolific, cannot, on account of their occupation in these labors [the hard physical work demanded of them], either bring forth fully-developed offspring, or properly nourish them after they have been brought forth; therefore they either suffer abortion [i.e., miscarriage], or forsake their new-born children, while engaged in carrying water, procuring wood and other tasks, so that scarcely one infant in thirty survives until youth” (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 255-7). Orphans, he reports, are killed as a matter of routine (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 259).

Orphans and prospective infanticides became, therefore, for the Jesuits, a rich harvest of souls. Father Biard, working among the Micmac, notes, “I saw this girl, eight or nine years old, all benumbed and nothing but skin and bone. I asked the parents to give her to me to baptize. They answered that if I wished to have her they would give her up to me entirely. For to them she was no better than a dead dog. They spoke like this because they are accustomed to abandon altogether those whom they have once judged incurable “ (Jesuit Relations 2, p. 13).

Indian shaman

If it is not already obvious, the same fate would similarly await the aged, as the merely ill of any age. No room for sentimentality here. “[I]t is the custom,” the Relations report of the Indians about Port Royal, “when the Aoutmoins [shamans] have pronounced the malady or wound to be mortal, for the sick man to cease eating from that time on, nor do they give him anything more. But, donning his beautiful robe, he begins chanting his own death-song; after this, if he lingers too long, a great many pails of water are thrown over him to hasten his death, and sometimes he is buried half alive” (Jesuit Relations 1, p. 167).

If you weren't dying fast enough, they were eager to help you along. Or perhaps not dying at all.

For all these sufferings, it is only too apparent, the greatest help was to live near the newly-arrived Europeans. Jesuits would take your excess babies. The French in their fort would give you, in need, provisions and birch bark. They would always trade food for furs. “[T]hose who are situated near the sea,” Bressani explains, “have, by the exchange of their Beaver skins, provisions for some part of the Year” (Jesuit Relations 39, p. 243). It does not seem to have been terribly clear to these first-contact Indians that the Europeans were viciously robbing them of their land and their happy, idyllic, affluent lifestyle. No doubt more recently the Arnhem Land aborigines have suffered the same confusion, in light of the free nourishment from the nefarious mission stations.

The Sixties studies of hunter-gatherers miss one further factor that would have been a matter of life-and-death for the earlier aboriginals. Modern hunter-gatherers have a government somewhere to keep relations with their neighbours on an even keel. Murder, theft, and cannibalism are punished. They might now, as before, have to spend only forty-four hours a week on food. But now, unlike then, they need spend no additional time on self-defense. In the real state of nature, as Hobbes points out, not to mention Darwin, and as we have already seen, self-defense would have been an all-consuming consideration. Government, oppressive as Diamond may find it, can prevent adversaries from killing you, or stealing your food, or taking you as food.

Hence, perhaps, the idle hours. That may be a new thing. It may not be because of the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. It may be because the hunter-gatherer lifestyle no longer really exists, anywhere.

So why do some societies, as Diamond points out, resist the change? Why are there still, at a minimum, Australian aboriginals, Kalahari Bushmen, and Canadian Indians?

Diamond takes the fact that some few societies seem to resist the transition to agriculturalism as itself evidence that agriculturalism is undesirable. That evidence, mind you, cuts both ways. Six thousand years ago, everyone was a hunter and a gatherer. Now, almost nobody is. The evidence here, surely, is that farming is overwhelmingly more desirable.

There are probably no true hunter-gatherer societies left, except those we can know nothing of, for they have not yet been contacted. A bit of an observer paradox here: the safe presence of white-skinned anthropologists almost necessarily means their subjects are no longer truly in the state of nature. Those who have not begun to farm may be sustained largely on the handouts from the misson stations, or government welfare.

If there is also a residual resistance on the part of a few cultures to settle down to pastoralism, the Bushmen of the Kalahari, or the Indians of Canada, might it mostly be that, for most males, hunting is fun, and farming is not? Evolution surely makes it so. We were hunters for a hundred thousand years, and farmers only in the last few thousand. Aren't we hard-wired, like any predator, to get a nice big adrenaline rush out of the hunt and the kill? Isn't it tough on most young men, naturally craving adventure, not to be able to do it any more, at least not daily, and not to have it valued? Might this feeling not also be amplified by the fact that, in hunter-gatherer societies, because of defense needs, any tilling of the land that did occur was done by the women? So farming was “women's work,” implicitly effeminate. To most red-blooded males, that is not a recommendation.

Didn't even the cowboys of the Old West feel this way about the settlers? Settling down meant an ultimate loss of freedom. Don't most young boys—or even aging accountants, according to Monty Python-- imagine themselves either running away to sea and being marooned on a South Sea Island, or as cowboys riding the lonely range?

Guiding a plough and reaping what you sow just isn't as exciting.

But be that as it may; there is something to be said for living past nineteen. There is something to be said about not living in constant hunger. Not to forget the central heating, Range Rover, and wide screen TV. In sum and in essence, even if only living in Attawapiskat on welfare, disregarding all further opportunities, Canadian Indians have a vastly better life in material terms than anything they might have hoped for in pre-contact days. They can still hunt and fish, after all, according to treaty, if they want. They just no longer have to rely on it for survival.

This being so, it is absurd to talk of financial reparations, or of someone having “stolen their land.” The net gain from colonization was at least as great for the Indians as it was for the more recently disembarked Europeans. Quite apart from any formal deal cut to extinguish aboriginal title. If working a bare minimum of hours is the only goal, for their “original affluent society,” they are living in the Land of Cockaigne, on the very summit of the Big Rock Candy Mountain.

Let us remember, too, before we walk away from the subject, that man does not live by bread alone. Poverty, and Indian poverty, pre-contact, was not just material. It was spiritual. With no permanent structures, no fixed abode where things could be kept, no writing, there was little way to preserve anything for future generations. That means not just food: that means any poetry, any visual art, any music, other than could be passed on memory to memory. Any Indian expressions of the human spirit were simply lost and forgotten; like wolves howling at the moon. Of numberless generations, we have and know practically nothing: a few ambiguous rock carvings, a few oral traditions of dubious authenticity. In the Far West, some totem poles not yet completely defaced by termites. Nothing for the young and restless soul, seeking meaning, seeking what life is really all about, seeking a voice to speak to them. Nothing but the daily struggle for barren subsistence. This is a profound cultural poverty.

When Wolfe approached the battlements of Quebec, it is recorded, he was reciting to himself Gray's poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” He would rather, Wolfe said, have written those lines, than to have taken Quebec.

A noble savage contrmplates the death of General Wolfe. Benjamin West.


The burden of that great poem is the tragedy that so many men die unheard, unknown, and forgotten. None of their thoughts recorded, it is as though their lives were never lived.

Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre.

But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

Gray, and Wolfe, were thinking of most seventeenth-century Englishmen. But the lament is far more poignant if applied to Canadian natives. That is just what Indian culture condemned every Indian who ever lived pre-contact to.

It is the deepest poverty known to man.


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