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  Primitivism (from Latin primitivus, ‘first of its kind’), in anthropology, refers to a body of thought that there exist remote and exotic ‘primitive’: peoples whose lifestyles and technologies are considered to show marked contrast to those of modern societies.

Historically, anthropologists, among other thinkers, have played a considerable part in imagining that ‘primitive’ peoples exist as simple, isolated and different societies, as such societies were their designated field of enquiry. Around the 1960s, anthropologists initiated a critique of the assumptions that underpinned the notion of the ‘primitive’: assumptions that revealed more about Western thought than so-called ‘primitive’ societies themselves.

Enlightened ideas since the 18th century (see below) tended to conceive ‘primitive’ societies in an idyllic way, in order to mourn the loss of communal values in European societies. In the 19th century, ‘primitive’ was used as a euphemism for ‘savage’ to describe those societies of comparatively simple technologies. However, ‘primitive’ continued to carry its pejorative sense particularly when it was thought that those ‘primitive’ communities of Asia and Africa were from an earlier stage of human and social development. This was emphasized by the 19th-century fashion of constructing evolutionary scales in which ‘primitive’ societies were compared to those of archaic times. They were deemed to live in an original human condition, and their roles in world history and regional relations with other societies were overlooked.

A typical characterization of ‘primitive’ societies was that of a communal, nomadic existence, ordered by kinship ties, sexually promiscuous, illogical and given to magical beliefs. In contrast, modern society was characterized by territorial states, monogamous family units, the possession of private property, more sophisticated religious ideas and scientific thought. Such contrasts persist in primitivist ideas today in which communities from the non-Western world tend to be seen through a distorted mirror, representing something that the Western world is not any more. This may be a view that lauds their ‘primitive’ existence, or one which disparages their ‘primitive’ condition. Either way, it denies those communities to represent or be represented in a less clouded light.

Anthropologists since the 1960s have tended to critically evaluate primitivist assumptions which see the non-Western world merely in relation to the West. Instead, they have initiated enquiries into the complexities of communities\' lifestyles, values and ideas, noting their engagement with others in the region as well as that of the world.

In the arts of 18th-century Europe, primitivism was the cult of what Dryden called the ‘noble savage’. Rousseau expressed the feeling most clearly in his Social Contract, stating that the human race had been born free, but was now struggling in the chains imposed by religion, social custom, law and political oppression. By breaking these chains, we might rediscover the true virtues and true values of our species. Such thoughts led, in one direction, to the scientific and social upheavals of the Enlightenment, and in another to an obsession with the lives of actual ‘noble savages’. Such people lived supposedly untrammelled lives in places as far distant from ‘civilized’ Europe as possible. (There was occasionally great public excitement when a ‘noble savage’ was found in the heart of Europe itself: a child brought up from birth with no company but that of animals, and so thought to be free of human conditioning. Herodotus, over 2,000 years before, had recounted the story of a foolish king who had a baby isolated for several years with no company but that of goats, and who was then convinced, on the basis of the child\'s cries, that the ‘native language’ of the human race was bleating.)

The ‘noble savage’ idea hardly survived either the discoveries of science in the 19th century or the savage repression of actual ‘savages’ by colonial powers in the same century. It was, in essence, a flat-Earth theory but for all that, dynamic and appealing during its years of currency. It also has some interesting offshoots: the notion prevalent in many religions that true knowledge is granted only to God or the gods, and that for human beings to aspire to share it, to reach beyond their own ‘primitive’ natures, is a dangerous and punishable flaw; the repellent fascination with experiments in remaking the human race, from Frankenstein\'s monster and his multifarious progeny to ‘master race’ eugenics and modern medical engineering; exploration and its artistic and entertainment equivalents the pastoral and ‘pioneer’ traditions. We are a sophisticated species, and it is almost as if part of that sophistication involves regretting what we are.

In fine art, the art of ‘primitive’ cultures has had important effects on the ‘high’ art of the West. Examples include the influence of Oceanic art on Gauguin, of African sculpture on pre-cubist Picasso, and of pre-Colombian South American sculpture on Henry Moore. Some artists were once called ‘primitive’ because their work seemed unsophisticated or naive compared to the prevailing orthodoxy both Italian pre-Renaissance painters and such later artists as Henri ‘Douanier’ Rousseau and the German Expressionists were once so designated. But the term, and the implication that ‘primitive’ somehow means ‘inferior’, are gradually being squeezed out of critical thinking and vocabulary. DA PD MG KMcL RK

See also evolutionism; functionalism; Orientalism; rationality.Further reading Susan Hiller (ed.), The Myth of Primitivism; , Adam Kuper, The Invention of Primitive Society.



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