Aborigines

The Little-Mentioned Ignoble Savage

A common modern myth holds that primitive societies were more peaceful, although given the consistency of human nature throughout recorded history one must wonder how anyone could reach such a conclusion. Yet the myth has grown stronger in recent decades despite all the clear evidence to the contrary. Beyond the high rates of cranial trauma in female Aboriginal skeletal remains and the well-documented violence against women in their tribal societies, the power of the belief that these groups were less violent does not diminish. ‘Never let facts get in the way of a good story’ has always applied, never more than to Aboriginal issues and the gross misconception that a Utopian world of placid and pacific people existed before Europeans arrived. Such fables are the fertile soil from which those who seek to demonise others on the basis of race and inherited guilt draw their sustenance .

As Tony Thomas wrote in Quadrant‘s May, 2013, edition, paleopathologist Stephen Webb in 1995 published his analysis of 4500 individuals’ bones from mainland Australia dating back 50,000 years. (Priceless bone collections at the time were being officially handed over to Aboriginal communities for re-burial, which stopped follow-up studies). Webb found highly disproportionate rates of injuries to women’s skulls, suggesting deliberate attacks, often from behind.

In the tropics, for example, female head-injury frequency was between 20 and 33 per cent, versus 6.5-26 per cent for males. The most extreme results were on the south coast, from Swanport and Adelaide, where female cranial trauma rates ran as high as 40-44 per cent — two to four times the rate of male cranial trauma. In desert areas, 5-6 per cent of female skulls showed evidence of three separate head injuries inflicted over time, and 11-12 per cent had two injuries. Webb could not rule out women-on-women attacks but thought them less probable. The high rate of injuries to female heads was the reverse of results from studies of other peoples. His findings, according to anthropologist Peter Sutton, confirm that serious assaults were common in Australia over the thousands of years prior to the First Fleet.

The evidence from experts in relevant fields which challenges these myths has never been more important. Some of the books written in the past would not be published today due to their unpalatable truths — but they do exist and that is what matters as layers of fake history accrete into a monolith of misinformation.

Common sense would say the less secure an environment, the more violence will occur, particularly when people are fighting for life-or-death resources, as they were in primitive hunter-gatherer societies. Survival was the mindset and modus operandi of all primitive peoples and this would not, could not, change until they developed sufficiently to assure reliable food supplies. Necessity may well be the mother of invention, as we moderns say, but in primitive times necessity sired violent desperation. Most people today would consider infanticide, cannibalism and agonising, often deforming, initiation rituals common amongst Aboriginal peoples as shockingly violent, and they were. These practices were actively condemned and discouraged by the Europeans who colonised Australia. On this count alone, the arrival of the British introduced a less violent system to Aboriginal societies. And the provision of rations by the British reduced the uncertainty of life and the need for war.

We only have to look through well-documented British and European histories to see how violence diminished as societies became more secure and more enlightened. The lack of development in primitive cultures, such as those in pre-contact Australia, must as a matter of course mean violence was the norm. As psychologist Jordan Peterson puts it in a short few words: “Hunter-gatherers, too, are much more murderous than their urban, industrialized counterparts, despite their communal lives and localized cultures.”

The figures bear out Peterson. The yearly homicide rate in today’s UK is about 1 per 100,000. It is four to five times higher in the US, and about ninety times — yes, ninety — higher still in Honduras, which has the highest recorded murder rate of any modern nation. The !Kung bushmen of Africa, romanticized in the 1930s by Elisabeth Marshall Thomas as “the harmless people”, had a yearly murder rate of 40 per 100,000, which declined by more than 30 per cent once they became subject to state authority. This is a very instructive example of complex social structures serving to reduce, not exacerbate, the violent tendencies of human beings. Yearly rates of 300 deaths per 100,000 have been reported for the Yanomami of Brazil, famed for their aggression, but the stats don’t max out in the Amazon. Closer to home, the people of Papua New Guinea kill each other at yearly rates variously ranging from 140 to 1000 per 100,000. However, the bloodiest record appears to be that of the Kato, an indigenous people of California, 1450 of whom per 100,000 met violent deaths in the 1840s, as Lawrence H. Keeley notes in War Before Civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage. As the publisher’s blurb puts it:

… To support this point, Keeley provides a wide-ranging look at warfare and brutality in the prehistoric world. He reveals, for instance, that prehistorical tactics favoring raids and ambushes, as opposed to formal battles, often yielded a high death-rate; that adult males falling into the hands of their enemies were almost universally killed; and that surprise raids seldom spared even women and children.

Keeley cites evidence of ancient massacres in many areas of the world, including the discovery in South Dakota of a prehistoric mass grave containing the remains of over 500 scalped and mutilated men, women, and children — a slaughter that took place a century and a half before the arrival of Columbus….

In defense of this thesis, Keeley devotes most of his well-written book to discussion and documentation of several aspects of pre-contact native warfare, some of which he judges as superior to modern battle, including weapons, tactics (more frequent encounters and raids rather than fewer but prolonged actions), forms of combat (small ambushes and larger raids on settlements preferred), and casualties (much deadlier than modern war in terms of deaths relative to total population). The author also considers the material gains and losses of native war, especially the high logistical vulnerability of small-scale societies to looting and destruction.

Keeley devotes several chapters to the causes and contexts of non-state warfare, ultimately concluding that conflict is less closely associated with population density than with any situation that requires or encourages exchange or mutual acquisition of desired resources between societies. He argues

the fact that exchange and war can have precisely the same results is often forgotten by archaeologists. When exotic goods are found at a site, they are almost invariably interpreted as being evidence of prehistoric exchange. That such items might be the spoils of war seldom occurs to prehistorians … Thus archaeologists doubly pacify the past by assuming that all exotic items are evidence of exchange and that exchange precludes war. The ethnographic evidence implies that both of these assumptions are invalid; war moves goods and people just as effectively … as exchange, and exchange can easily incite warfare.

Keeley further identifies proximity to unusually bellicose neighbors, severe economic hardships and frontier locations and conditions encouraging exchange as additional contexts for non-state warfare. (The term “frontier”, however, is not clearly defined: does it refer to border areas between societies, or does it include outside groups from the perspective of a given center?)

A particularly interesting chapter sees Keeley examine the reasons why the urge to “pacify the past” has seduced Western scholars, a mindset he identifies as arising from the aversion to war that developed following the bloody traumas of World Wars I and II and the apocalyptic fear of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. In such a setting, the nastier aspects of observed native life came to be explained as the result of Western contact — and thus was native war recast as the epitome of the evils that “civilization” and “progress” inflict on tribal life. Presto! The past becomes more peaceful, virtuous and happy than modern life for no better reason than the wish for it to have been so. As American essayist Barbara Ehrenreich writes in 1997’s Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War, ‘humans have been killers longer than they have been humans’. To deny the warts-and-all reality of Aboriginal peoples also denies their humanity and their truth.

History serves a valuable purpose when it is sourced in facts that provide insights into human behaviour and outcomes, for these can help to guide us into the future. When history is sourced in fantasy and fabrications, as is increasingly common today, particularly in regard to indigenous peoples, there is no wisdom to be gleaned and to guide. Instead, beliefs, policies and actions will spring from distorted and dangerous presentations of human nature.

Real history is a record of human behaviour which provides foundational understanding; fabricated history —  mythstory, if you will — is no more than a reflection of the author’s imagination. Valuable as fiction perhaps, but destructive when called history.

26 comments
  • Daffy

    I’m hoping that Quadrant might publish its excellent collection of essays on Aboriginal topics as the mad clowns in Canberra hold a risible referendum into apartheid for this country. Perhaps even a teaching kit for primary and secondary students.
    We are all descended from irascible savages. It is only the cultures that provided shelter and wealth to release people from violence that were able to slowly spiral out of the pervasive poverty of tribal depravity.

  • Tony Tea

    “(Priceless bone collections at the time were being officially handed over to Aboriginal communities for re-burial, which stopped follow-up studies)”

    That was Sir Humphrey convenient.

  • PT

    Yea it is Tony Tea. Just as it precludes any further DNA studies to determine if Mungo Man (for example) is related to any contemporary aboriginal people much less those who later lived in that area.

    What’s really maddening is the way Pascoe takes the difficulties in getting permission for archeological digs in Australia due to the red tape over aboriginal heritage and claims it’s all part of some “cover up” to hide this “advanced aboriginal civilisation” he claims existed.

  • PT

    The “noble savage” myth has been around at least as long as Rousseau in the 18th century. It’s partly descended from the idea of the Garden of Eden: the innocence before the Fall. It’s also the ultimate nostalgia (along with the myth of Arcadia) of getting overwhelmed by our busy and stressful lives. The same thing that gets people out camping and bushwalking, except this is some prehistoric fantasy.
    .
    But it appeals to leftists as they can claim that all that’s wrong with the world is the “power structures” (which they want to eliminate – and replace with others that have them at the head of course). In Australia, of course, they also seek to use aboriginal issues as an excuse to push through their various “projects” – the “working man” doesn’t count anymore. So they have to airbrush anything that doesn’t fit this propagandist fantasy. Yet the evidence has always been there. I saw an interview with some elderly aboriginals from central Australia. Pre-contact two of them told the story about how their father (and others) were killed by raiders (other aboriginals, not white interlopers), and the grandmother finding her son was dead committed suicide by throwing herself into the fire!

    That’s more credible than most of the 3rd or 4th hand massacre claims. But whilst these are accepted without question, which the highest possible death tolls quoted, the testimony of aboriginal raids and killing is swept under the rug.

  • Stephen

    “Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”
    Thomas Hobbes, 1651 (quoted as published with the spelling et al of the time). An insight into paleolithic life.

  • NarelleG

    Great paper Roslyn.

    From the first fabrication by the industry and political elite – since the 80’s?
    Laying the map heading towards where we are now- basing a referendum on ‘always was – always will be'(The PM at Garma).

    “Such fables are the fertile soil from which those who seek to demonise others on the basis of race and inherited guilt draw their sustenance .”

    Where to from here?
    Suffer in silence?

  • NarelleG

    @Roslyn Ross

    Joe Lane (r.i.p) would be so proud of your work.

  • john.singer

    @ Roslyn Ross
    Great article Ros, the work of Keeley you quoted seems very interesting. Two things I have noticed in my lifetime is that various professions attract people with particular characteristics. Archaeologist are often people trying to escape the pressures and tribulations of the modern world, I also met many “Historians” who were Communists or almost-Communists.
    There is no doubt the violence of pre-contact is being hidden and given the opportunity obliterated.

  • Peter Marriott

    Interesting piece Roslyn and nicely put together, thank you.
    The ferocity and horrific cruelty of the American Indians, none more so than the Aztecs, is well documented ( but never publicised of course) starting with the magnificent record of Bernal Dìaz, the last of original conquistadors who served under Cortez as well as Cordoba and Grijalva before him. In his book “The Conquest of New Spain”, on their march from the coast and eventual capture of Mexico he mentions the advice given to them by the Lords of Tlascala, Xicotenga the Elder and Mase Escasi, Aztecs themselves and admirers and friends of Cortes, but definitely not friends of the Mexicans “In fighting the Mexicans they said, we should leave no one alive who we were able to kill ; neither the young, least they bear arms again, nor the old, lest they should give council ..”. The Tlascalan warriors who went with them certainly followed this rule, and were often restrained by Cortes and his men who were sickened by the sight of their slaughter of anyone they could get their hands on regardless of age or sex. They had even more horrific and sickening habits of course, which are all mentioned in Diaz’s book….but again never publicised.

  • Brian Boru

    Thanks rosross for an excellent article. It’s about resources isn’t it?
    .
    We all have innate urges; for food, for shelter and for sex that have never left us. In modern society we like to eat well and have comfortable housing and we expend a lot of effort on these and the other. This explains why many of us enjoy fishing and hunting or doing up houses as a pastime. It’s why we have endless cooking and house renovation shows on TV.
    .
    Our hunter gatherer ancestors were the same but it was much more direct and violent with them because of their circumstances.
    .
    The current movement by indigenous is a yet another effort to gain resources.

  • rosross

    @NarelleG,

    Thanks for a touching comment in regard to Joe Lane who is greatly missed as is his resource page, First Sources.

  • NarelleG

    @rosross
    I often think of Joe – especially when I see this work of yours.
    He used to often talk to me (email) about the way things were headed.
    You have expressed the things he used to say to me.
    Bless him – he kept me motivated when I wanted to ditch the FM research group when facts were rapidly no longer facts.

    I just know he is cheering you and all the other writers on.
    Yes – said about his resource page.
    We do have his and Alistair Crooks book ‘Voices from the Past’

  • Dallas Beaufort

    While Australian Aboriginal customary law is in practice today, Shoosh, Ros.

  • wdr

    Excellent article. See also my many articles in Quadrant on the realities of pre-Contact Aboriginal life – cannibalism, infanticide on a grand scale, the unbelievable mistreatment of women, etc. etc., which will hopefully appear as a book. I have always thought that the Aborigines should pay reparations to the white man for bringing them from the Stone Age to the 21st century. (William D. Rubinstein)

  • rosross

    @Brian Boru,

    It is about survival and for primitive peoples food resources were the difference between life and death. They still would be if our systems fell apart.

  • DougD

    Mick Dodson, professor and 2009 Australian of the Year in 2003 addressed the National Press Club about the different forms of violence afflicting Aboriginal communities. He said:” Most of the violence, if not all, that Aboriginal communities are experiencing today are not part of Aboriginal tradition or culture.” Roslyn, you’re not suggesting Dodson was telling porkies are you? Or that the fashionable explanation for the violence inflicted on women in remote communities is that the perpetrators cannot help themselves because they are suffering from intergenerational trauma caused by colonial dispossession is another porkie?

  • Biggles

    Is the author the @rosross who opined in the comments on Alan Moran’s recent article that ‘…the West has done a good job of destroying itself by traipsing along behind the Americans bent on their economic domination of the world…’ ? I do hope not. If so, where is your evidence, @rosross, or are you just another lefty anti-American conspiracist ?

  • rosross

    @DougD,

    I have no doubt Mr Dodson has great faith in his beliefs but they have no substance in historical fact, cultural tribal realities or human nature.

  • brandee

    Brian Boru and rosross give mutual support when BB says ‘the current movement by indigenous is yet another effort to gain resources’. Yes, sounds like customary demand sharing, humbugging to use Aboriginal vernacular. We could once say ‘wealthy blacks humbugging wealthy whites for greater largess’.

  • rosross

    @Biggles,

    This is not the forum for exploration of a post made elsewhere. I would humbly suggest you read some American historians like Barbara Tuchmann; diplomats like George Kennan, and political analysts like John Mearsheimer to gain an understanding of American foreign policy. I doubt anyone would dispute that Australia is but one ally of the US and we do follow meekly in its footsteps wherever it may lead.

    Historical realism and opinions sourced in facts and realities make for a better course I find. As does tackling issues where they arise and not seeking to attack individuals wherever you find them.

  • Peter Marriott

    The aborigines barely, very barely survived as hunter gatherers and probably sometimes did starve, particularly in the vast inland areas, & sometimes they would definitely have starved if they hadn’t purposely reduced their numbers via infanticide. Resources, or more precisely I think the growing of food crops and animal husbandry, has been the difference between life and death for everyone, it’s just that more advanced cultures recognised it thousands of years ago….the aborigines never seemed to wake up to it, through all their supposed tens of thousands of years of supposed ‘culture’.
    Even in England in the late 17th century the threat of famine could only finally be seen as truly reduced, when Jethro Tull ( 1674-1740) invented his working seed drill, to improve yields and of course save some labour costs.

  • Lawrie Ayres

    You mention the way in which modern historians paint a rosy picture of the past which then makes the present more violent by comparison. This must be a leftist methodology because leftist scientists at the Bureau of Meteorology for example continually adjust past temperatures down so present temperatures more easily fit the global warming narrative. Put simply such people are frauds and they should be treated with disdain yet they are held in high regard by those who wish to do us harm.

  • rosross

    @Peter Marriott,

    There is a quote in the book, Native Tribes of South Australia where an Aboriginal woman supposedly says that they would have died out if the settlers had not arrived.

    You are right about the high rates of infanticide and the British commented on it being higher than they had encountered anywhere else. Killing the kids was an ‘easier’ way to reduce the pressure for food resources. Much quicker and for those, and there were many, who were cannibals, a sort of ‘fast food’ option. Win-win.

    One can only wonder what it did to female instincts to regularly see their babies or children killed, let alone eaten, or be required to dispose of the infants themselves. A certain destruction of maternal instincts must have taken place, which, as cellular memory down through the ages, and cultural practices, may well play a part in the shocking child abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities seen today.

    Although I doubt anyone is going to explore that possibility, let alone write a thesis on it.

  • NarelleG

    @rosross – I agree – I always thought deeply ingrained in the ‘blood’ but I am no expert and ‘cellular memory’ sounds the go.
    Mothers in some tribes still ‘cruel’ their babies by pinching and squeezing their cheeks till they cry.
    Then they madly cuddly them.
    Apparently to condition them to violence later in life.

    I would love a paper to be written on this.

    ” A certain destruction of maternal instincts must have taken place, which, as cellular memory down through the ages, and cultural practices, may well play a part in the shocking child abuse and neglect in Aboriginal communities seen today.
    Although I doubt anyone is going to explore that possibility, let alone write a thesis on it.’

  • whitelaughter

    Sadly, the political classes and media simply don’t want to know.
    Mere evidence will not change them.

  • OckerWild

    For a non-materialistic peaceful nomadic “culture”, why are the big guys photographed lugging around heavy wooden shields? The wallabies weren’t that aggressive.
    They had no compunction in killing members of other tribes, a feature of their “culture” readily utilised by colonial police forces.

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