Primitive culture

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Iowa Indians in London in 1844

The term primitive culture was used in older anthropology texts and discussions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth century by European explorers and anthropologists to describe indigenous societies, particularly those of North, South America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Oceania. While the term is no longer used due to its inherent racist and ethnocentric undertones, anthropologists nonetheless recognize these groups of people in their categorization of the differing forms of human societies. The difference is that there is greater respect and appreciation for all forms, regardless of how different they may be from one's own.

Some have thought "primitive" societies to be closer to the ideal, having been less corrupted by governments and social institutions. While this has some merit, such as their greater harmony with the environment, in fact human society has generally progressed towards the ideal not away from it. Developments in external aspects of life such as tools and technology, mental developments such as writing and artistic techniques, and greater spiritual or religious understanding all support a healthier, safer, and more satisfying life. The problem of human selfishness, resulting in people's inability to recognize the importance of the needs of others and of the whole society, has not emerged as societies developed; it was present in the most primitive, and it remains present. Solving human selfishness is the real challenge in creating an ideal culture.

Etymology and definition

The word "culture," from the Latin root colere (to inhabit, to cultivate, or to honor), generally refers to patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activity significance. However, the term Primitive culture also incorporates ideas of society. Society and culture are similar concepts, but their scopes are different. A society is an interdependent community, while culture is an attribute of a community—the complex web of shifting patterns that link individuals together.

Early European anthropologists believed that cultures they encountered when they traveled to other continents were preserved in a state unchanged since "Stone Age," paleolithic, or neolithic times. As a result they labeled them as "primitive," from the Latin prīmitīvus meaning "first of its kind," referring to both the activity and the community of these peoples they were encountering.

General characteristics of such societies include a lack of written language, relatively simple social structure and institutions, minimal technology, isolation from other societies, and a slow rate of cultural change—in other words, a society that has remained in that form over an extended time period while other societies have experienced significant changes. Generally speaking, cultures classified as "primitive" have no cities and no formalized legal system or government that controls the lives of the members of the society.

Early anthropological thought

Early contact with indigenous tribes of people by the first European explorers created a serious interest in the minds of both scholars and the public at large about other societies and cultures. Early anthropologists and sociologists used the term "Primitive Culture" to describe the newly contacted societies that often lacked major signs of economic development or modernity, such as the lack of a written language or advanced technology. Often times these societies also had limited and isolated populations.

Edward Burnett Tylor.

Some of these scholars and academics held that these types of societies were essentially inferior to those of Europe. Edward Burnett Tylor was one these scholars; in his work Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (1871) he argued for a type of cultural evolution involving three specific stages of cultural development:

  • Savagery: Encompassing cultures based on hunting and gathering
  • Barbarism: Including cultures based on nomadic herding and agriculture
  • Civilization: That is, cultures based on writing and the urban life

While Tylor was ethnocentric, he was not necessarily racist in his thinking. However, his and similar beliefs were often the justification used for conquering native societies all over the globe and converting them to Christianity.

Negative views of primitive cultures, while often prevalent, were not the only opinion regarding such groups. Other early sociologists and writers portrayed primitive cultures as noble—noble savages—and believed that their lack of technology and less integrated economies made them ideal examples of the correct human lifestyle. This utopian view regarded the emergence of a government and civil society caused a loss of human freedom and the expression of their original nature. Among these thinkers were Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who is most frequently associated with the idea of the noble savage based on his Discourse on Inequality[1] and Karl Polanyi, whose The Great Transformation praised the economic organization of primitive societies as less destructive than the market economy.[2]

Both positive and negative standpoints were based primarily in the assumption that contemporary indigenous peoples or their cultures were comparable to the earliest humans or their cultures. Modern anthropological thought does incorporate an evolutionary model of human society, applicable to both humanity in general and to specific societies. However, the notions of barbarism and noble savages have for the most part been abandoned. The romantic notion of previous cultures is still sometimes expressed in literature and popular culture, but as a greater understanding and acceptance of all human lifestyles has emerged, cultures once thought of as primitive are often looked upon with respect. The term "primitive culture" can still be used to refer to ancient societies from the distant past, and of which only limited archaeological evidence remains.

It should be noted that the contemporary indigenous societies even at the time of first contact with European "developed" cultures, were not in the same state as prehistoric cultures. While they might appear so, in reality most were not entirely isolated but rather have been in contact with many other groups, indigenous or colonial.

Types of primitive cultures

Both the long gone prehistoric cultures and those indigenous cultures still living in what were regarded as "primitive" societies existed in a variety of forms. A simple and obvious way to classify the variety of primitive cultures is according to the types of food eaten and how they are obtained. Thus, those societies which are constantly on the move following their food sources are classified as nomadic, while those whose food source is stable in a single location, at least for the majority of the time, are sedentary. Furthermore, societies may plant crops and develop some form of agriculture or they may domesticate animals and use them for food and other purposes, or they may simply hunt and gather foods that are available naturally in the wild. These differences in food sources impact many significant aspects of the lives of a community, from the density and size of population that can be supported to the nature of the dwellings that are used, and so forth.


Main article: Nomad
Illustration of the Hephthalites

Nomadic people are communities of people that move from one place to another, rather than settling down in one location. Nomadism is distinguished from migration, which involves a major and permanent move from one location to another. Nomads, on the other hand, move periodically or cyclically, in conjunction with climate or animal migration patterns, usually returning to their original location at various times.

Many cultures were traditionally nomadic. Some significant examples include the Eurasian Avars who roamed much of Eurasia due to war and environments unable to provide stable, permanent societies; the Hephthalites who developed no formalized written language, lived across central Asia in small bands, and practiced polyandry; the Wu Hu, which were composed of various non-Chinese steppe tribes during the period from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-22 C.E.) to the Northern Dynasties, and the Plain Indians of North America, who often lived in small bands and roamed the vast wilderness of the American continent.


Main article: Hunter-gatherers
The Bushmen of Africa

Hunter-gatherers are foragers, dependent upon the natural availability of food. Consequently, they are relatively mobile, moving on as their food supplies become exhausted. This nomadic lifestyle, in which all possessions must be carried, led hunter-gatherers to rely on materials available in the wild to construct simple shelters. There was rarely any elaborate building of permanent housing or development of cities in such societies. Their mobile lifestyle generally meant that there was no possibility of storing surplus food and thus the society remained at a subsistence level.[3]

The nature of the available food supplies led hunter-gatherer societies to develop different specializations. Some hunted big game, or trapped animals, while others fished in lakes, rivers, or along the coast. An older term found in Scandinavian countries is hunter-trapper instead of "gatherer," signifying their use of complex trap systems involving holes in the ground to catch elk, reindeer, and such. Only a limited number of people could congregate without quickly exhausting the local food supplies, with the result that hunter-gatherer societies tend to have very low population densities. Nomadic hunter-gatherer societies usually had non-hierarchical social structures, unlike higher-order horticultural, pastoral, and industrial societies. The group usually consisted of a small number of family units, often related, comprising a band or clan. Typically, men are responsible for hunting and women for gathering.

The Bushmen and Pygmies of Africa and the Innu of eastern Québec and Labrador, Canada, are some examples of contemporary hunter-gather societies.


See History of agriculture Article

Intihuatana ruins with agricultural terraces below at Písac, Peru

Horticultural societies actually grew out of hunter-gather groups that had developed a sustainable supply of food and resources allowing them to create sedentary communities. At first they cultivated a variety of crops on a small scale around their dwellings, or in specialized plots visited occasionally during migrations from one area to the next. The main distinction between horticultural societies and some of oldest civilizations in history that developed agriculture (such as the Sumerians and Egyptians) is that horticultural societies were often small bands directly transitioning from hunter-gather status and did not develop large cities and hierarchies.

In Mesoamerica, starting around the Archaic period of Mesoamerican chronology (8000-2000 B.C.E.), many of the hunter gatherer micro-bands in the region began to cultivate wild plants. The cultivation of these plants probably started out as creating known areas of fall back, or starvation foods, near seasonal camps, that the band could rely on when hunting was bad, or when there was a drought. By creating these known areas of plant food, it was easier for the band to be in the right place, at the right time, to collect them. Eventually, a subsistence pattern, based on plant cultivation, supplemented with small game hunting, became much more reliable, efficient, and generated a larger yield. As cultivation became more focused, many plant species became domesticated. These plants were no longer able to reproduce on their own, and many of their physical traits were being modified by human farmers. The most famous of these, and the most important to Mesoamerican agriculture, is maize. Maize is storable for long periods of time, it can be ground into flour, and it easily turns into surplus for future use. Maize became vital to the survival of the people of Mesoamerica, and that is reflected in their origin, myths, artwork, and rituals.

In pre-contact North America the semi-sedentary horticultural communities of the Eastern Woodlands grew maize, squash, and sunflowers while also practicing hunting and gathering.


Saami family, 1900

Nomadic pastoralism based societies used a form of agriculture where livestock (such as cattle, sheep, goats, and camels), were taken to different locations in order to find fresh pastures. It was, and still is, commonly practiced in regions with little arable land. Early use of domestic animals for primary carcass products (meat) appears to have broadened to include exploitation for renewable "secondary" products (milk and its associated dairy products, wool and other animal hair, hides and consequently leather, manure for fuel and fertilizer, traction, and riding/pack transport).[4] Many of these innovations first appeared in the Near East during the fourth millennium B.C.E. and spread to Europe and the rest of Asia soon afterward. Historically, nomadic herder lifestyles led to warrior based cultures, fearsome enemies of settled people.

The Saami reindeer herders of Russia, the Bakhtiari of Iran, the Bedouin and Fulani of Africa are all examples of contemporary pastoralist societies.


Religion in primitive cultures was often nature based, since the natural world played such an important role in everyday life. Animism was one prevalent religious structure of primitive cultures. It was Edward Burnett Tylor who introduced the term "animism" to refer to any belief in mystical, supernatural, or non-empirical spirit beings. He proposed animist thought as a starting point for human religious development.[5] Thus, so-called "primitive" cultures (such as hunter-gatherers upholding these beliefs) were merely expressing a reduced form of religiosity compatible with their supposedly low level of technological and spiritual development. In this evolutionary model, these societies relied on animism to explain the occurrence of certain events and processes. The cornerstone of animistic thought is the affirmation of the existence of some kind of metaphysical entities (such as souls or spirits) that are seen as the life-source (or life-force) of human beings, animals, plants, and even non-living objects and phenomena. For animistic cultures, the existence of these entities (with their respective operational and volitional qualities) provides explanations for the innumerable changes witnessed in both the natural world and the human world.

Various Shamans

Shamanism was another development in primitive cultures. Shamanism is a range of traditional beliefs and practices concerned with communication with the spirit world. A practitioner of shamanism is known as a shaman, and such an individual is credited with the ability to diagnose, cure, and sometimes cause human suffering by forming a special relationship with, or gaining control over, spirits. They were also believed to have the ability to control the weather, divination, the interpretation of dreams, Astral projection, and traveling to upper and lower worlds. Shamanism is based on the premise that the visible world is pervaded by invisible forces or spirits that affect the lives of the living.

In contrast to animism, which any and usually all members of a society practiced, shamanism required specialized knowledge or abilities. The shaman acts as a mediator between their fellow human beings and the spiritual realm, a priest-like role, but with certain important differences. Shamans usually learned their role in the society through an apprenticeship, which they entered based on a "calling," a personal experience through which they gained spiritual power.[6]

Societal structure

Most primitive cultures were composed of one of three different types of societal structure: Band, Clan, or Tribe.


A band society is the simplest form of human society. It generally consisted of a small kinship group, often nor much larger than an extended family. Bands tend to have very informal leadership; the older members of the band generally were looked to for guidance and advice, but there are no written laws and law enforcement like that seen in more complex societies. They may not be permanent. In fact, a band can cease to exist if only a small group walks out. Band customs exist and are adhered to; they are almost always transmitted orally. Formal social institutions are few or non-existent.


A clan is a group of people united by kinship and descent, which is defined by perceived descent from a common ancestor. Even if actual lineage patterns are unknown, clan members nonetheless recognized a founding member or "apical ancestor." As kinship-based bonds could be merely symbolic in nature some clans shared a "stipulated" common ancestor, which is a symbol of the clan's unity. When this ancestor is not human, this is referred to a totem. Generally speaking, kinship differs from biological relation, as it also involves Adoption, Marriage, and fictive genealogical ties.


A tribe consists of a group of interlinked families or communities sharing a common culture and dialect. Often times a tribe is composed of an ethnic group, whose members identify with each other, usually on the basis of a presumed common genealogy or lineage, and are also usually united by common cultural, behavioral, linguistic, or religious practices.[7] For various reasons, the term "tribe" fell into disfavor in the latter part of the twentieth century. Thus, it was replaced with the designation "ethnic group," which defines a group of people of common ancestry and language, shared cultural history, and an identifiable territory.


  1. Leo Damrosch, Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius (Mariner Books, 2007, ISBN 0618872027).
  2. J. Ron Stanfield, The Economic Thought of Karl Polanyi: Lives and Livelihood (Macmillan, 1986, ISBN 0333396294).
  3. Catherine Panter-Brick, Robert H. Layton, and Peter Rowley-Conwy (eds.), Hunter-Gatherers: An Interdisciplinary Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 2003, ISBN 0521776724).
  4. Andrew Sherratt, "Plough and pastoralism: aspects of the secondary products revolution," Pattern of the Past: Studies in the Honour of David Clarke (Cambridge University Press, 1981, ISBN 978-0521227636).
  5. Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom (Gordon Press, 1976, ISBN 087968464X).
  6. Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1976, ISBN 0140194436).
  7. Anthony D. Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nations (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1988, ISBN 0631161694).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology. New York and London: Penguin Books, 1976. ISBN 0140194436.
  • Damrosch, Leo. Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. Mariner Books, 2007. ISBN 0618872027.
  • Diamond, Stanley. In Search of the Primitive. Transaction Publishers, 1987. ISBN 087855582X.
  • Farb, Peter. Man's Rise to Civilization As Shown by the Indians of North America from Primeval Times to the Coming of the Industrial State. New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1968.
  • Kuper, Adam. The Reinvention of Primitive Society. Transformations of a Myth. Taylor & Francis Ltd., 2005. ISBN 0415357616.
  • Panter-Brick, Catherine, Robert H. Layton, and Peter Rowley-Conwy (eds.). Hunter-Gatherers: An Interdisciplinary Perspective. Cambridge University Press, 2003. ISBN 0521776724.
  • Sherratt, Andrew. "Plough and pastoralism: aspects of the secondary products revolution." Pattern of the Past: Studies in the Honour of David Clarke. Cambridge University Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0521227636.
  • Smith, Anthony D. The Ethnic Origins of Nations. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1988. ISBN 0631161694.
  • Stanfield, J. Ron. The Economic Thought of Karl Polanyi: Lives and Livelihood. Macmillan, 1986. ISBN 0333396294.
  • Tylor, Edward B. Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. Gordon Press, 1976 (originally published 1871). ISBN 087968464X.


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