The Myth of Pre-Christian Peace

(A previous version of this article appeared in Crisis.)

“These liberation theologians are promoting the idea that the Indians who still live in a primitive way are very happy, living in paradise,” said Macuxi tribal chief Jonas Marcolino Macuxí, referring to bishops at the Pan-Amazon Synod, a conference held in Rome in October of 2019. “But that’s not true.”

He’s right. The myth that pre-Christian tribes were peace-lovers was alive and well at the synod, as the assembly of bishops there discussed how best to evangelize the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest, in addition to “let ourselves be evangelized by them” in the words of Pope Francis.

The pope wants the Catholic Church to listen to and learn from those peoples, who live in “harmony with oneself, with nature, with human beings and with the supreme being,” as quoted in the Instrumentum Laboris or working document of the synod.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) would be proud. He imagined people living in a state of nature untouched by Western civilization to be ensconced in an idyllic world of peace, kindness and benevolence. “Nothing could be more gentle than man in his primitive state,” he proclaimed.

That starkly contrasted with Rousseau’s intellectual arch-rival Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), who held that life in a state of nature involved endless war and “continual fear of danger and violent death”, famously writing of primeval man’s existence being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Neither philosopher had ever observed man in a state of nature. Their ideas were speculative. Who turned out to be right?

We have had hints during the synod. At a press briefing a reporter brought up the subject of infanticide among certain Amazonian tribes. Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno, S.J. expressed skepticism that it is carried out. But fellow press briefer Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, acknowledged the practice.

At a counter-synod held by critics of the event, tribal chief Marcolino Macuxí confirmed infanticide among some tribes. “Those things were ending; but now, with the idea that you have to go back to primitivism, they remain,” he told the National Catholic Register. By “primitivism” he means the idealization of the pre-modern way of life of the Amazon tribes; i.e. the “noble savage” myth. “We are not living in paradise. It’s a very hard life; people have insects all over their feet, bats in their homes.”

It sounds an awful lot like Thomas Hobbes was on to something.

Napoleon Chagnon lived five years with peoples of the Yanomamö tribe in the Amazon rainforest, which previously were practically untouched by Western civilization. He and other anthropologists in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s who studied such hunter-gatherer societies exploded the myth that they were peace-loving peoples.

War, violence, and oppression of women reigned supreme among Amazonian tribespeople prior to Western contact, as was the case with most indigenous peoples worldwide – as detailed by such authors as Chagnon, Jared Diamond, Lawrence Keeley, and Sabine Kuegler.

While there no doubt were exceptions, war with neighboring villages or tribes was unceasing. Rarely could one live in peace and security. Raids, massacres, and the slaughtering of prisoners, women and children were commonplace.

The abduction of women from neighboring villages was a leading cause of wars, due in part to the effects of polygamy which resulted in many mateless men. Wife-beating was the norm for captured and non-captured women alike.

It was only thanks to Western influence and the spread of Christianity that inter- and intra-tribal aggression finally lessened. Sabine Kuegler, who spent 10 years of her childhood living with her Christian missionary family in Papua New Guinea during the 1980s, in Child of the Jungle tells a gripping account of how Christian values finally tamed the warring tribesmen.

Their pagan beliefs and practices often fostered violence. Shamanism is the predominant belief system of pre-Christian tribal societies, in which malevolent and benevolent spirits reign, and in which sicknesses and deaths are often thought to be caused by spells cast by enemies.

Retribution would be exacted upon those thought responsible for conjuring up the evil spirits. As Chagnon writes in Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamö and the Anthropologists, “The Yanomamö sometimes decide that death was caused by witchcraft – an enemy in a distant village sent the snake, and therefore this enemy is now a legitimate target for a revenge killing.”

Shamanism contradicts Christianity in myriad ways. It often involves multiples gods. It involves worship of created things as opposed to the Creator. It entails persons known as shamans who claim to visit supernatural realms, as well as summon souls of the dead.

Alarmingly, what appeared to be shamanistic practices were on full display at the synod during the infamous tree-planting ceremony in the Vatican gardens, in which an indigenous woman – possibly a shaman – conducted rituals and offered prayers to what seemed to be a pagan deity. Even more alarming was that the pope was in attendance. But until we know more, let us give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he was unaware of what was to unfold. After all, he abandoned his prepared remarks and prayed an Our Father instead.

The Instrumentum trumpets that “it is desirable to deepen existing Amazonian Indian theology”. We need to “take into account the original myths, traditions, symbols, knowledge, rites and celebrations….” in order to have a “Church with an indigenous and Amazonian face.”

Not explained is exactly how the belief systems are to be taken into account. The question of religious syncretism – the merging of beliefs – came up during a synod press conference. The Vatican reported that Bishop Adriano Ciocca Vasino said “to see what coincides with the Gospel”. Let us hope that means forcefully rejecting what does not coincide.

Another bishop candidly acknowledged violent practices. Wilmar Santin, bishop of Itaituba in Pará, Brazil, at another synod press briefing spoke extensively of infanticide and the former warlike practices of the Munduruku tribe.

Moreover the Instrumentum mentions “seeing with a critical conscience a series of behaviors and realities of the indigenous peoples that go against the Gospel,” but does not elaborate apart from brief mentions of family violence and subjugation of women.

Meanwhile, it is ironic that many within the Church push the romantic vision of primitive cultures. Such a way of life actually was Hobbesian. Real progress would come from spreading the true Gospel, free of any bundling with shamanism.

Be Thankful You Live in the Here and Now

Yali Mabel, the chief of Dani tribe, Papua, Indonesia. (istockphoto)

Yali Mabel, the chief of Dani tribe, Papua, Indonesia. (istockphoto)

Lest you think that life in tribal societies was idyllic, think again. It truly was nasty, brutish, and short. Especially for women.

That’s made clear in a recent book by Jared Diamond – The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?

By “the world until yesterday” he means the vast majority of human existence. The tribal way of life was so prevalent and so important that our bodies and minds are designed for that way of life (because that’s where we evolved). Our current society is radically different from how humans normally have lived – and for the most part, is radically improved.

Until yesterday, death was ever-present – from disease, from accidents, from animal predators, from murder, and from warfare. Average life expectancy was about 40 years. Physical discomfort was ever-present – from heat and cold, from injuries, from disease, from insects, from skin irritations, and from unsanitary conditions to name a few. Emotional discomfort was ever-present: anywhere you’d go, anything you’d do, there was always the threat of attack from enemies.

Ironically, depression and mental illness didn’t seem to be common in tribal societies. But anxiety must have been. And physical pain certainly was.

And were people ever mean to each other. Whereas our society lives under intermittent warfare, tribal societies had chronic warfare; never-ending warfare with neighboring villages or tribes. They were ruthless to their enemies. The taking of prisoners was practically nonexistent; captured enemies were simply killed. And when enemies were killed, it was a happy occasion for the perpetrators; the whole village would celebrate.

As indicated above, life was particularly brutal for women. One of the most common activities, and one of the most common causes of warfare, was the capturing of women from neighboring tribes or, more commonly, from villages and clans within the same tribe. Imagine being captured and having to live apart from your family for the rest of your life. Sadness and despair among them must have been rampant.

And for captured and non-captured women alike, wife-beating was the norm. Wife-killing was not uncommon. When a husband was upset with is wife for something, a common practice would be for the husband to shoot his wife with his bow and arrow in order to inflict on her a nonfatal injury. Sometimes he would miss and cause a fatal injury.

That probably was practiced worldwide, because it is described vis-a-vis the tribesmen of New Guinea (including in the book Child of the Jungle by Sabine Kuegler), as well as of the Amazon rainforest – opposite ends of the earth.

Those areas were one of the last areas untouched by civilization, so modern anthropologists were able to study them in order to extrapolate how premodern societies the world over always have lived. Nowadays there are likely no more tribal societies untouched by human civilization available to study, but there was in the 1960s and 1970s.

Another recent book that makes plain the savagery of traditional societies is Noble Savages: My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – The Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by Napoleon Chagnon. He’s referring to the political correctness of the latter, who are very reluctant to acknowledge the constant brutality and warfare associated with traditional societies. In the 1960s Chagnon was able to live among one of the last tribes in the Amazon rainforest untouched by modern civilization.

It’s a great book. But there’s an apparent contradiction therein. He briefly criticizes Christian missionaries for promoting monogamy among the tribespeople, pointing out that polygamy was the norm in such societies and helped foster social solidarity. Polygamy results in more genetically related people, i.e. more family members, and it’s this genetic relatedness that encourages cooperation within tribal groups.

But Chagnon also writes extensively that the biggest single cause of warfare in those societies is ultimately over women. Would not polygamy be a big factor in causing this warfare? Under polygamy one man has several wives, even though the male/female ratio is still around 50/50. That means many men have no wives, prompting them to go out and seek them by raiding other villages.

So while polygamy may foster group solidarity by producing more genetically related persons, it also fosters warfare. Which would you prefer?

Meantime, be thankful you live right here, right now. Compared with how life was for most of human existence – and not just in tribal societies but also in nation-state societies up until about a hundred years ago – life for the vast majority of people in modern societies is pretty good.