THE "NOBLE SAVAGE", immortalised as living in Utopian harmony with nature, is a Western invention, claims a study of native tribes across the developing world.
American Indians, Australian Aboriginals and Amazonian Indians have done just as much to ruin the environment as modern society, says Robert Whelan of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), a right-wing think- tank. It would be a mistake, he argues, to base conservation policies on the behaviour of tribes who destroyed salmon runs, wiped out elk, deer and moose and changed eco-systems by burning rain forests.
Environmentalists call the claims ridiculous. They say indigenous peoples offer valuable lessons on how to co-exist with nature in a way that uses but replenishes the earth's precious resources. Native tribes are also widely seen as holding the key to many scientific and medical advances. Some have astonishing botanical knowledge of plants and trees.
But in Mr Whelan's book, Wild in Woods, The Myth of the Noble Eco-Savage, published last week, the assistant director of the health and welfare unit at the IEA, says local tribes are neither noble or ignoble, adding: "They're members of homo sapiens, doing just what we would do in their position."
The view of pre-Columbian Indians in the Americas as noble eco-savages is a "misconception", he says. "Deforestation in the Americas was probably greater before the Columbian encounter than for several centuries thereafter," the Amazonian Indians being "forest-burners par excellence" to create the savannah where their prey - bison, moose, elk and deer - could thrive.
Mr Whelan says land has been conserved only where it is privately, rather than communally, owned. "It made perfect sense to take as much as possible and move on. To leave targets unhunted, on the assumption that they should be left for other hunters or future generations, would have seemed absurd."
The notion that local tribes do little damage to their environment is still being debated. Giant kangaroos and flightless birds are thought to have been wiped out in Australia by climate change and the arrival of Aboriginals.
The controversy over sacrificial traditions also rages. Earlier this month, off Seattle, the Makah Indian tribe killed the first gray whale in American waters in nearly 75 years. The Makah say the kill, which involved sacred songs and a ritual to release the whale's soul to the sea, was the proud resurrection of their seafaring tradition. Environmentalists say the killing, by steel harpoons and a .50 calibre assault rifle, was a cruel and unnecessary act. Jonathan Mazower, campaigns co-ordinator with Survival International, said Mr Whelan was trying to turn native people into "proto-Thatcherites" by promoting private land ownership. "Any culture relying on hunting and gathering isn't going to destroy the environment," he said.
The World Wide Fund for Nature labelled the research "completely unfair". "However much environmental damage local tribes have caused pales into insignificance next to modern man," said a spokesman. "A third of the natural world has been destroyed in 25 years."
Elizabeth Leighton, director of arctic programmes for WWF-Scotland says studies of Innuit tribes in the Canadian Arctic and Baffin Island show an exemplary approach to wildlife management and the sustainable use of wild species, killing seals, caribou and fish only when they need them. "They manage the environment with care because they depend on it and because they give a spiritual value to wildlife," she says.