Not-so-noble savages raped environment, says author

GENESIS OF AN ECO-MYTH

THE CONCEPT of the "noble savage" was first outlined by the philosopher Michel de Montaigne in 1580 in an essay called On The Cannibals in which he described Brazilian Indians as having no concept of riches or poverty. But the idea was firmly entrenched into Western consciousness by the French philosopher politician Jean-Jacques Rousseau (left) in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality in 1755, where he wrote that man in a state of nature leads a life that is free of all cares, wanting for nothing but "food, a female and sleep".

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high