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.

Sport
Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
News
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Voices
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Money
Welcome to tinsel town: retailers such as Selfridges will be Santa's little helpers this Christmas, working hard to persuade shoppers to stock up on gifts
news
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
News
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
people
Sport
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
News
Shami Chakrabarti
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film
filmBenedict Cumberbatch reignites Star Wars 7 rumours
Sport
football
News
news
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

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker