George Walford: Were Noblemen Clean?

Any account of history, coherent and comprehensive enough to permit extrapolation into the future, requires some account of the original human condition to anchor one end of the curve. Few people, in attempting this, would now use the phrase “the noble savage”; greater knowledge of the communities in closest touch with the natural world has shown that view to be untenable. One example: In reviewing the anthropological film Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter, on the lives of the Yupik Eskimo people of Alaska, Jonathan Benthall quotes extracts from the diaries of three missionaries between 1891 and 1920. These charge the Yupik with being “disgusting, evil-ridden, frivolous, profligate, immoral and unclean.” (Anthropology Today Vol 5 No.5, October 1989). But although the belief in the nobility of the first people has been largely abandoned, respect for the practical value of their example and that set by those living under similar conditions today, the idea that they know, better than civilized people, how life ought to be lived, retains much of its strength. Desmond King-Hele:

The hunter-gatherers of old were in a real sense the earliest ecologists. They had to live in harmony with nature, culling the wild life with intuitive skill and avoiding massacres that would leave no food for tomorrow. (TLS 20 Oct 89).

Mrs. Thatcher concurs, praising those she calls “primitive tribes of the rain-forest” for having “a one-ness with their environment that has been lost in the urban jungle.” (Anthropology Today, Dec 89)

Yet one familiar item of information should almost be enough, by itself, to change this picture; the first people wore animal skins and – horror beyond belief – some of these caring practitioners of ecological principles, even today, wear furs. Nor is that all. They supply furs to the trade, and are not willing to abandon these practices: “For all the northern peoples… the right to trap in the ways and places they regard as their own is upheld in defiance of all opposing forces.” (Hugh Brodie, 1988. Living Arctic, hunters of the Canadian North. London: Faber & Faber, 203).

from Ideological Commentary 43, January 1990.