The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead has gotten a bad rap. Perhaps deservedly so. In 1928, she published Coming of Age in Samoa, an account of her field trip to the island, in which she reported on happy-go-lucky native teenagers frolicking and bedding everyone in sight without so much as a hint of the restrictions on premarital sex that characterized the supposedly puritanical West. Later research revealed that Mead had been duped by her youthful sources and that Samoa was, if anything, stricter in its sexual mores than 1920s America. But by then, of course, the prophets of the sexual revolution had taken Mead at her word and encouraged teen-age Americans to behave pretty much like the imagined Samoans.
But I’ve always wondered if Mead was really that bad. In 1949, for example, she published Male and Female, a study of the profound sex differences that Mead found existed in every human culture. She wrote, for example (I’m quoting from memory): “Women marry good providers; men will marry anything.” Mead was no Larry Summers-bashing doctrinaire feminist.
Now comes an astonishing rehabilitation of Margaret Mead in Roger Sandall’s riveting article in Commentary about the Cinta Larga Indians of the Amazon rainforest. In 1963 there was a ghastly massacre of Cinta Larga by rubber tappers. In response to that, and in conformity with a worldwide trend of treating indigenous populations with Stone Age cultures, the government put them on a huge protected reservation where they were allowed to, indeed, required to continue their native ways in perpetuity, like flies trapped in amber (the Cinta Larga are supposed to be taught how to read, but literacy among them is in fact spotty–it’s not part of Stone Age ways).
In return for living like animated museum dioramas, wearing their costumes, weaving their textiles and making their music for the tourists under the watchful eye of numerous NGOs, the Cinta Larga were excused from any responsibility to outside society. Trouble is, forest people are invariably hostile to outsiders; that is to say, they kill them. Last year the Cinta Larga slaughtered 29 miners, plus a Brazilian who tried to mediate the conflict. They can’t be charged with murder under Brazilian law. Other Stone Age customs that continue unabated on the reservations include the gang-rape of women who violate various tribal taboos.
Sandall pins part of the blame for the prevailing noble-savage theory of Stone Age peoples as gentle forest-dwellers at harmony with the universe on anthropologist Robin Hanbury-Tenison. And he informs us that the only fellow anthropologist who tried to dissuade Hanbury-Tenison was–Margaret Mead. He writes:
“Hanbury-Tenison must have been taken aback when, in 1971, he called on the anthropologist Margaret Mead at the Museum of Natural History in New York to tell her about Survival International (as Survival was then called), and she gave him a piece of her mind. Mead at the age of seventy was a very different person from the idealistic young woman who had visited Samoa in 1926. By 1971, she was fiercely unromantic, and the spectacle of yet another young Oxford ‘explorer’ embarking on yet another expedition up the Amazon must have set her teeth on edge. With sturdy good sense she tried to talk him out of his fantasies.
“In his 1973 book, A Question of Survival, Hanbury-Tenison describes this ‘small, beady-eyed dumpling of a lady who sailed into the attack as I came through the door’:
“’The main point that annoyed [Mead] was the concept, unstated by me, that primitive peoples were any better off as they were. She said she was “maddened by antibiotic-ridden idealists who wouldn’t stand three weeks in the jungle”…and the whole “noble savage” concept almost made her foam at the mouth. “All primitive peoples,” she said, ‘lead miserable, unhappy, cruel lives, most of which are spent trying to kill each other.” The reason they lived in the unpleasant places they did, like the middle of the Brazilian jungle, was that nobody else would.'”
Of course, neither Hanbury-Tenison nor anyone else paid any attention to what Mead said. We’re now living with the murderous consequences–and the deliberate relegation of two generations of people to the status of prisoner in someone else’s idea of romantic primitive life.