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What is a Noble Savage?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A noble savage is someone from a primitive culture who is supposedly uncorrupted by contact with society. This concept first arose among the Ancient Greeks and Romans, with authors such as Pliny and Ovid glorifying the primitive cultures they had contact with, and it reached a pinnacle in the 18th century with the primitivism movement. Today, the concept of the noble savage is largely regarded as a myth which is both outdated and wrong, and the concept is largely regarded as racist, as well.

The major champions of the noble savage concept often drew on the records of voyages by explorers like Captain Cook to portray tribal cultures as primitive, simple, and Edenic. The idea that primitive cultures were inherently good and untainted proved to be popular in an era when people were questioning the merits of civilization, and the noble savage was glorified in books, plays, and music.

According to those who perpetuated the concept, people in tribal cultures which had been untouched by the complexity of Western civilization had a number of traits in common. Primitive cultures were viewed as inherently good, with people being naturally innocent, truthful, generous, healthy, and wise. Champions of the myth also believed that people in primitive cultures lived in harmony with nature and with each other.

There are several problems with the noble savage myth. The first is that it bears no basis in reality; many “primitive” cultures have the same problems that Western civilization does, including brutality, war, lying, over-exploitation of resources, and selfishness, suggesting that these characteristics may be more innate to human society than goodwill. Captain Cook himself died at the hands of a tribal culture due to a lack of understanding of the complexities of Hawaiian society.

Many critics also view the noble savage idea as extremely condescending, in addition to being racist. The savages were typically depicted with dark skin, primitive features, and simplistic societies, when in fact tribal cultures come in a range of skin shades, and many of them are quite complex. The idealization of tribal cultures is also rather ironic, when one considers that many of these cultures were victims of colonization; apparently the cult of the noble savage didn't extend as far as an active desire to preserve such cultures. The idealization of colonized societies may have stemmed partially from a sense of guilt, and a desire to distinguish tribal cultures as “others” in order to further distance colonists from the colonized.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon256068 — On Mar 20, 2012

Actually, "war," as it is usually thought of, did not come about until a few thousand years ago. For the millions of years that "humans" lived before that, conflict was solved peacefully, as it is most often done to day, or occasionally violently. In the case of the latter, it was merely one, maybe two, people kill one other person.

That is hardly warfare. Feuding didn't come about until later, as hunter-gathers have no clan system of family lines with which to group one clan against another, so all conflicts were personally, one on one, or one and his brother on one.

What I call warfare is two or more political organizations who fighter each other. That means that the goal can not be the death of any individuals, but rather of a number of the other group,

Also, those people of the pacific islands weren't true hunter gathers when Europeans met them. Rather, they were Chiefdom.

Due to a natural surplus of food, fish, they were able to be come sedentary and develop “advanced” social systems, including chiefs, nobles, warriors, peasants and slave.

It should also be noted that there are numerous hunter-gathering societies were they truly are peaceful. Some of them, despite having poisonous arrows, intentionally did not fight against slave traders; but instead would most often flee when they came.

While some “primitive” societies do have brutality, not all do, most don't. While some exploit natural resources, most do not.

On a final note, there were no tribes of large families, only bands, which people went into and left to live with other bands often, and close relatives. Everyone in a region was distantly related to one another, and few had stronger ties to anyone more than anyone else.

By Renegade — On Jan 21, 2011

The choice between pursuing the life of a so-called "noble savage" and that of a strong social contract was made a long time ago by our ancestors when they realized that the former lifestyle simply doesn't work for an advanced and densely populated society.

By FitzMaurice — On Jan 19, 2011

Unfortunately for Rosseau's family, this father and husband took his beliefs in the noble savage and the inherent corruption of society literally. He abandoned his family and chose to live however he saw fit to as an individual, choosing to completely ignore the higher cultural calling of duty to family and community.

By ShadowGenius — On Jan 17, 2011

I think of the tribes of Papua New Guinea who are so linguistically diverse due to millennia of isolation and conflict. Over time, the divides among them came to be so strong, that new families would isolate and evolve their own language in as little time as a couple generations. In recent history, a missionary group sought to bring all the members of a given tribe to a single location for a time of "reconciliation" among the tribal leaders. What resulted was a bloodbath, and most of the tribe slaughtered itself.

By Proxy414 — On Jan 15, 2011

People who sought to go and be a part of these "noble" societies without seeking to understand them outside of stereotypes were in for an unpleasant surprise. In order to function in such a different society you have to understand that the tribes there have vastly different beliefs and could kill you in the blink of an eye for transgressing hidden laws of survival. Jared Diamond has revealed that primitive people groups tend to be some of the smartest people on earth, retaining an acute memory of what to do and what not to do to stay alive, whereas civilized people have no need for such acumen. Their smartness also applies quite easily to double dealing, betrayal, and paranoia, amongst tribes and families.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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