The Amazon Synod Revives the Myth of the Noble Savage

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“These liberation theologians are promoting the idea that the Indians who still live in a primitive way are very happy, living in paradise,” said Macuxi tribal chief Jonas Marcolino Macuxí, referring to bishops at the pan-Amazon synod. “But that’s not true.”

He’s right. The myth of the noble savage is alive and well at the synod, as the assembly of bishops discuss how best to evangelize the indigenous peoples of the Amazon rainforest, as well as “let ourselves be evangelized by them,” in the words of Pope Francis. The Pope wants the Catholic Church to listen to and learn from those peoples who live in “harmony with oneself, with nature, with human beings and with the supreme being,” as quoted in the synod’s working document.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be proud. That leading light of the French Enlightenment imagined people living in a state of nature untouched by Western civilization to be ensconced in an idyllic world of peace and kindness. “Nothing could be more gentle than man in his primitive state,” he proclaimed.

Compare Rousseau’s view to that of his intellectual arch-rival Thomas Hobbes, who held that life in a state of nature involved endless war and “continual fear of danger and violent death,” famously writing of primeval man’s existence being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”

Neither philosopher had ever observed man in a state of nature. Their ideas were speculative. Whose opinion is right?

We have had hints at the synod. At a press briefing, a reporter brought up the subject of infanticide among certain Amazonian tribes. Peruvian Cardinal Pedro Ricardo Barreto Jimeno, S.J., expressed skepticism that such atrocities are happening at all. Yet fellow press briefer Victoria Lucia Tauli-Corpuz, the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, acknowledged the practice.

At a “counter-synod” hosted by critics of the Vatican, tribal chief Marcolino Macuxí confirmed that some tribes practice infanticide. “Those things were ending; but now, with the idea that you have to go back to primitivism, they remain,” he told the National Catholic Register. By “primitivism” he means the idealization of the pre-modern way of life of the Amazon tribes, i.e. the noble savage myth. “We are not living in paradise,” Marcolino Macuxí continued: “It’s a very hard life; people have insects all over their feet, bats in their homes.”

The empirical data that Hobbes and Rousseau lacked started trickling in during the 1960s. That was when solid anthropological research on primitive peoples was carried out. The verdict: Hobbes was right, and Rousseau was wrong.

Napoleon Chagnon lived five years with peoples of the Yanomamö tribe in the Amazon rainforest, who were otherwise practically untouched by Western civilization. He and other anthropologists in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties studying such hunter-gatherer societies exploded the myth that they were peace-loving “noble savages.”

War, violence, and oppression of women reigned supreme among Amazonian tribespeople prior to Western contact, as was the case with most indigenous peoples worldwide—as detailed by such authors as Chagnon, Jared Diamond, Lawrence Keeley, and Sabine Kuegler.

War with neighboring villages or tribes was unceasing. Seldom could one live in peace and security. Raids, massacres, and the slaughter of prisoners was commonplace. The abduction of women from neighboring villages—due in part to the many mateless men resulting from the practice of polygamy—was a leading cause of wars. Wife-beating was ubiquitous.

It was only thanks to Western influence and the spread of Christianity that inter- and intra-tribal aggression finally subsided. Kuegler, who spent 10 years of her childhood with her missionary family in Papua New Guinea during the 1980s, offers a gripping account of how Christian values finally tamed the warring tribesmen in her book Child of the Jungle.

Their pagan beliefs and practices did not foster peace. Quite the opposite, in fact. Shamanism is the predominant belief system of pre-Christian tribal societies, in which malevolent and benevolent spirits reign, and in which sicknesses and deaths are often thought to be caused by spells cast by enemies. Retribution would be exacted upon those thought responsible for conjuring up the evil spirits. Chagnon, in Noble Savages, writes: “The Yanomamö sometimes decide that death was caused by witchcraft—an enemy in a distant village sent the snake, and therefore this enemy is now a legitimate target for a revenge killing.”

Oddly, the Pope seems to be open to Amazonian tribespeople’s shamanistic and polytheistic practices. They were on full display at the synod during the tree-planting ceremony he attended, in which an indigenous woman (billed as a shaman) conducted rituals and offered prayers to what appeared to be a pagan deity.

The working document trumpets that “it is desirable to deepen existing Amazonian Indian theology.” We need to “take into account the original myths, traditions, symbols, knowledge, rites and celebrations” in order to have a “Church with an indigenous and Amazonian face.” Not explained is exactly how the occult belief systems are to be taken into account.

To be sure, the document mentions “seeing with a critical conscience a series of behaviors and realities of the indigenous peoples that go against the Gospel,” but does not elaborate apart from brief references to family violence and subjugation of women. Real progress, we know, would come from spreading the true Gospel, free of any bundling with shamanism.

Photo credit: AFP via Getty Images

Patrick Chisholm


Patrick Chisholm is a catechist and former Christian Science Monitor columnist. He blogs at

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