The Origin of Civilization and Primitive Condition of Man. Mental and Social Condition of Savages

SIR JOHN LUBBOCK, Author of " Prehistoric Times.” New York : D. Appleton & Co.
THERE can be no doubt that it was in the author’s mind to erect a great structure with the materials which he has here brought together, but, as with many another, the very magnitude of the resources he had accumulated seems to have deterred him from any effort to put them to the use for which they were originally intended. We question the propriety of parading so large a title on so small a book, but we must thank our author for his discretion in avoiding an effort to do what that title would lead us to suppose he had done. Had he tried to give us a history of civilization, he would probably have left our world when his introduction was published, instead of giving us a very valuable body of facts.
The plan which is taken in his treatment of the subject is very simple. In his introductory chapter he shows that we can best understand the scattered elements of the history of our own race by a study of the existing customs among savages ; for even though there are great differences between the details of the life of the savage of to-day and the life of our wild ancestors, the resemblances are greater than the differences. This study also enables us to understand the origin of many customs which have no relation to our present life, but which survive among our institutions as remains of an ancient social state. Moreover, the author thinks that, having traced the course of development of peoples in the habits and customs of existing savage tribes, we may be able “ to penetrate some of the mist which separates the present from the future.”
The fundamental difficulty in the study of savage races is much the same as that which, besets the philosophical historian, namely, the obstacles which hinder our efforts to understand the state of mind of people at that stage of development To consider the acts of the wild men of Borneo, who seem to have little more trace of civilization than can be found in a herd of monkeys, as if they were dictated by the impulses of their own race, is a sure road to error. Our author has clearly perceived this difficulty, and warned the reader of it. As instances of the extent to which the acts of savages may be without any better explanation than what we may term an instinct referring back to some habit the necessity for which has passed away and been forgotten, he shows the wide-spread character of several peculiar customs. The most curious of these is one which forbids a woman to speak to her son-in-law, and compels him to the same reserve. This habit is found along the shores of tire Arctic Sea in North America, among the Omahaws, where the same custom extends to the father-in-law also. The same custom existed among the Florida Indians, among the Caribis, and in South America among the Arawacks. A custom of the same kind is found in Asia among the Calmucks and Mongols, and in China, where the woman must not speak to her father-inlaw. These peculiarities are probably in all cases explained by a pre-existing custom of acquiring possession of the wife after the fashion described in the account of the Roman treatment of the Sabine women. It is easy to understand that a woman would not naturally feel kind towards the abductor of her daughter, and that where forcible means were in fashion in the process of wooing the relations between the son-in-law and mother-in-law might be even more unamiable than they are reputed to be in our modern society.
The chapter on marriage relationship which follows in the order of the book contains a variety of curious information which has never before been put into a popular work. The author brings these into an arrangement apparently substantiating his propositions on this subject, which are essentially these : that this relationship was at first communal, every male in a community having equal right to every female, that only the women captured from other tribes could be held as individual property, and that to this pre-emption of the captor we owe the beginning of the institution of marriage rights. The author regards the peculiar position of public women among the Greeks, who showed to this class much consideration, as due to the fact that at an earlier stage the women held by the communal right, being of the same tribe, were naturally held in some esteem, while the captured wives would be looked upon as belonging to a lower estate.
This chapter is much to be recommended to the attention of those who conceive that the position of man is to be bettered by experiments with the marriage system. They will find that most of the panaceas have been tried and abandoned.
One third of the whole book is devoted to a summary of existing forms of religious beliefs and disbeliefs, for the fact is made very plain that many tribes are quite without religion.
The author takes great pains to show the want of conception, or at least of any high conception of Deity, among many of the lower races. The Bedouins who demanded to know where Allah was to be found, saying, if they “could but catch him, they would spear him on the spot ; who but he lays waste their homes and kills their cattle and wives ? ” cannot be said to have profited by any conception of Deity.
The influence which the condition of the mind and body in dreams has had in developing the belief in the existence of a soul and the extent to which the existence of a shadow has fostered this belief in the savage mind, is an extremely curious question. Among the Feejee-Islanders “some speak of a man as having two spirits. His shadow is called his dark spirit, which they say goes to Hades. The other is his likeness reflected in water or a looking-glass, and is supposed to stay near the place in which the man dies. Probably this doctrine of shadows has to do with the notion of inanimate objects having spirits.”
“ I once placed a good-looking native suddenly before a mirror. He stood delighted. ' Now,’ said he, softly, ‘ I can see into the world of spirits.’”
Our author gives us an abundant array of facts going to show the general absence of a moral sense among the savage peoples. This seems to have been an unwilling conclusion ; for he says : “ That there should have been any races of men so deficient in moral feeling was altogether opposed to the preconceived ideas with which I commenced the study of savage life, and I have arrived at the conviction by slow degrees and even with reluctance. I have, however, been forced to this conclusion, not only by the direct statements of travellers, but also by the general tenor of their remarks, and especially by the remarkable absence of repentance and remorse among the lower races of men.”
In the chapter on the origin of language is little that is new, but much to interest the general reader. Probably the most entertaining part of it is that which describes the use of signs as an aid to language among various races ; among some, as, for instance, the Bushmen, the language is not intelligible if it be too dark to sec the gestures of the speaker.
The chapter on laws, which concludes the body of the book, brings out some peculiar features. The boasted freedom of tlie savage vanishes, “No savage,” says our author, “ is free ; all over the world his daily life is regulated by a complicated and apparently most inconvenient set of customs (enforceable as laws), of quaint prohibitions and privileges ; the prohibitions as a general rule applying to the women, the privileges to the men.”
Our author sums up his work in the following conclusions : —
“That existing savages are not the descendants of civilized ancestors. That the primitive condition of man was one of utter barbarism. That from this condition several races have independently raised themselves.”
As a whole, the work is a valuable contribution to the popular study of savage man. There is a want of critical ability shown in the treatment of the matter, authors little worthy of credit being quoted as confidently as those of the most trustworthy character. The social dance of the savages of Virginia, to which he has devoted a fullpage plate, probably existed in the imagination alone of Lafitau, from whose Mœurs des Sauvages it is taken.