Primitive Culture


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For the present purpose it appears both possible and desirable to eliminate considerations of hereditary varieties or races of man, and to treat mankind as homogeneous in nature, though placed in different grades of civilization.1

The most thoroughgoing transfer of the concept of organic evolution to a social problem was made by the criminologist Lombroso, who defined the criminal, at least the "born criminal," as one whose physical, mental and moral evolution has failed to take place regularly or completely, and who consequently remains in the stage of our "brutal prehistoric ancestors." Lombroso and his followers attempted to enumerate the physical marks or "stigmata" of the criminal (protuberant lower jaw, deformed cranium, scanty beard, etc.). The criminal type was thus regarded as an "atavism" or throwback to an incompleted stage of evolution. In this case the question of race development was not involved, but to the extent that the Lombrosian theory prevailed it was confirmatory of the view that the backward races represented an incompleted development.

This view has also naturally enough become associated with colonial policies, nationalistic aspirations, and race prejudice and at present has its most organized expression in the theory of Nordic or Anglo-Saxon superiority. Originating strangely enough with a Frenchman (Gobineau), this position is held by certain students of heredity, eugenics, race biology, and physical anthropology, in Germany, Scandinavia, and America, and is urged by a number of popular and chauvinistic writers.

3. That different rates of progress and levels of culture among the racial populations are due to more and less favorable geographic positions and economic conditions.

As long ago as Hippocrates and Aristotle a relation was pointed out between raw materials, geographic position, and climate on the one hand and the character of given civilizations on the other. The concept was emphasized later by Bodin and Montesquieu in France, by the geographer Ritter in Germany, by the historian Buckle in England, and systematically developed by the anthropo-geographer Ratzel in Germany and by his disciple Semple in America. In America also Huntington has emphasized particularly the efficiency of culture as related to climate, and Wissler, among others, has been prominent in the delimitation of specific culture areas and culture complexes.

From this general standpoint what is variously termed the "ecological area," the "geographical province," the "area of characterization" determines the physical type of plants, animals, and humans, the character of civilizations, and the fate of nations. It is claimed that the great civilizations have arisen under favorable conditions of climate and material resources, and their decline, as in Greece, is interpreted as due to climatic change, denudation of forests, introduction of malaria, or the expansion of the population beyond the available supply of certain material values. Simkhovitch, for example, has attempted to trace the decline of the Roman empire to an inadequate supply of hay.1

It is plain that the material culture of an area will, as Dixon has expressed it, reflect the "permissive" character of the environment. Certain values may be absent and certain activities may be excluded. The Eskimo will not be able to cultivate corn or build houses and boats of wood, and the tropical African will not wear furs, build houses of snow, or construct blubber lamps. Moreover, great aggregations of men are in general dependent upon fertile soil, agriculture, cattle, and mineral resources, and political history has a certain relation to the mass of population. But even so, we find that populations circumvent unfavorable conditions on the one hand or fail to utilize them on the other. The Egyptian civilization may be correlated with the fertility of the Nile Valley but the comparable civilizations of the Incas of Peru and the Mayas of Central America were developed on an unfavorable mountain plateau and in what is now a tropical jungle, while the Indians of the fertile regions of the United States developed nothing comparable. It has also been pointed out that different types of culture may emerge successively in an identical environment and that two groups living simultaneously side by side in the same general environment may show very different patterns of behavior and culture.1

No one of these standpoints will be emphasized in the following discussion. On the contrary, it will be assumed:

1. That diversities in behavior and culture are the result of different interpretations of experience, resulting in characteristic behavior reactions and habit systems, and that a uniform course of cultural and behavioral evolution is consequently out of the question.

2. That theories of difference in degrees of mental endowment among races and populations and of inborn racial "psyches" have not been sustained; that such differences as may possibly exist have not played a noticeable role in the development of behavior and culture, and that the manifest group psyches are not inborn but developed through experience and habit systems. This question has lost some of its supposed significance, but is examined in Chap. XVIII.

3. That emphasis should be placed on the culture area rather than the natural environment. In their adjustive strivings territorially isolated groups develop, through their specific experiences, characteristic values and habits, some of them unique, and the circulation of these traits, their migration from area to area, and the borrowing back and forth, represents a sort of social inheritance, and is perhaps the main basis of social change and of advance to the cultural level termed "civilization."

1Tylor, E.B.n/an/an/an/a, , 1: 7.

1 Simkhovitch, V. G., "Hay and History," Polit. Sci. Quart., 28: 385–403; "Rome’s Fall Reconsidered," ibid., 31: 201–243.

1 Dixon, R. B., The Building of Cultures, 28 ff.


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Chicago: "Primitive Culture," Primitive Culture in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. Thomas, William I. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937), Original Sources, accessed September 22, 2023,

MLA: . "Primitive Culture." Primitive Culture, Vol. 1, in Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, edited by Thomas, William I., New York, McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1937, Original Sources. 22 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Primitive Culture' in Primitive Culture. cited in 1937, Primitive Behavior: An Introduction to the Social Sciences, ed. , McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., New York. Original Sources, retrieved 22 September 2023, from