At a book sale, I picked up Early Civilizations, by A.A. Goldenweiser, an introduction to anthropology dating to 1922.  It’s surprisingly modern in approach, rejecting racial biases and stages of culture, respecting the mentality of all cultures and careful to draw parallels to our own when they exist.  But Goldenweiser was a student of Franz Boas who virtually invented multicultural liberalism.

You’re probably not going to run out to score a copy, but it does have useful sketches of the Eskimo, the Tlingit , the Iroquois, the Baganda, and the Central Australians.  The only really weak part of the book is the discussion of early religion and magic, and that isn’t the author’s fault– the weakness is in the early authors he’s reviewing, from Spencer to Durkheim to Freud.  They all wanted a simple system and they all seem pointlessly naive.  For instance, Spencer posited that bear totems derived from someone named Bear whose ancestors forgot that he was named Bear and thought they were descended from bears.  Freud is even worse; he creates a primeval drama of rebellion against a tyrannical father, which entered a “racial unconscious”.  Goldenweiser can’t help but point out that Freud’s myth is “without any foundation in the known facts of history or biology.”

One F. Graebner opined that cultural and technical elements must always be attributed to diffusion, as independent origin is unproveable.  It strikes me that this is a handy counterexample to Occam’s Razor.  Independent discovery is a more complicated theory, and yet very often it’s quite correct, as we can verify when we can examine the evidence historical times. 

Another tidbit: the author partly dismisses environmental factors as determinative of cultures and techniques.  Environment is obviously a huge factor; it’s just that it doesn’t explain everything. For instance, the Eskimo have lots of snow and build snow houses– fine, but the Chukchi in a similar environment do not.  (On the other hand they domesticated the reindeer and the Eskimo didn’t.)  The Indians of the northwest coast lived in the forest and had an impressive wood industry; those of the California coast didn’t, though they lived in a similar environment.  A warning to conworlders…

Advertisements