Recently I reread War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, with a particular focus on the transition in Europe during the Mesolithic/Neolithic. Today with ancient DNA we know that in western Europe there were two distinct populations which came together with the arrival of agriculture. One population, which is very similar to modern southern Europeans, was a synthesis of Ice Age indigenes and an intrusive group from the Middle East. The other population, Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, were related to, or in part ancestral to, much of the heritage of modern northern Europeans. An interesting aspect of the division between these two populations is that their genetic distance was very high, on the order of 0.05 to 0.10. Or that between continental races. Additionally, the hunter-gatherers may have been a fearsome sight to behold, large robust people with dark skin and hair and piercing blue eyes. A novelistic treatment of the meeting between hunter and farmer invites itself naturally (Ted Kosmatka?).
Further back in time you have the meetings between our own lineage and Neandertals and other assorted hominins. No doubt some of the same discordances that characterized the interface of farmer and hunter would have applied in these situations, though even more starkly. I’ve read a fair number of novelistic takes on this “first contact.” Clan of the Cave Bear of course. But also Bjorn Kurten’s Dance of the Tiger. I’m finally getting to reading William Golding’s The Inheritors. And Robert J. Sawyer’s Neanderthal Parallax series, which is a strange twist on the theme, deploys many of the same tropes as prehistorical fantasy despite its science fiction setting.
But a major problem with these books is that they turn the Neandertals into reflections of some aspect of our own dreams and nightmares about ourselves. Jean Auel’s Neandertals in Clan of the Cave Bear were patriarchal brutes, as opposed to the matrifocal Cro-Magnons. Ayla’s nemesis Broud is a nightmare inversion of dreamy Jondalar. In contrast Sawyer and Kurten depict Neandertals as a more gentle folk, more or less, in comparison to the rapacity of modern humans (Golding also goes in this direction). This is the same problem that Keeley observes in War Before Civilization, and that Steven Pinker explored in depth in The Blank Slate, though applied to our own species, with Europeans tellingly substituted for modern humans. Against this reference the Other is a noble savage, with different weights to nobility and savagery contingent upon cultural fashion.
Contemporary American discourse about social justice is marinated in this intellectual framework, the heir of the age of white supremacy and scientism which crested in the early 20th century. Left-liberals who espouse strident progressive social justice views ascribe regressive practices among non-whites purely to extraneous Western colonial influences, as if non-white peoples were innocents in the garden before the arrival of Europeans, lacking agency for good or will. Whereas a previous generation of white supremacists perceived in the non-Western the inferior and primitive, a modern generation of Westerners sees the authentic and pristine. Though the moral valence differs, the underlying structural framework is invariant. To truly carve nature about its joints in a manner which exhibits appropriate fidelity we need to go beyond this reflex. Hopefully in such a manner we can also begin to probe our own past without fewer illusions which are haunted by the present.