This picture essay from the Daily Telegraph chronicles the existence of the Koroway tribe in Indonesia who live a totally primitive life. The continued existence of human beings living in such stone age conditions always makes me wonder about the received understanding of human evolution. You know how you go to the Natural History Museum and they show you dioramas of Neanderthal Man. The wax figures are squatting there with heavy brows and thick lips and long hair. They’re dressed in skins and looking like missing links.
I’m dubious. First of all, how do they know how these people dressed? Their clothes didn’t survive did they? They assume they dressed in skins, but maybe they dressed in colorful woven clothes. They don’t really know do they? So they dug up their burial sites. Maybe they wore three piece suits everyday, but buried their people in wolf skin so they would be predatory in the afterlife. How do they know they were hairy and unshaven? The North American Indians and many other primitive tribes had extravagant grooming with plucked hairs, fancy haircuts, shaved heads, the works. How do they know they lived in caves? Maybe they lived in nice wooden houses which have not survived. Maybe they lived in sophisticated tree houses like these folks in Indonesia.
Furthermore, who is to say the ‘cave men’ were quite so sub human as the smart anthropologists make out. We judge them by our standards. I dare say they’re a darn sight better at surviving in the jungle than we are, even if they don’t have an iPad. Also, who’s to say they’re all that unsophisticated? Many tribes had and have a fascinating mythology, a complex religion, an organized cosmology, a strict set of internal moral standards and a developed language and cultural structure.
In fact what do we know about the ‘cave man’ at all? Chesterton points out that the one thing we do know about them is that they were artists. They left beautiful paintings on the walls of those caves in France, but that doesn’t mean they lived in caves. It just means they went there to make paintings, and maybe they did so because the cave was their temple, or perhaps the cave was their art gallery. Who knows?
This was impressed upon me once when I was walking through a British seaside town in the height of summer and a barefoot youth with a Mohican haircut, covered in tattoos, with pierced ears, nose and other stuff, and wearing nothing but a filthy speedo swimsuit came walking up the street. I was aghast. Give him a spear and he could have stepped right out of the jungle. I said good morning and he grunted at me. “It was a Neanderthal!”, I thought, “alive and well in modern Britain”, and lest I be shot at for Brit bashing, the same could have happened in an American city.
I’m not convinced that we’re any more sophisticated than the primitive people or that they are necessarily any more backward than us. Sure, we have better technology. Maybe they know how to talk to each other more. Maybe they’re more spiritual. I’m not being romantic about them, or getting down on us. Just being skeptical about the idea that we’re better than they are or they’re better than we are or vice versa.
The idea that we are better than them simply because we’re alive now and the cave man was alive a long time ago is hogwash. It’s a heresy called historicism–the false belief that we’re better and more enlightened and more wonderful just because we live now and not then.
Fact of the matter is: human beings are human beings. They are our brothers and sisters. I’m a cave man too. We’re all created in God’s image and we’re all therefore good. They are too in their own way. We’re all good, but we’re not perfect. The image of God in us is wounded by original sin. We all (Koroway tribe and Catholic tribe) need the healing redemption of Christ. That’s why I was encouraged to find in the article that this primitive tribe has had contact with missionaries.
I just wonder if the missionaries are Catholic.