Darkness in El Dorado - Archived Document
Anthropological Niche of Douglas W. Hume
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Reply by John Zerzan

This is the reply of the well-known authority on anarchism, John Zerzan, to Shedding Light on Darkness in El Dorado .

Richard Tate's review is a very thoughtful and probing discussion that ranges well beyond Tierney's Darkness in El Dorado .

I'd like to comment on one basic distinction in order to clarify my own main emphasis. Tate agrees with Perlman that civilization is humankind's biggest mistake: Rejecting the Marxist idea that civilization inevitably arose as the productive forces matured, we regard the productive forces as a product of civilization, development as a war against life, and civilization as a disastrous mistake.

I agree with this eloquent judgement, but disagree with Tate and Perlman about the watershed event that led to that mistake. As I see it, the turning point is agriculture, or domestication, arriving as the culmination of gradually increasing division of labor.

Here we see, in my opinion, a dividing line with greater explanatory power. Violent practices such as cannibalism, human sacrifice, and headhunting, for example, have certainly been observed among primitive but agricultural people. In fact, though these practices are virtually never found outside of pastoral or agricultural societies, they are often seen prior to civilization.

If agriculture is benign, as Perlman and Tate would have it, how do they explain the institutionalized violence that often accompanies it? More basically, the preponderance of archaeological and ethnographic evidence suggests that domestication in general marks a dramatic decline in leisure time, health and robusticity, and the autonomy of women. It also introduces hierarchy, institutionalized religion, private property and organized violence.

There has been an extremely significant revision in our understanding of human life as it was before agriculture and civilization. A far rosier picture than the time-honored Hobbesian view ("nasty, brutish and short") is associated with such reputable scholars as Marshall Sahlins and Richard B. Lee. The textbook question used to be "Why did it take Homo so long to adopt agriculture?" Now the question is "Why did humans abandon an eminently successful gathering/hunting lifeway for agriculture and all its disadvantages?" The origins of alienated life pre-date civilization, that much is clear, even if they emerged relatively recently (apparently no earlier than 10,000 years ago, a short span of time compared to humans' estimated 2 million years as a species).

Especially since the 1980s, there has been an attempted counter-revolution, in the form of various books that attack the new, positive picture of primitive humanity. Their striking weakness, in my opinion, is a near-universal avoidance of agriculture as a watershed issue. These authors discuss violence and other objectionable social phenomena, but rarely or never do they ascribe these practices to to pre-agricultural people.

If I seem to have made "selective" use of sources by ignoring this literature, it's because these supposed attacks on the primitive do not hit the target. To me, domestication is the problem. I see no need to defend a vague, undefined "primitive" against those who only lodge their complaints against post-agricultural practices.

I hope these brief and general remarks can be seen as complementing Tate's important exploration.