calling all anthropologists

In today's Globe and Mail, La Wente defends Dick Pound's recent statement calling aboriginal cultures "savagery".
Was Canada once a land of savages? And is saying so tantamount to racism? Many people would answer no, and yes. That's why Dick Pound, the high-profile Olympics figure, is in a heap of trouble for describing the Canada of four centuries ago as "un pays de sauvages." He was talking to a reporter from La Presse about the Beijing Olympics and the issue of human rights. "We must not forget that 400 years ago, Canada was a land of savages, with scarcely 10,000 inhabitants of European descent, while in China, we're talking about a 5,000-year-old civilization," he said.

Wente says Pound was stupid for saying this, but that he spoke the truth.

Because I have an abiding interest in ancient cultures, it's impossible for me to think of any ancient peoples as savages. On the contrary, I'm generally in awe of how much they knew, what they were able to accomplish, and the technology they invented out of nothing. The people who built Machu Picchu had no metal tools or written language. The people who sewed themselves into sealskin kayaks and survived Arctic winters, while their European visitors starved and froze to death, didn't prevail by accident. To me there's no question.

Meanwhile, Wente says of neolithic people, "Other kinship groups were regarded as enemies, and the homicide rate was probably rather high." Well now! Good thing we civilized people have evolved since then. Hiroshima says hi. The Somme says hi. Savagery or civilization? You make the call.

But here's my question.

Wente says, "Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was 'savagery.'" Is this true? Was "savagery" an actual anthropological term? Or merely a descriptive term that lay people used in ignorant condescension?

Now, if anthropologists did use the word "savages" to describe neolithic people, that proves nothing. You can read newspapers or scientific papers from the late 19th Century that are laced with racist stereotypes and Eurocentric bias - and assumption based on zero evidence. It was the conventional mode of thought, but still not factually correct. There are scientific treatises about why slavery is proper. You can make fake science support anything.

But beyond that, is this statement - "Until about 30 years ago, the anthropological term for this developmental stage was 'savagery.'" - true? Was there a technical, anthropological term "savagery", and was that term used until the late 1970s?

I have another question: what is Margaret Wente's problem? But no one can answer that one, so please stick to the question above.

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