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Who is the primitive man? Where is he to be found? What are his characteristics? These are the important questions which here at once confront us. But they are questions to which, strangely enough, the answer has, up to very recent times, been sought, not in the facts of experience, history, or ethnology, but purely by the path of speculation. At the outset the search was not, for the most part, based on investigations of primitive culture itself, but took as its starting-point contemporary culture and present-day man. It was primarily by means of an abstract opposition of culture to nature that philosophy, and even anthropology, constructed natural man. The endeavour was not to find or to observe, but to invent him. It was simply by antithesis to cultural man that the image of natural man took shape; the latter is one who lacks all the attainments of culture. This is the negative criterion by means of which the philosophy of the Enlightenment, with its conceited estimate of cultural achievements, formed its idea of primitive man. Primitive man is the savage; the savage, however, is essentially an animal equipped with a few human qualities, with language and a fragment of reason just sufficient to enable him to advance beyond his deplorable condition. Man in his natural state, says Thomas Hobbes, is toward man as a wolf. He lives with his fellow-beings as an animal among animals, in a struggle for survival. It is the contrast of wild nature with peaceful culture, of ordered State with unorganized herd or horde, that underlies this conception.
But this antithesis between the concepts of culture and of nature, as objectively considered, is not the only factor here operative; even more influential is the contrast between the subjective moods aroused by the actual world and by the realm disclosed by imagination or reason. Hence it is that the repelling picture of primitive man is modified as soon as the mood changes. To an age that is satiated with culture and feels the traditional forms of life to be a burdensome constraint, the state of nature becomes an ideal once realized in a bygone world. In contrast to the wild creature of Thomas Hobbes and his contemporaries, we have the natural man of Jean Jacques Rousseau. The state of nature is a state of peace, where men, united in love, lead a life that is unfettered and free from want.
Alongside of these constructions of the character of natural man, however, there early appeared a different method of investigation, whose aim it was to adhere more closely to empirical facts. Why should we not regard those of our human institutions which still appear to be a direct result of natural conditions as having existed in the earliest period of our race? Marriage and the family, for example, are among such permanent cultural institutions, the one as the natural union of the sexes, the other as its necessary result. If marriage and family existed from the beginning, then all culture has grown out of the extension of these primitive associations. The family first developed into the patriarchal joint family; from this the village community arose, and then, through the union of several village communities, the State. The theory of a natural development of society from the family was first elaborated by Aristotle, but it goes back in its fundamental idea to legend and myth. Peoples frequently trace their origin to an original pair of ancestors. From a single marriage union is derived the single tribe, and then, through a further extension of this idea, the whole of mankind. The legend of an original ancestral pair, however, is not to be found beyond the limits of the monogamous family. Thus, it is apparently a projection of monogamous marriage into thepast, into the beginnings of a race, a tribe, or of mankind. Wherever, therefore, monogamous marriage is not firmly established, legend accounts for the origin of men and peoples in various other ways. It thinks of them as coming forth from stones, from the earth, or from caverns; it regards animals as their ancestors, etc. Even the Greek legend of Deukalion and Pyrrha contains a survival of such an earlier view, combined with the legend of an original ancestral pair. Deukalion and Pyrrha throw stones behind them, from which there springs a new race of men.