Anthropologists and the ‘Depopulation’ Problem

Anthropologists and the ‘Depopulation’ Problem

A familiar trope in both American and European anthropology at the turn of the twentieth century was the discussion of the ‘extinction’ of the savage tribes.  It was taken as a kind of gospel  that while civilized races in the modern world would increase, “savage” and “primitive” races would diminish and decline over time. Of course, there were those who believed that modernity was not beneficial to modern man, but even though who considered modern conditions to be degenerate, also underscored that “savage” tribes were quickly declining. For the emerging social sciences,  the true problem in the early years of the 20th century was not the existence of the decline, but its causes.

In the early 20th century, the decline of savage peoples was bound in theories of population generally, which, as with most turn of the century anthropology, has not invited critical commentary. Everyone had a theory concerning the decline of “savages” “primitives” or “natives.” Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), to take one example, was a German geographer.  He is known today if at all for influencing the Nazi expansionist ideology of lebensraum.   Ratzel underscored that civilization advanced and progressed as population increased, as societies neared each other, they  would benefit from the commerce of ideas, the commerce of commerce and increased competition. This means that somewhat paradoxically, Ratzel was both a proponent of modernization and an advocate “free space” for ethnic development.  As societies grew in complexity and refinement, those societies would too have their populations increase.  As importantly, Ratzel addressed the nearly ancient problem of the interconnection  between luxury, commerce and the vitality and nations.  Unlike a number of early modern and enlightenment theorists, Raztel underscored that the advancement of society away from a kind of agrarian, marital virtue and social structure, would not be the death of that society, but the reason for its flourishing.

If, in the minds of many anthropologists, modern societies could benefit from the increase in population, modernity was however not treating “savages” well.  As Ratzel explained (in a translated excerpt in the Source Book for Social Origins, an early and important compendium of anthropological texts for students), savage peoples “offer examples of shrinkage and retrogression” (pg. 46.)  These populations were the victims of famine and warfare.  Ratzel continued that the thinness of the population itself was the reason behind its decline: “their smaller numbers are more readily brought to the point of dwindling or vanishing,” with each individual in these small communities rapidly depleting his energies.  An individual at a “lower stage of civilization” did not have the advantages of a diversified economy; he was frugal and often visited by dearth.  Thus, it was no accident that primitive peoples were disappearing.  It was not simply contact with “superior races” which lead to the extinction of barbarous peoples.  More specifically, Ratzel detailed, it was a combination of warfare and self-destruction.  The two were often connected: warfare, murder and kidnappings lead to imbalances between the sexes, with individuals in the state of nature not having any of the benefits of modern sanitation, leading to a constant diminution of their numbers (pg. 46-7.)

This discussion achieved a new urgency with the disappearance and the diminution of the populations of primitive peoples in the south Pacific and elsewhere.  William Fremont Blackman (who became an American university president) bemoaned that among the indigenous Hawaiians the laws of Malthusian population did not hold.  Even with a plentiful food supply, the numbers of indigenous still decreased (The Making of Hawaii: A Study in Social Evolution) due to war and infanticide, cannibalism and human sacrifice (210-11.)  Important too were the birth and death rates, with the birth rate low and the death rate high among the Hawaiians, with many indigenous having few or now children (212.)

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