We all know about “the Noble Savage”. Rousseau and a bunch of others kicked off a whole phenomena of European romanticization of aboriginal people, pegging them as humans in the “state of nature”, uncorrupted by the chains of civilization, inherently good and pure—right? Wrong, says Ter Ellingson.

Ellingson traces the term “noble savage” back to the French lawyer Marc Lescarbot. On encountering the Mi’kmaq Indians in Nova Scotia in the early 17th century, the legally-minded Lescarbot observed, “the Savages are truly noble”. Hunting was the prerogative of the nobility in Europe at the time, by law, so the spectacle of a culture in an ecosystem way short of its human carrying capacity, where everyone hunted freely, was remarkable.

However, as Ellingson’s meticulous but readable textual analysis demonstrates, Lescarbot’s actual views of the natives, in sum, were rather more complex than the simple image of pristine nature that the “Noble Savage” has come to signify for us. How did this phrase accumulate so much? This is the question this book seeks to answer.

The shock, according to Ellingson’s thesis, is that the myth of the “Noble Savage” was never really widely believed in during its supposed heyday in the 18th century. Rousseau’s thought is revealed as—surprise, surprise—a deal more involved and ambivalent than the usual selective quotes imply, and is dismissed as a true source for the myth.

The concept surfaces here and there, but never decisively; until the mid-19th century. Ellingson locates the real birth of the myth in a paper delivered to the Ethnological Society by John Crawfurd, a respected and rather racist ex-colonial administrator who—Ellingson claims—was part of a coup designed to overtake the society. Rooted in the Aborigines Protection Society and with a strong Quaker contingent, the Ethnological Society was, until Crawfurd took over, rather enlightened for the time. The key theory at the centre of Ellingson’s story is that Crawfurd resurrected this rarely-used term as a straw man, something to make sympathies with aboriginal cultures seem rather risible. If this is true, it’s worked remarkably well.

(Interestingly, Crawfurd’s paper was delivered mere months before the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and uses Darwin’s own negative impressions of some Tierra del Fuegans with which to illustrate his thesis. Darwin’s belief that humans had a common origin, however, meant that the racist anthropology faction had little time for him.)

If there’s a crucial weakness to this book, it must be that Ellingson verges a little too far into “constructionist” territory—for my taste, at least. Occasionally I felt the textual analysis was getting a little slippery, free of the friction of an actual reality described by the texts. The “reality” of history can’t, of course, be nailed down; but a little friction from an array of guesses never hurts to get a feel for where the analyst is really coming from.

Ellingson also seems to have too much of a surface attachment to the phrase “noble savage” itself. He admits that of course the sentiment expressed by it can be expressed using other words, but still there’s a slight over-adherence to the outer form of the concept in trying to track it down. The final chapters left me a little less unsatisfied with this aspect, though; his description of the phrase as a kind of linguistic attractor that destabilizes and corrodes sympathetic perspectives toward native populations are persuasive. Further, the chapter at the end on the Makah Whale Hunt of 1999, where Indians resurrecting a whale killing ritual met with fierce opposition, analyzes the rhetoric of the event in a way that left me convinced of the destructive power contained within this clich├ęd phrase.

I’m sure this work is dismissed as relativistic nonsense by the more science-minded folk who want to fight the actual romanticization that falls under the shadow of Crawfurd’s rhetorical virus. Debates about the merits of forager culture aside, though, Ellingson clearly demonstrates that our perceptions of the such debates have been subtly and powerfully skewed by a bit of 19th-century myth-making. This fascinating survey of early anthropology and its conceptual and political battles seems to be essential reading.