Stefansson On Stone Age Stereotypes

I’ve been an avid reader of Vilhjalmur Stefansson over the years, and I have a habit of writing down passages that really speak to me.  Having grown up with the common stereotypes associated with stone age people, I’ve always been especially interested in first hand accounts of explorers who made the first western contact with tribes around the world.  It gives us some insight into the differences between being human and being part of the dominant culture.  But unlike the stereotypes, the first-hand accounts paint a different picture.

The passage below records Stefansson’s thoughts upon meeting a group in the arctic that had had no previous contact with westerners.

May 15, 1910, was the third day after our discovery of the Dolphin and Union Straits Eskimo.  For two days they had entertained us with warm hospitality, and had already grounded firmly in my mind the impression which a year of further association with them was destined to do nothing to weaken – that they are the equals of the best of our own race in good breeding, kindness, and the substantial virtues.  They were men and women of the Stone Age truly, but they differed little from you or me or from the men and women who are our friends and families.  The qualities which we call “Christian virtues” (and which the Buddhists no doubt call “Buddhist virtues”) they had in all their essentials.  They are not at all what a theorist might have supposed the people of the Stone Age to be, but the people of the Stone Age probably were what these their present-day representatives are: men with standards of honor, men with friends and families, men in love with their wives, gentle to their children, and considerate of the feelings and welfare of others.  If we can reason at all from the present to the past, we can feel sure that the hand of evolution had written the Golden Rule in the hearts of the contemporaries of the mammoth millenniums before the Pyramids were built.  At least, that is what I think.  I have lived with these so-called primitive people until “savages” and all the kindred terms have lost the vivid meaning they had when I was younger and got all my ideas at second-hand; but the turning lank of this picturesque part of my vocabulary has been made up to me by a new realization of the fact that human nature is the same not only the world over, but also the ages through.

– Vilhjalmur Stefansson, From “My Live With The Eskimo”, p. 190.

My favorite line from this passage is:

Human nature is the same not only the world over, but also the ages through.

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