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Who are the Modern Primitives?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2016
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Modern Primitives are people who live in developed nations and engage in rituals which are borrowed from cultures in less developed or “primitive” regions of the world. Many Modern Primitives focus specifically on tribal rites of passage and rituals, emphasizing the simplicity and perceived purity of tribal societies. The Modern Primitive movement, as it is known, dates to the late 1970s, when the concept of Modern Primitives was first outlined and explored by Fakir Musafar, a man who is widely regarded as the father of the Modern Primitive movement.

Many people in the Modern Primitive movement sport an assortment of body modifications which are linked with tribal societies, ranging from tattooed markings with specific symbolic meanings to lip plates. Heavy body modification is not unusual in the Modern Primitive movement. Modern Primitives may also participate in specific rituals which ape those of the primitive cultures they admire, such as ritualistic suspension, temporary piercing, or spirit quests.

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Some people criticize the Modern Primitives, arguing that people in this movement are engaging in gross acts of cultural appropriation which border on the offensive. For example, the rites of passage performed in many tribal societies are intensely meaningful to people raised in those societies, and the subversion of these rites by people who don't understand the cultural context could be viewed as cultural theft. The Modern Primitives are also sometimes accused of picking and choosing the aspects of primitive culture they wish to embrace, suggesting a lack of respect and understanding.

The concept also plays into the idea of the “noble savage,” a concept which came up again and again in the 18th century, when Europeans idolized the indigenous cultures they subjugated. Noble savages were viewed as members of a more pure, natural form of civilization which had been untainted by modern society. People from primitive cultures were idealized and romanticized in art, literature, and music, and some were even brought to Europe to be displayed like animals.

Members of the Modern Primitive movement feel that they are getting in touch with their own identities by exploring rites, rituals, and beliefs from other cultures. By adopting primitive traditions, members of the Modern Primitives argue, they are also preserving these traditions and exposing them to a wider audience, which could facilitate a deeper understanding and respect for other cultures.

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