The Golden Bough

by Gianluca Ceccarini

«Nascosto entro un albero ombroso c’è un ramo, d’oro le foglie e la verga flessibile, sacro all’inferna Giunone: e tutto il bosco lo copre, entro le oscure convalli protetto lo tengono l’ombre. Ma non prima è concesso scendere sotto la terra che si sia colto dall’albero l’auricomo ramo. Strappalo via, con la mano: da solo verrà, sarà facile se i fati ti chiamano; se no, né con forza nessuna, né con il duro ferro piegarlo o stroncarlo potrai.»

Virgilio, Eneide, VI, 136-147


The origin of Anthropology as “science of primitive societies” is to be found within the intellectual climate of the Positivist Evolutionism where the history of human society appeared as the result of identical cumulative laws: Therefore the “contemporary primitives” represented the most remote stage of cultural development. An ethnocentric vision that presupposed a division of societies into ” inferior ” and ” superior ”. Non-European ethnic groups were observed and analyzed as “living fossils” of evolutionary stages surpassed by western civilization, useful to study as cavies to shed light on our past. The pattern of historical and cultural development adopted by the Victorian evolutionary anthropology was that of the three evolutionary stages of eighteenth-century derivation The peoples were classified and placed on three evolutionary steps, savage-barbarian-civilized. An anthropology based on these strongly ethnocentric concepts was functional to the colonial States that saw in the science of primitive peoples an effective tool for ruling over ethnic groups considered inferior: know better to govern. Parallel to the vision of the savage as a representative of a humanity firm in the evolutionary path, matured the false idealist myth of the “good savage”, full of stereotypes: a romantic vision not free from ethnocentric drifts. Fortunately, modern anthropology will release itself from the meshes of power until it becomes a self-reflexive science often active in the defense of the rights of ethnic minorities, making participating observation a central method: to understand, the anthropologist must pitch his own  tent in the center. of the village. The project The Golden Bough, borrowed from the famous essay by the evolutionist anthropologist James Frazer, aims to investigate the imagery of this period so controversial that it has seen entire ethnic groups disappear and subjugate millions of human beings at the hands of the European conquerors in the name of progress and an alleged superiority. But how much of Victorian ethnocentrism still survives in our imagination, in political thought and in the sciences, how much do we still think standing on that highest step?