A noble savage is someone from a primitive culture who is supposedly uncorrupted by contact with society. This concept first arose among the Ancient Greeks and Romans, with authors such as Pliny and Ovid glorifying the primitive cultures they had contact with, and it reached a pinnacle in the 18th century with the primitivism movement. Today, the concept of the noble savage is largely regarded as a myth which is both outdated and wrong, and the concept is largely regarded as racist, as well.
The major champions of the noble savage concept often drew on the records of voyages by explorers like Captain Cook to portray tribal cultures as primitive, simple, and Edenic. The idea that primitive cultures were inherently good and untainted proved to be popular in an era when people were questioning the merits of civilization, and the noble savage was glorified in books, plays, and music.
According to those who perpetuated the concept, people in tribal cultures which had been untouched by the complexity of Western civilization had a number of traits in common. Primitive cultures were viewed as inherently good, with people being naturally innocent, truthful, generous, healthy, and wise. Champions of the myth also believed that people in primitive cultures lived in harmony with nature and with each other.
There are several problems with the noble savage myth. The first is that it bears no basis in reality; many “primitive” cultures have the same problems that Western civilization does, including brutality, war, lying, over-exploitation of resources, and selfishness, suggesting that these characteristics may be more innate to human society than goodwill. Captain Cook himself died at the hands of a tribal culture due to a lack of understanding of the complexities of Hawaiian society.
Many critics also view the noble savage idea as extremely condescending, in addition to being racist. The savages were typically depicted with dark skin, primitive features, and simplistic societies, when in fact tribal cultures come in a range of skin shades, and many of them are quite complex. The idealization of tribal cultures is also rather ironic, when one considers that many of these cultures were victims of colonization; apparently the cult of the noble savage didn't extend as far as an active desire to preserve such cultures. The idealization of colonized societies may have stemmed partially from a sense of guilt, and a desire to distinguish tribal cultures as “others” in order to further distance colonists from the colonized.