The way our ancestors conceived nature has very little in common with the vision that prevails in the modern West since the scientific revolution of the XVI to the XVIII centuries. Nature was far from being one-dimensional: what we would call today supernatural, whether beneficial (divine) or evil (unnatural and diabolical), was mixed with what nature could have of pleasant, useful, harmless or domesticated.
In every society that we know of, by direct observation or indirectly through the testimonies left, and presumably in all that ever existed, nature was the normative horizon for human intervention, that is, it imposed restrictions on its manipulation by technological means. Technology was governed by mimesis, the repetition and the copy or imitation, without any changes, of the operation of the natural phenomena, without removing or adding anything, in order to avoid the vengeance by the outraged natural forces.
Every human gesture or action regarding a natural phenomenon, be it the birth of a child or an operation of healing magic, should repeat the gesture of creation of that phenomenon in the beginning of time by supernatural forces, just as the cyclical succession of seasons obeyed the eternal return of the genesis, the original creation.
Doubly explanatory and prescriptive, the mythologies of all peoples, transmitted by oral tradition, and later recorded in writing, by providing archetypes, imposed role models. The ritual was fulfilled by reciting the myth of the creation of the phenomenon on which it acted, as to propitiate divine intervention, without which that action would remain profane and doomed for failure. That was hierophany, common to the religious celebration, which was not a simple commemoration of the initial creation, but its very repetition, in presence of the gods then and there. Much more than available raw material, such as it is understood contemporaneously, nature was seen by the primitives as a gift, where men are debtors of a debt that must be settled. Therefore, their absence of ownership over nature’s phenomena (which doesn’t mean they didn’t have an acute sense of the territories they occupied, where they obtained their shelter and access to natural resources), was compensated by the awe towards forces they didn’t master.
Nonetheless, they had a sophisticated empirical knowledge of natural phenomena, strictly focused on the exploitation of resources and their everyday use in agriculture, in hunting, in fishing and gathering, in the domestication of animals, in the preparation of food, in the treatment of diseases and body care, craft and manufacture of tools, in war and religious rituals. Our technological mastery of nature, usually used to argument in favour of a more alleged than real cultural superiority over primitive peoples, extinct or actual, should not constitute a measure of comparison between us and them. When, instead, the question is whether we have better resources to solve the problems we face than the resources the primitive had, to face the problems that challenged them, such superiority seems much more uncertain and questionable. Cultural relativity by no means implies relativism, except in a very abstract level, regarding the equivalence of ways of living. The historical reality broadly illustrates how we were never capable of adapting to their way of life, no more than they did to ours, and that the confrontation was, in most cases, catastrophic for the communities more deprived from a technological point of view.
This is why the unsuccessful attempts to assimilate primitive peoples have been replaced by the restriction of contacts, in order to preserve ways of living otherwise in the brink of extinction.