Definition of primitive in English:



  • 1Relating to, denoting, or preserving the character of an early stage in the evolutionary or historical development of something.

    ‘primitive mammals’
    ‘Primitive Germanic’
    • ‘Air-breathing in fish is, in fact, a primitive character of all osteichthyans.’
    • ‘Certainly, other bird-like fossils will be found - either earlier or more primitive.’
    • ‘This land bridge allowed primitive mammals to colonize South America from the North.’
    • ‘Some social theorists such as Marx viewed slavery as a necessary but primitive stage in the evolution of human institutions despite it being inherently wasteful and inefficient.’
    • ‘Molar polymorphism is probably a primitive mammalian character, conserved in marsupials and mustelids.’
    • ‘In some ways, monotremes are very primitive for mammals because, like reptiles and birds, they lay eggs rather than having live birth.’
    • ‘Pakicetus is so far known only from its skull, but recent finds in Pakistan have produced other whale species that show very primitive characters in both the skull and the rest of the skeleton.’
    • ‘However, once again the incomplete nature of the fossil record causes problems and can result in more primitive members of a taxon being preserved at a higher stratigraphical level than more advanced forms.’
    • ‘These characteristics of B. bahloi are expected to be found in the ancestor of B. attenuatus, since they represent a more primitive evolutionary stage.’
    • ‘The nineteenth century notions of the evolution of religion from primitive animism to polytheism to monotheism have been falsified in tribe after tribe all over the world.’
    • ‘The platypus is considered a primitive mammal, yet its bill appears to be highly advanced.’
    • ‘Hence it is certain that still more primitive life forms must have preceded the prokaryotes.’
    • ‘Humans who lived in the past and did not have modern anatomy are often referred to as archaic or primitive.’
    • ‘This included vaulting, which was more durable than the more primitive, earlier building methods.’
    • ‘In the town itself the early primitive buildings were gradually replaced by stone structures of the traditional German fachwerk style.’
    • ‘Does it not follow that if the evolution of amoeba to man is fact, then the development of primitive man to civilized man must be fact also?’
    • ‘Proponents of the multiregional theory consider Neanderthals as an earlier primitive stage in the development of modern Europeans.’
    • ‘The egg-laying platypus and its cousin, the anteater, along with marsupials, make up the most primitive group of living mammals.’
    • ‘This analysis is a first step in reconstructing the details of possible evolutionary relationships among primitive cladid crinoids.’
    • ‘The primitive magmas are roughly equally distributed between arcs built on oceanic and continental crust.’
    ancient, earliest, first, prehistoric, antediluvian, antique, primordial, primeval, primal, primary, lower, original, proto-, ur-
    View synonyms
    1. 1.1 Relating to or denoting a preliterate, non-industrial society or culture characterized by simple social and economic organization.
      ‘primitive people’
      • ‘These tribes brought with them primitive religious and cultural practices, such as the east Asian religion of shamanism.’
      • ‘The early and primitive myths were stories, mainly stories about gods, and their units were physical images.’
      • ‘Yet the system of thought he espoused was not primitive, historical or fundamentalist, but rather thoroughly contemporary.’
      • ‘The factors that produced social bandits and other primitive rebels in the past are very much part of the present-day world.’
      • ‘His explanations of primitive customs are much cruder than the meaning of these customs themselves.’
      • ‘Long before the Spanish arrived, the Chamorros maintained a simple and primitive civilization.’
      • ‘For instance, bauxite or uranium have no value in a primitive society where they cannot be utilised, but in an economy that produces aluminium or harnesses atomic power they become valuable resources.’
      • ‘As a social problem, this tendency is unmasked by the realist, who assists the native to develop beyond this stage of primitive fetishism.’
      • ‘In primitive tribes, the names of people, places and things have talismanic powers.’
      • ‘We can read with interest about primitive pre-literate cultures and the amazing memories these people have for landforms or for stories and songs.’
      • ‘Iron is so important that primitive societies are measured by the point at which they learn how to refine iron and enter the iron age!’
      • ‘As people banded together to constitute primitive societies thousands of years ago, the first major form of organization to emerge was the tribe.’
      • ‘Ethnic groups are not primitive social organizations on an evolutionary march to civilization.’
      • ‘Could this be why he claimed to feel more at home in small, close, remote, primitive societies, which he had never directly experienced, than in the society he inhabited?’
      • ‘Rejecting the ethnocentrism characteristic of an earlier generation of anthropologists, Levi-Strauss refused to think of tribal cultures as primitive.’
      • ‘To the colonialist nineteenth society, primitive peoples were regarded not as Good Savages but as inferior beings.’
      • ‘In the folk tales of primitive societies ‘talking animals’ have occupied a highly ambiguous but a definite fantasy space.’
      • ‘The idea of marriage is almost as old as the hills and was performed even in the most primitive of human societies and cultures.’
      • ‘He argues that participation in primitive warfare, in proportional terms, is often deadlier than participation in modern warfare.’
      • ‘Studies of primitive societies show that humans are not inherently ‘good,’ but that goodness stems from prosperity.’
      preliterate, non-industrial
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    2. 1.2 (of behaviour or emotion) apparently originating in unconscious needs or desires and unaffected by objective reasoning.
      ‘the primitive responses we share with many animals’
      • ‘For the first time in so much time, she tasted the authentic almost primitive happiness.’
      • ‘Lacking either camera or scales I experienced a brief temptation to take the fish home with me - more as proof to my wife and children that I could actually catch a bass, than through a primitive desire to feed them.’
      • ‘The pleasure of digging derives from a primitive instinct.’
      • ‘The idea that beneath the outer shell of civilized humanity lies this kind of unbridled, primitive passion is terrifying and exciting to him.’
      • ‘There are primitive fears of loners that can be traced back to the days when everyone's energy and participation in rituals was necessary for the survival of a tribe.’
      • ‘The dog grimaced harshly, a cringe that did not suggest primitive fear as much as painful recollection.’
      • ‘It also opens a wider question as to whether civilised societies could so quickly revert to primitive behaviour.’
      • ‘Ricoeur argues that this primitive desire for order, at least in its more developed forms, takes precedence over the desire for retribution.’
      • ‘Logic and reason are overwhelmed by adrenaline and a primitive desire to protect your own.’
      • ‘She touched it gently with one finger, and what flashed through her wasn't pain but a shock of remembered ecstasy and a kind of primitive greed.’
      • ‘The evolutionarily primitive aspect of emotion helps to explain its power to disrupt thinking.’
      • ‘When he glanced back, Cestmir was advancing, an unstoppable primitive rage in his eyes.’
      • ‘Mingled with these basic joys is another less primitive feeling - that of a mission accomplished.’
      • ‘In pursuit of bigger game, I began searching for similar archaic behavior in humans, focusing on the apparently primitive vocalization of laughter.’
      • ‘She discovered that I didn't revert to ballet steps, but with primitive glee made wild, exuberant jumps when we danced to Offenbach's Gaite Parisienne.’
      • ‘As a filmmaker, Sean Penn is attracted to the hinterland, where obsessions feed off primitive fear.’
      • ‘And the raw primitive hope was crushed to produce an equally raw and primitive anger.’
      • ‘Clients typically call their divorce lawyers when they are locked in the grip of primitive emotion.’
      • ‘There was frost one morning not long ago, but when I reached out to touch it in primitive awe it was gone.’
      • ‘Animals display primitive feelings that are a product of their programming or instinct.’
    3. 1.3 Of or denoting a simple, naive style of art that deliberately rejects sophisticated artistic techniques.
      ‘the Fauves saw primitive art as a liberating force’
      • ‘Symbols of science, art and magic can be found in primitive cave paintings in France.’
      • ‘However, he was not at first as interested in the Fine Arts of painting and drawing as he was with the exotic primitive arts that were being collected from South Sea Islands at that time.’
      • ‘There's a scarlet dining-room, with distressed metal walls, a Chinese emperor's daybed for lounging about on, and a fabulous collection of primitive art and antiques.’
      • ‘These two sources - Cézanne and primitive art - were of great importance in the genesis of Cubism.’
      • ‘It was a radical group of artists and poets who were interested in folk and primitive art as well as in spontaneous expression.’
      • ‘On a short trip to London that fall, he pursued his study of primitive art in the Egyptian, Assyrian, and African collections at the British Museum.’
      • ‘Matisse was not one to rest on his laurels, and he continued studying various styles including primitive art, and the work of painters in other disciplines.’
      • ‘The main aim of the fair is to resuscitate primitive art forms and allow the artists to interact directly with their buyers.’
      • ‘It was covered in primitive chalk doodles dating from kindergarten, very basic stuff you absorbed and outgrew ages ago.’
      • ‘The art of the goldsmith has its roots in prehistory, developed to a sophisticated degree at a time when visual art amounted to little more than primitive cave paintings.’
      • ‘This spiralling is very prevalent in primitive art.’
      • ‘It was painted from notes she made while traveling in the district, and is a summation of her landscape style and ideals which often ended in a form of primitive cubism.’
      • ‘Mark's style is colorful and direct, with perspective that is often distorted or just simplified and figures who are rendered in a somewhat primitive or naive manner.’
      • ‘They felt that the art of the current establishment was too academic and refined to retain any degree of expression, so they instead found inspiration in medieval German art and primitive African sculpture.’
      • ‘He had just come back from Paris where he had been very inspired by the work of Giacometti, Dubuffet and by the surrealists, but he was also very interested in primitive African art.’
      • ‘The use of the primitive Etruscan style suggests a time so ancient as to be inseparable from nature.’
      • ‘His book They Taught Themselves chronicled the creative lives of a number of amateur artists whose primitive and naive styles appealed to his modernist eye.’
      • ‘Sometimes primitive or exotic art is not far away across oceans, but within our own nation.’
      • ‘However, he was hailed as a great artist and visionary by Picasso, Magritte and Ernst, who admired Rousseau's primitive style of painting and viewed him as being part of a force that was changing the face of art.’
      • ‘His style has been loosely described as expressionistic, surrealistic, naive, and primitive, but was also strongly influenced by the urban realism of John Sloan.’
      simple, natural, unsophisticated, naive, unaffected, undeveloped, childlike, innocent, artless, unpretentious
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  • 2Very basic or unsophisticated in terms of comfort, convenience, or efficiency.

    ‘the accommodation at the camp was a bit primitive’
    • ‘It is hard to imagine the primitive conditions in those early days, when Rowntree's entire male staff numbered about 30.’
    • ‘The food was poor, services primitive and the crossing rough.’
    • ‘Such relatively primitive methods have now been overtaken by vastly enhanced possibilities for computational analysis.’
    • ‘I grew up in a pretty primitive environment, without many modern conveniences.’
    • ‘Despite the demand for knowledge, created by the rise of the universities, the technology to further motivate this process was still in a primitive stage.’
    • ‘They are living in mud huts and everything is primitive by our standards, but unbelievably clean.’
    • ‘At the time of his marriage in May of 1747 Hamilton had struggled for almost eight years to create a comfortable niche in a primitive New World environment.’
    • ‘The software, still in its early stages, is primitive.’
    • ‘Even after primitive use of crude lagging gave way to a more general use of preformed asbestos block insulation, such blocks were cut dry which could actually enhance dust production.’
    • ‘Internet organization is still rather primitive, but search engines are looking for ways to minimize the effectiveness of these link exchanges.’
    • ‘Physical handling of information was of necessity fairly primitive in those days.’
    • ‘Also, the sights are usually quite primitive by today's standards.’
    • ‘The village appeared rather primitive, with little or no technology clearly visible.’
    • ‘These basic entrepreneurial skills may be primitive, but they enable individuals to earn enough money to support themselves and add to family incomes.’
    • ‘And a mouse with only one button and no wheel seems somewhat primitive to me now.’
    • ‘Those struggles were of an extremely primitive character, involving the destruction of machinery by workers.’
    • ‘You must be prepared to leave the comfort of your home for a more primitive place in the country many miles away at which you will live and work for two months.’
    • ‘The path was in many places a primitive stairway, or crude stepladder, at first through a jungle, and later up a very steep, grass-covered slope.’
    • ‘Until this time, a primitive plow was arduously pulled through rough ground by an unshod horse with a strap across its windpipe.’
    • ‘The success of the barometer led to the development of primitive air pumps.’
    crude, simple, rough, basic, elementary, rough-hewn, rudimentary, undeveloped, unrefined, unsophisticated, rude, rough and ready, makeshift
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  • 3Not developed or derived from anything else.

    ‘primitive material of the universe’
    • ‘It may be, in the end, that we must simply accept the notion of causality as being primitive and irreducible, like the notions of identity and existence.’
    • ‘Many are made of primitive materials, such as rocky minerals and flecks of metal, from which it is believed the planets were made.’
    • ‘But there can be no complex concepts without simple concepts, and it is to these latter primitive representational structures that the thesis of this paper is meant to apply.’
    • ‘What such views have in common is the conviction that the notion of something's persisting through time is ultimately primitive and irreducible.’
    • ‘Comets represent fragments of primitive material from the outer Solar System in the same way that asteroids represent fragments of material from the inner Solar System.’
    • ‘Is causal connection primitive and irreducible?’
    • ‘Abelard draws the conclusion that intentionality is a primitive and irreducible feature of the mind, our acts of attending to things.’
    • ‘The claim is integral to the assumption: it makes we-intentionality not merely primitive but basic.’
    • ‘And the preliminary measurements confirmed our suspicions that it is unusually rich in very, very old and primitive material.’
    • ‘The foregoing analyses adopt a comparative notion of reasonableness as a basic or primitive notion.’
    • ‘Comets are composed of ice, gas, and dust - primitive debris from the formation of the solar system about 4.5 billion years ago.’
    • ‘In this picture, justification operates on two levels: a basic level, at which we grasp primitive truths, and a reflective level that reinforces and stabilizes knowledge gained in the first way.’
    • ‘This causal claim is only merited once the theoretical system is in place, and so cannot be a primitive element in any account of perception.’
    • ‘They constitute the primitive elements out of which the world is constituted.’
    • ‘In this brief note I wish to critically discuss Searle's claim that we-intentionality is biologically primitive and irreducible.’
    • ‘Most psychologists would grant that some basic perceptual primitives - for example, color, sound, and depth - are derived from the physical world by dedicated innate mechanisms in the mind.’
    • ‘Carbonaceous chondrites are representative of the early material of the solar system, very primitive material, so it's the closest we get to the stuff from which the solar system evolved.’
    • ‘They are claimed to be the most primitive objects in the solar system, and the most likely to have organic (carbon-containing) molecules.’
    • ‘I build with the most primitive materials - with the triad, with one specific tonality.’
    • ‘If that were the case then no civil law could apply and all men preserved their primitive rights to secure themselves at all costs from harm.’
    1. 3.1Linguistics Denoting a word, base, or root from which another is historically derived.
      • ‘And yet any sort of ignorance of first or primitive names involves an ignorance of secondary words; for they can only be explained by the primary.’
      • ‘Nouns fall into three major groups: the basic or "primitive" nouns, noun compounds, and nouns formed from verbs.’
      • ‘Hands evolved to lift, heft, and hurl stones (such hard, straight, primitive words those three, clearly made for use with stones).’
    2. 3.2Mathematics (of an algebraic or geometric expression) from which another is derived, or which is not itself derived from another.
      • ‘He studied primitive permutation groups and proved a finiteness theorem.’
      • ‘The following are a few examples showing that addition, multiplication, and exponentiation are primitive recursive.’
      • ‘The main results describe the structure of B / A where B and A are non-zero ideals in L proving, in particular, that B / A is a primitive ring that is not regular.’
      • ‘In a series of articles, beginning in 1934, Péter developed various deep theorems about primitive recursive functions, most of them with an explicit algorithmic content.’
      • ‘Tick those triangles that are primitive and out a cross by those which are multiples (of a primitive triangle).’
  • 4Biology
    (of a part or structure) in the first or early stage of formation or growth; rudimentary.

    • ‘The tumor occurs near the coccyx, where the greatest concentration of primitive cells exists for the longest period of time during development.’
    • ‘Recent demonstration of the ability of primitive cells to mobilize and home to the infarcted heart have raised the possibility that undifferentiated cells may translocate from the recipient to the graft, contributing to ventricular remodeling.’
    rudimentary, undeveloped, incomplete, embryonic, immature
    View synonyms


  • 1A person belonging to a preliterate, non-industrial society.

    ‘reports of travellers and missionaries described contemporary primitives’
    • ‘Holst's ‘characters’ are peasants, not primitives.’
    • ‘The difficulty with this strategy was that it tended to provide ample room for the reproduction of stereotypical views regarding the barbarism of the primitive.’
    • ‘The myth is then coined of the ‘happy savage,’ that [these] primitives are truly happy and content.’
    • ‘Unlike in neighbouring New Zealand, where the Maori tribe has more or less integrated with the white settlers, the primitives of Australia are still in many ways outcastes, and De Heer's work underlines this in all its pathos.’
    • ‘Because of the harsh cold weather, the once theorized Bering Strait that was thought to have frozen over to allow the primitives to cross to North America, was now again solidly frozen.’
    • ‘Page after page of the volumes present the Cheyennes not as primitives but as people with a rich history and complicated patterns of living, thinking, believing, and being.’
    • ‘As Toynbee observed, the Greek gods were thus made in the image of barbarian man - a primitive who has been drawn into an encounter with a decadent civilisation and adopted the worst customs of both worlds.’
    • ‘To acquire the concept person, a child might join together her perceptual primitives corresponding to the visual appearance of people, the sounds people make, and the ways people move.’
    • ‘Later, unusual body piercings (i.e., other than a single piercing per earlobe) became associated with fringe cultural groups, such as punk rockers and a new group known as modern primitives.’
    • ‘Like some primitive who thinks the camera steals his soul, Fowles seems to believe that his precious diary is a record of a sacred, special, inviolate self, and he must obey this self above all else.’
    • ‘I've heard modern primitives (you know the type: stretched ear lobes, extensive tribal tattoos, pierced private parts) complain that there are no real rites of passages in our culture.’
    • ‘It is no wonder that so much of the world looks upon Americans as self-absorbed primitives.’
    • ‘They were looking down on the new immigrants who arrived, and who were much more observant and who were steeped in Eastern European piety, and they were of course the primitives.’
    • ‘However, though Robeson's Umbopa is a more charismatic and less stereotypical character than his Bosambo in Sanders, other Africans are portrayed as little more than exotic primitives.’
    • ‘In other words, such demonstrations of ingenuity can be a powerful argument against the idea that ancient man was a less-evolved primitive.’
    • ‘In an earlier time, we would have said that such people were primitives, uncivilized.’
    • ‘And is it not also obvious that the overwhelming majority of people - including children and primitives - in fact act according to these rules, and do so as a matter of course?’
    • ‘An aboriginal group of primitives known as the Mud People is about to perform a ritual execution of one of their own when a peculiar object appears in their midst: a croquet ball.’
    • ‘Objects were seen as having utilitarian or ceremonial value, and were collected for ethnographic significance, or as souvenirs of the primitive.’
    • ‘If we didn't know such things: why then we would be no better than primitives who lived in simple self-sufficient communities!’
  • 2A pre-Renaissance painter, or one who imitates the pre-Renaissance style.

    • ‘Anne Marie Graham was born in Vienna in 1925 and includes among her influences Mozart, Bach and Haydn, as well as the work of 16th century artist Pieter Breughel and the Italian primitives.’
    • ‘This rigorous preparation helps explain her meticulous style; equally important were the influences encountered in the Prado Museum, especially Northern and Italian primitives and Spanish masters.’
    • ‘He reacted intensely to the experience of his Italian visits, the first in 1883, becoming a lifelong admirer of the Italian primitives.’
    • ‘Theirs was no retrograde revival of past styles, but a reworking of Giotto and the Italian primitives through a modernist lens, specifically, the ironic classicism of Giorgio de Chirico.’
    • ‘Yet Ingres, a native of Languedoc in southern France, reacted against the grand heroic style of his master, David, adopting a more graceful, intimate flavour inspired by Raphael and the Italian primitives.’
    1. 2.1 An artist deliberately employing a simple, naive style.
      ‘the Catalan primitives’
      • ‘In its infancy, Pyat explains, the modern community of painters comprised a small group of heroic primitives, drawn together by their common devotion to their craft but polarized by rivalry and ambition.’
      • ‘At the same time, he was a self-taught, strongly independent painter who considered himself a primitive.’
    2. 2.2 A painting by a primitive artist, or an object in a primitive style.
      ‘Santa Fe style antiques and Mexican primitives’
      ‘Ohio primitives such as treenware utensils’
      • ‘From the caves of Lascaux to the clay or stone figures made by primitives and modernists, animal likenesses or essences have abounded in humankind's representational practices.’
      • ‘Ironically, he had purchased some of the twenty primitives in the group from the Downtown Gallery.’
      • ‘Paul Gauguin's primitive was not Pablo Picasso's, and - despite their mutual reliance on West Mexican grave goods as source materials - Kahlua's primitives were not Kahlo's.’
  • 3Linguistics
    A word, base, or root from which another is historically derived.

    • ‘And although one should be cautious about saying that there is a simple list of semantical primitives, it does seem reasonable to maintain that Aristotelians had unearthed most of the major ones.’
    • ‘Thus, if we were to break down nouns such as man and woman, boy and girl into their semantic primitives, we would analyse them as shown in Table 4.2.’
    • ‘In Anna Wierzbicka's 1972 book Semantic Primitives, only 14 semantic primitives were proposed and in her 1980 book Lingua Mentalis, the inventory was not much bigger.’
    1. 3.1Mathematics An algebraic or geometric expression from which another is derived; a curve of which another is the polar or reciprocal.
      • ‘Any Pythagorean triangle is either primitive or a multiple of a primitive and this is shown in the table above.’
      • ‘Typically such instructions are combined and used in an iterative block cipher, a cryptosystem that operates on a block of data and sequentially repeats a set of primitives; each repetition is a round of the function.’
      • ‘Frege asked about Hilbert's claim that his axiomatization provides definitions of the primitives of geometry, so that the very same sentences serve as axioms and definition.’
    2. 3.2Computing Any of a set of basic geometric shapes which may be generated in computer graphics.
      ‘the program includes a complete set of drawing primitives’
      • ‘The alternative would have been to settle for a simpler shape based on primitives that had to be added or subtracted to create the desired design.’
      • ‘A game designer uses OpenGL to describe what to draw as a set of graphics primitives (shapes in space) and texture maps (images).’
      • ‘Sun has extended the language's complex shapes and drawings above and beyond the basic primitives.’
      • ‘Data such as pixels, geometric primitives or even scene graph data is passed among the nodes.’
      • ‘The objects you need to use to create the final shape are geometric primitives, and they all are sitting at the top left.’


Late Middle English (in the sense ‘original, not derivative’): from Old French primitif, -ive, from Latin primitivus ‘first of its kind’, from primus ‘first’.