War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage
Lawrence H. Keeley
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The myth of the peace-loving "noble savage" is persistent and pernicious. Indeed, for the last fifty years, most popular and scholarly works have agreed that prehistoric warfare was rare, harmless, unimportant, and, like smallpox, a disease of civilized societies alone. Prehistoric warfare, according to this view, was little more than a ritualized game, where casualties were limited and the effects of aggression relatively mild. Lawrence Keeley's groundbreaking War Before Civilization offers a devastating rebuttal to such comfortable myths and debunks the notion that warfare was introduced to primitive societies through contact with civilization (an idea he denounces as "the pacification of the past").
Building on much fascinating archeological and historical research and offering an astute comparison of warfare in civilized and prehistoric societies, from modern European states to the Plains Indians of North America, War Before Civilization convincingly demonstrates that prehistoric warfare was in fact more deadly, more frequent, and more ruthless than modern war. To support this point, Keeley provides a wide-ranging look at warfare and brutality in the prehistoric world. He reveals, for instance, that prehistorical tactics favoring raids and ambushes, as opposed to formal battles, often yielded a high death-rate; that adult males falling into the hands of their enemies were almost universally killed; and that surprise raids seldom spared even women and children. Keeley cites evidence of ancient massacres in many areas of the world, including the discovery in South Dakota of a prehistoric mass grave containing the remains of over 500 scalped and mutilated men, women, and children (a slaughter that took place a century and a half before the arrival of Columbus). In addition, Keeley surveys the prevalence of looting, destruction, and trophy-taking in all kinds of warfare and again finds little moral distinction between ancient warriors and civilized armies. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, he examines the evidence of cannibalism among some preliterate peoples.
Keeley is a seasoned writer and his book is packed with vivid, eye-opening details (for instance, that the homicide rate of prehistoric Illinois villagers may have exceeded that of the modern United States by some 70 times). But he also goes beyond grisly facts to address the larger moral and philosophical issues raised by his work. What are the causes of war? Are human beings inherently violent? How can we ensure peace in our own time? Challenging some of our most dearly held beliefs, Keeley's conclusions are bound to stir controversy.
Keep Out!34 A far different impression is conveyed by the reports of the archaeologists who have conducted extensive excavations of some of these enclosures.35 At several camps, the distribution of thousands of flint arrowheads, concentrated along the palisade and especially at the gates (Figure 1.1), provides clear evidence that they “had quite obviously been defended against archery attack,” making it extremely probable that the enclosures were “built with this intention.” Moreover, the total
sedentary social units are small, nearly every settlement is only a few hours’ walk from a hostile frontier, and in such circumstances nearly every village is fortified. This has often been the case in areas of tropical South America and highland New Guinea. It was also the case for the Mandan, Arikara, and Hidatsa villagers of the Upper Missouri River who farmed the floodplains and restricted their settlements to a narrow band along the river. With such a lineal settlement pattern, every village
Rousseau into enduring philosophical attitudes toward primitive and prehistoric peoples. HOBBES AND ROUSSEAU The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) reached his conclusions about warfare and society via a series of logical arguments. In his great work, Leviathan, he first established that, in practical terms, all men were equals because no one was so superior in strength or intelligence that he could not be overcome by stealth or the conspiracy of others. He found humans equally
warfare usually happen when commanders lose control of their soldiers, whose primary motive may be the primitive one of avenging combat losses or previous real or fictive enemy atrocities. And slaughters of noncombatants can occur as a matter of policy, when the policymakers themselves are consumed by ethnic hatred or when they make a calculated attempt to use state terrorism to cow a conquered populace. The reaction of the German government during the Herero-Nama uprising in Southwest Africa in
civilized states overestimate the deadliness of combat, since most war deaths were caused by disease until very recently. For example, two-thirds of the deaths suffered by the Union armed forces during the Civil War were due to disease.22 Such disease casualties are included in the war death rates for civilized states but not in those of primitive groups. Moreover, many civilized war deaths were the result of accidents involving horses, vehicles, and weapons. For example, approximately 20 percent