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.
to do so by competition over food or other essential resources. Peace is the inertial or natural state to which societies revert when essential material needs can be cheaply supplied by nonviolent means.28 This type of theory simply elaborates Rousseau’s contention that primitive man is an enemy to others only when he is hungry. Yet the materialists were by no means completely Rousseauian; many of them (for instance, Andrew Vayda, Robert Carneiro, Marvin Harris, and William Divale) asserted that
armed forces of states. Although modern conscript armies during active warfare generally represent a high percentage of the male population, on many occasions nonstate societies mobilize a higher proportion of their manpower. In World War II, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States, despite the tremendous power of coercion enjoyed by modern states, managed during the whole war to mobilize any greater proportion of its manpower than have some tribes and chiefdoms. The reasons why
mines. If not every civilized campaign in the New World was a success, it must be conceded that the great majority were. But the reasons for these victories had little to do with tactics, and even logistics and economics may have been irrelevant to the results. As the ecological historian Alfred Crosby points out, European conquerors of the “brave new worlds” of the Americas, Australia, the Pacific islands, and the isolated extremities of the Old World were aided by invisible but overpowering
constitutes one of the principal products of Western progress, and the precivilized condition and the non-Western world before European expansion must have been idyllic and peaceful. As ever, when faith in the myth of progress declines, the myth of the golden age finds new adherents. THE CREATION OF MYTH In the postwar atmosphere of anxiety, malaise, and dissatisfaction with Western civilization, anthropologists have introduced doctrines concerning precivilized violence consistent with this
(Knauft 1987: 464), the armed forces of the United States (with an average population of 200 million and homicide rate of 10) would have had to kill 1,350,000 people each year. In nine years, this would amount to 12 million deaths; the population of South Vietnam in 1965 was less than 14 million. 11. Knauft 1987: 463. My conservative calculation (i.e., excluding deaths from disease and starvation) of the annual homicide rate of Nazi Germany (1933 to 1945) yields a figure of approximately 2,000