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War Before Civilization

Rousseau famous thesis, that "peaceful primitive man" is corrupted by civilization, continues to permeate our culture and undermine our moral confidence. Anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley demolishes this thesis in his book War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. He shows that “prehistoric warfare was in fact more deadly, more frequent, and more ruthless than modern war.”

To come to this conclusion he had to fight his own prejudice—one shared by his profession. “Like most archaeologists trained in the postwar period, I emerged from the first stage of my education so inculcated with the assumption that warfare and prehistory did not mix that I was willing to dismiss unambiguous physical evidence to the contrary.” [p ix] “Weapons and armor” were dismissed as “status symbols and had only a symbolic function rather than a practical military one.” [p19] Social anthropologists, who encountered savage societies, declared that contact with civilization induced the transformation from a peaceful disposition to a warrior-like ethos. However, the overwhelming evidence was too great to allow this prevailing dogma to go unchallenged.

Keeley thoroughly reviews the statistics. Depending on region and means of classification he finds that 5%-13% of primitive tribes or bands are peaceful (meaning not engaging in raids or wars more than once a year). “Most peaceful groups [are] living in areas with extremely low population densities, isolated by distance and hard country from other groups...” [p 28] But “many small-band societies that are regarded by ethnologists as not engaging in warfare instead evidence very high homicide rates.” [p29]

“Truly peaceful agriculturalists appear to be somewhat less common than pacifistic hunter-gatherers… Low-density, nomadic hunter-gatherers, with their few (and portable) possessions, large territories, and few fixed resources or constructed facilities, had the option of fleeing … Farmers and sedentary hunter-gatherers had little alternative but to meet force with force or, after injury, to discourage further depredations by taking revenge.” [p31]

War is common to civilized states and primitive non-state societies but given the evidence of Keeley’s book “the only reasonable conclusion is that wars are actually more frequent in nonstate societies than they are in state societies—especially modern nations.” [p33] “From North America at least, archaeological evidence reveals precisely the same pattern recorded ethnographically for tribal peoples the world over of frequent deadly raids and occasional horrific massacres. This was an indigenous and ‘native’ pattern long before contact with Europeans complicated the situation.’ [p69]

What happens when primitive and civilized people clash? He has some startling conclusions. When numbers are equal, either side is likely to win. Civilized fighting, geared to wining battles against other nation-states, is a liability when fighting savages. “In most cases, civilized soldiers have defeated primitive warriors only when they adopted the latter’s tactics. In the history of European expansion, soldiers repeatedly had to abandon their civilized techniques and weapons to win against even the most primitive opponents. The unorthodox techniques adopted were smaller, more mobile units; abandonment of artillery and use of lighter small arms; open formations and skirmishing tactics; increased reliance on ambushes, raids, and surprise attacks on settlements; destruction of the enemy’s economic infrastructure (habitations, foodstores, livestock, and means of transport); a strategy of attrition against the enemy’s manpower; relentless pursuit to take advantage of civilization’s superior logistics; and extensive use of natives as scouts or auxiliaries. In other words, not only were civilized military techniques incapable of defeating their primitive counter parts, but in many cases the collaboration of primitive warriors was necessary because civilized soldiers alone were inadequate for the task.” [p74]

“Primitive (and guerilla) warfare consists of war stripped to its essentials: the murder of enemies; the theft or destruction of their sustenance, wealth, and essential resources; and the inducement in them of insecurity and terror. It conducts the basic business of war without recourse to ponderous formations or equipment, complicated maneuvers, strict chains of command, calculated strategies, time tables, or other civilized embellishments. When civilized soldiers meet adversaries so unencumbered, they too must shed a considerable weight of intellectual baggage and physical armor just to even the odds.” [p75]

Often civilized nation-states were helped by other factors. “These silent partners included viruses, bacteria, seed plants, and mammals that disseminated death and triggered ecological transformations that decimated native manpower and disrupted traditional economies. These insidious conquistadors spread far more rapidly and were many times more deadly than the human conquerors …” [p78] He concludes: “In the face of these facts, the claim that the superior tactics and military discipline of Europeans gained them dominion over primitives in the Americas, Oceania, and Siberia is so inflated that it would be comic were not the facts that contradict it so tragic.” [p79]

Keeley, also notes facts contrary to his thesis. “… it was common the world over for the warrior who had just killed an enemy to be regarded by his own people as spiritually polluted or contaminated... Often he had to live for a time in seclusion, eat special food or fast …” [p144] War is repulsive even to primitive man. “Yet if this worldwide revulsion had any real impact on social behavior, wars should be rare and peace common; instead the opposite is true.” [p147]. His explanation of this paradox isn’t convincing. Neither is his explanation for the rise of the neo-Rousseauian “noble savage” dogmatism that dominated anthropology for so long.

Lawrence Keeley is a man who has respects for the facts. To the extent that he is not an exception in his profession—he says he’s not—there is a silent revolution taking place within the academy. Even if one isn’t convinced of every generality, one has to appreciate the seismic shift in worldview that is taking place.

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