Book Review

War Before Civilization

Lawrence H. Keeley
Oxford University Press, 1996, 245 pages

It is sometimes claimed that warfare among primitive (or to use the currently fashionable term, "preliterate") peoples, when it occurs, is usually short in duration, more like a feud that ends after only a few deaths, after which the natives return to their natural state of harmony with each other and grooving with Mother Nature. Many recent attempts at studying war, in elaborating this myth, are in reality little more than disguised Western civilization-bashing. This important book by Lawrence H. Keeley, a cultural anthropologist, provides evidence that thoroughly and devastatingly debunks the popular myth of the peaceful preliterate society.

Dr. Keeley's studies of war in preliterate societies have led him to challenge several beliefs that, for one reason or another, have become extremely widespread:

Keeley also dispels several other popular myths, such as the pernicious myth that "scalping" was a practice learned by American Indians from the Europeans. In fact, although some colonists encouraged scalping among the Indians, and some colonists tried to adopt the practice, there is no doubt that scalping was an Indian invention.

The norm for the vast majority of prehistoric and primitive societies was not peace, says Keeley, but periodic warfare that, in proportion to their populations, was far more bloody and brutal than that of any modern society. For example, at the Gebel Sahaba site in Nubia, 40% of all skeletons of men, women, and children contained stone projectile points embedded in their bones that likely caused their death. The Yellowknife tribe in Canada was effectively obliterated by massacres committed by Dogrib Indians, and disappeared from history shortly thereafter. Similar massacres occurred among the Eskimos, the Crow Indians, and countless others. These mass killings occurred well before any contact with the West.

Nowhere is the brutality of the primitive way of war in evidence as in the recent discovery (widely reported in the press) that the Aztecs performed ritual cannibalism, over a period of months, on a group of hundreds of captured European men, women, and children. Similarly, Iroquois Indians routinely slowly tortured to death and cannibalized captured enemy warriors. Yet the palisaded enclosures filled with human bones mixed with arrowheads found in archaeological sites throughout the world are often written off by anthropologists as ordinary "burial sites" instead of admitting the manifestly obvious implication that their beloved subjects produced mass graves and committed mass genocide.

The falseness of the Noble Savage myth can be summed up by a quote from a 19th century writer quoted by Keeley on page 167: "The nobility of `savages' is directly proportional to one's geographic distance from them." To modern ethnologists, idolization of primitive man and his supposedly harmonious and peaceful nature has grown in inverse proportion to the opportunity for direct observation of such cultures.

Some readers may object that Keeley has simply chosen those rare examples of primitive warfare and mass slaughter that are the exception, not the rule. Where are the examples of warfare among Arctic Eskimos or Lapps, for example? In fact, says Keeley, it is peaceful societies that are the exception. About 90-95% of known societies engage in war. Those that did not are almost universally either isolated nomadic groups (for whom flight is an option), groups of defeated refugees, or small enclaves under the protection of a larger modern state.

War is an important aspect of our modern lives, and as such it is important to understand its origins and its social function. The question of why and how precivilized humans conducted warfare has a direct bearing on how we see ourselves as a civilization and indeed, on whether we view civilization itself as something worth preserving. Even the most intelligent and conscientious anthropologists must find it difficult to refrain from moralizing and making value judgments instead of finding explanations for war. But subscribing to false myths about the past will only make the task of understanding the causes of war more difficult.

September 4, 2006 Back