War Before Civilization, Lawrence Keeley, Oxford University Press, 1996, 245 pp., $25.00
Part of the anti-white mentality now prevailing in academic circles is the view that war and its attendant horrors are recent, largely European inventions. Before contact with the West, we are told, primitive man lived in harmony with nature and at peace with his neighbors. Even prehistoric Europeans were happy and peace-loving until their own civilization corrupted them.
Lawrence Keeley, who teaches anthropology at the University of Illinois, makes it overwhelmingly clear that this is nonsense. Most primitive and prehistoric societies probably made war so often that their people were far more likely to die in combat than the citizens of even the most warlike 19th or 20th century European nations. They also made war of the most cruel and brutal kind. Although words like “primitive” and “savage” have gone out of academic fashion, War Before Civilization could rehabilitate them single-handedly.
Where did the idea of peace-loving tribalists come from? Prof. Keeley gives due credit to Rousseau and his imagined ancestor, the noble savage, but argues that the worst damage has been done since the Second World War. Earlier European wars had been fought either by professional soldiers or, like the First World War, in narrow bands of territory. The horrors of the 1940s were so widespread and so harrowing that they left Europeans with a deep suspicion of their own civilization. This suspicion was part of the loss of will that brought down the European empires, and the rush to decolonize only encouraged sentimental foolishness about wise, long-suffering natives. The myth of the noble primitive is now a central part of the multicultural assault on the West.
Prof. Keeley points out that Americans started their romance with the savage earlier than Europeans but the process has been the same: “[I]n the United States during the nineteenth century, the nobility of “savages’ was directly proportional to one’s geographic distance from them.” As Easterners began to mourn the passing of the stalwart red man, “most Westerners still in direct contact with “wild’ Indians … regarded them as dangerous vermin, turbulent brigands, or useless beggars to be expelled or exterminated at any opportunity.”
Now that tribalism has been pushed so far into the jungle that whites almost never encounter it, they can all get sentimental over a bogus, idyllic past. As Prof. Keeley notes, “the privileged few who …are most cushioned from physical discomfort and inconvenience by industrial technology are the most nostalgic about the primitive world.”
This has lead to silliness and even falsification. For example, there are remains of Early Neolithic (c. 4,000 BC) ditch and palisade enclosures that can only have been fortifications. Some have clearly been battle grounds and are littered with human bones, but Prof. Keeley quotes from a standard explanation for such finds: “[P]erhaps these camps were places where the dead were exposed for months before their bones were deposited in nearby communal burials.”
Likewise, it is typical to explain that early men were buried with spears, swords, shields and battle axes because these were status symbols or were used as money. In Prof. Keeley’s words, those who insist on pacifying the past “ignore the bellicosely obvious for the peaceably arcane.”
Lefties also discount bona fide field observations of primitives on the war path. No matter how untouched a society may have been before whites discovered it, any mayhem explorers observed is said to be “the product of disequilibrium induced by Western contact.” Thus, it is impossible to study pristine savage nature because the very presence of white men is a contaminant that sets the peaceful primitives to murdering each other. Many anthropologists and archaeologists appear to believe that war is “a peculiar psychosis of western civilization.”
Interestingly, Prof. Keeley reports that some of the initial anthropological justification for this view came from the work of an earlier generation of scholars who had little respect for savage peoples. Anthropologists Harry Turney-High (1899-1982) and Quincy Wright (1890-1970) were both very influential in promoting the view that although stone-age people did make war of sorts, it was mostly stylized ritual and not very dangerous. These men thought that primitive war was defective and trivial because primitive society was defective and trivial. Savages could not mobilize large numbers of men and keep them in the field, had no idea of tactics, and were not trained to “stand and die.” Their warfare was childish.
Prof. Keeley’s careful research shows this was far from the case. It is in fact true that when primitives engage in pitched battles, they usually stop fighting after a relatively small number of casualties. This lends credence to the view that primitive war is more for show than for killing, but pitched battles are only a small part of warfare. After sifting through mountains of field studies, Prof. Keeley reports not only that such battles are frequent but that casualties are greatly multiplied by raids, ambushes, and massacres.
For example, ethnographers found that the Dugum Dani tribe of New Guinea once engaged in seven full battles and nine raids in just 5 1/2 months. Likewise, one Yanomamo village in South America was raided 25 times in 15 months. Surprise attack is the favorite tactic of primitives, and Prof. Keeley estimates that a typical raid might kill 5 to 15 percent of the inhabitants of a village. Sometimes far larger numbers might be trapped and killed, and “massacres once a generation were not an unusual experience in many nonstate groups.”
Archaeological evidence confirms that this is an old practice. In Cow Creek, South Dakota, a mass grave that dates from the 14th century AD contains the skeletons of 500 men, women and children who were slaughtered, scalped and mutilated. All the houses in the village were burned, and from their number archaeologists estimate that the total population was about 800. This village was wiped out and never reoccupied — 150 years before Columbus arrived.
There are burial sites in Gebel Sahaba in Egyptian Nubia that also show unmistakable signs of frequent violent death. A large number of the skeletons buried 12,000 to 14,000 years ago show smashed heads, mutilation, and the hacked left forearms common in battle casualties.
Early anthropologists like Turney-High and Wright assumed that because primitive societies did not have the power to draft soldiers they could not mobilize many men. Prof. Keeley says they were wrong. Although the Germans mobilized just over 30 percent of all men during the Second World War, Tahitians, Zulus, and some New Guinean tribes commonly mobilized 40 percent or more of their men. Moreover, in primitive war, there are essentially no support troops. Unlike the American army in Vietnam, which had a “tooth to tail” ratio of only 1:14, virtually every savage carries a weapon.
High mobilization rates and frequent battles mean very high cumulative casualty rates. Prof. Keeley calculates that every year during the 20th century, Germany and Russia lost an average 0.15 percent of their populations to combat. No other modern countries come close. For primitive societies, however — the Chippewa Indians, Fiji islanders, the Dinka of West Africa, and certain New Guinean tribes — annual battle deaths could exceed one percent, or seven times the most lethal “civilized” rate. Prof. Keeley notes that as a result it was not uncommon for tribes and sub-tribes to be driven to extinction by warfare.
One important difference between savage and civilized war is that tribes do not have the economic base to sustain prolonged combat. They run out of supplies and have to stop. In New Guinea, battles have lasted for several days or even weeks, but only because the combatants live so close to the front they can come home to sleep at night. During the most sustained New Guinean warfare, truces might be called for soldiers to tend crops. Otherwise both sides might starve.
Fighting close to home is a great advantage for the wounded. A New Guinean warrior who caught an arrow might be home and in the bosom of his family within an hour or two. Until the 20th century, “civilized” soldiers often lay wounded for many hours and were then treated in unsanitary, impersonal field hospitals that may have done more harm than good.
Otherwise, though, Prof. Keeley leaves no doubt that warfare among the savages was cruel business. Surrender was never an option, since captives were always killed on the spot or tortured. The Iroquois, for example, liked to let women and children torture captives to death over a period of several days. Then they would eat parts of the body — often the heart.
Mutilation and trophy-taking were common, and some tribes left a distinctive “signature” on enemy corpses. Some New Guineans, for example, sliced off enemy genitals and stuffed them into the body’s mouth. After the battle of Little Bighorn, Indian women used marrow-cracking mallets to smash the faces of dead cavalrymen into mush.
‘In Tahiti,’ notes Prof. Keeley, ‘a victorious warrior, given the opportunity, would pound his vanquished foe’s corpse flat with his heavy war club, cut a slit through the well-crushed victim, and don him as a trophy poncho.’
Revisionists have sometimes made the improbable claim that European colonists taught the Indians to scalp enemies, but Prof. Keeley says that both ethnographic and archaeological evidence for indigenous scalping is overwhelming. Scalping had a double purpose: Primitives often thought that mutilating an enemy would inconvenience him in the after-life, and battle trophies were proof of work well done.
Captive women were sometimes taken home as wives. In some societies women also had an economic value because they provided most of the farm labor. The Maoris of New Zealand, however, were not so chivalrous. During battle they disabled women so they could later rape, kill, and eat them at leisure.
Prof. Keeley notes that although it is fashionable to claim that cannibalism is the stuff of hysterical missionary tales, it was unquestionably practiced by Maoris, some American Indians, Australian Aborigines, Aztecs, and some Africans. There is also clear archaeological evidence for prehistoric cannibalism.
Primitive warfare was extremely destructive to property as well as lives. Victors commonly burned or sacked anything they could not carry away, instinctively adopting the tactics of Sherman’s march to the sea and the civilian bombings of the Second World War. As Prof. Keeley puts it, “primitive warfare is simply total war conducted with very limited means.”
Savages had unsurprising reasons for making war: fights over land, quarries, fishing streams, and hunting grounds. Homicide or adultery could start a war, and many conflicts were “disaster-driven:” During a hard winter one hungry village might ambush another, kill its occupants, and live on their stores.
Prof. Keeley also writes that trade and intermarriage have not usually bound peoples together. Business deals gone bad, mistreated brides, and welched dowries are all frequent causes for war. One problem for tribal peoples is their lack of central political authority. A few hotheads can go on an unauthorized raid that plunges the entire group into war to the knife.
Nevertheless, Prof. Keeley has unearthed a few human groups that appear not to have made war. Invariably these are small bands of nomads who live in very difficult country, far from others. They have very few possessions, and move away rather than fight. Prof. Keeley reports that in North America the Great Basin Shoshone and the Paiute “never attacked others and were themselves attacked only very rarely; most just fled rather than trying to defend themselves.”
But even these “peaceable” societies were by no means idyllic. “Armed conflict between social units does not necessarily disappear at the lowest levels of social integration,” writes Prof. Keeley; “often it is just terminologically disguised as feuding or homicide.” When people do not have strangers to kill, they have to make do with killing each other.
As War Before Civilization makes clear, Rousseau was a dreamer. His 20th century descendants who think modern whites invented war are just as deluded.