In an era where cooperation, compassion and empathy are touted as neglected, even denied, aspects of human behavior, it is refreshing to have someone point out in vivid detail that humans are neither intrinsically violent nor non-violent but that our prehistoric past is littered with evidence of some pretty nasty behavior. Frans de Waal would have our monkey heritage rife with empathy in contrast to what he felt had been a universal portrayal of humans as just another species in the war of one against all. The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society The Dalai Lama sees us as intrinsically compassionate. Now Keely bludgeons us with the evidence that prehistoric folk may have been proportionately more violent than the Nazi's or the US in Vietnam. Those ancestors of ours engaged in warfare and did it with all the vigor their fragile productive systems and hand-held weapons allowed them. Example after example of archeological and recent anthropological evidence are presented of slaughter, torture, resource devastation, slavery, etc. and the proportion of victims was much higher than in modern warfare.
Prehistoric folk exercised tactical planning, invasion, denial of sustenance, all the practical aspects of war. The greatest difference between then and now is that they did it in more frequent and shorter encounters and they did not engage in warfare to dominate another people as tax farmers for food, male producers or canon fodder. They killed their male enemies right away or took them home to be tortured and maybe consumed. The extent to which captives were used as food is not clear. There were some societies, maybe the Aztecs for which this was the case. He doesn't mention New Guinea or the Solomon Islands for which this has been claimed for the recent past. Because captive males could not be controlled by small societies, they were eliminated. Western conquerors professed outrage at this but then they could afford to imprison and feed prisoners. They were also horrified at primitives' mutilation of opposing casualties but thought nothing about similarly destroying whole villages at night and burning their sources of sustenance. And, as the colonists in Eastern North America illustrated, latent imperialists became as much adept at taking scalps as their supposedly barbaric opponents. There was no lack of murder and enslavement of native women and children on frontiers.
Prehistoric fighters also tried to avoid set piece battles, or did them briefly, preferring what amounted to guerilla warfare. In fact the author claims that modern armies can not win guerilla warfare without engaging in similar tactics, frequently recruiting natives to fight natives. And the bow may have been more powerful than the gun before rifling made things more accurate. It is interesting that I don't remember the author using the word genocide. For genocide was certainly practiced prehistorically. The numbers involved were simply much smaller. A raid at night could easily kill all the males of one tribe or clan, and surviving women and children would live out their lives among people whose language was different.
When you think about it, the horrors of modern war experienced by the victims may have been no less horrible than having one's village or camping place swept into and destroyed, witnessing husbands and grown boys tortured and slowly killed, being raped and maybe mutilated and then being enslaved with one's children being distributed to others as slaves. Your world, though much smaller than say Byelo Russia during WWII , was destroyed more thoroughly than the damage seesawing armies of Germany and the Soviet Union visited upon the land and people of Byelo Russia. We see the latter as more violent because the total number is much much greater and it is (so to speak) us on whom it was visited, but actually proportionately much less damage was done. The German's mowed down hundreds of thousands with guns, shuffled a similar number into gas chambers and planned to work and starve the rest to death. They never got that far but prehistoric people did. Where is empathy in it all? Biologically empathy is only for our in-group, universal compassion seems oddly missing.
Keeler claims that things like trade and intermarriage usually made matters worse because many conflicts about these led to warfare. The only exemption seems to have been when exchange involved products that neighbors could (or would) not make. This led to a kind of stability because destroying your neighbors also destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg. There were some pacific peoples, but few, and many of them were defeated peoples who lacked the power to strike out.
Keeler tries to explain the difference between US violence towards Indians and its rarity in Canada. He sees it as a function of an even handed legal order in the west preceding occupation in Canada and the reverse south of the border. Certainly had the British in the 13 colonies and the Federalists after the revolution had their way white/Indian relationships might have been different. But the shear population density of the early US created a tidal wave never achieved north of the border. The Indian-as-trapper-white-as-buyers relationship of early commerce collapsed southward as both frontiersmen, white trappers, speculators and farmers kept pushing westward in spite of some attempts to control them. William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, as Indian Agent in St. Louis, was a paradigm of the contradictions. He both made meager attempts to protect Indians west of the Mississippi and invested in their undoing. In Canada Hudson Bay and the crown kept conflict more under control.
Although I was often impressed by the sophistication of many of Keeley's sweeping statements, I was somewhat troubled by his analysis of the rise of the anthropological view that primitives were not warlike. He sees it as a reaction to the violence of WWII and the A bomb. In revulsion to civilized violence and the vanishing of traditional peoples anthropologists sought hope for humanity by seeing our predecessors as people who lived without war. To me this seems too simple.
Similarly his comments about military historians seeing total war as inventions of Grant and Sherman opens a can of worms. "Primitive warfare is simply total war conducted with very limited means," which I agree with. It was the greater productive capacity of the West along with its diseases and pests that allowed it to dominate native peoples, not so much its superiority in arms. The author claims that lack of recognition of the ancientness of total warfare led military strategists to fight wars as games of chess leading to indecisive outcome among which he claims were the Crusades, the 100 year and 30 year wars. This claim raises lots of questions. Charles and Phillip of Spain gibbeted, burned and disemboweled with the best of them in the Lowlands. de Soto rampaging from Florida to the Mississippi was able to frighten his enemies and survive for an amazingly long time because of his armor, the sharpness of his swords, his attack dogs, his horses and, above all, his ruthlessness. At any point his indigenous enemies had the resources and the manpower to overwhelm him. Nonetheless, he almost got away with it.
Although my comments may be a little disjointed, I found the book challenging and sometimes very depressing. I would have like to have found more of the world that preceded civilizations somewhat more harmless and I suppose you could say they were in terms of ability to destroy their environment and peoples distant from them. The same limitations of resources and organization which made their conflicts shorter also meant that the damage was much more local. If your village was the one that was attacked that might be of little consolation to you but at least the violence was not so universal.
Has the world become more peaceful? It doesn't seem so. Who would choose to be collateral damage in Iraq or Afghanistan. Who would choose to live in Eastern Congo, Gaza, The Colombian jungle, Kashmir, Chechnya, etc., etc.? This book will really get you thnking. The author has done a great service.
Charlie Fisher author of Dismantling Discontent: Buddha's Way Through Darwin's World