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War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage [Paperback]

Lawrence H. Keeley
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Book Description

1 Dec 1997
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.

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Product details

  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (1 Dec 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195119126
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195119121
  • Product Dimensions: 20.4 x 13.6 x 1.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 352,198 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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"The evidence that Mr. Keeley marshals is vivid, varied, and often complex."--The New York Times Book Review

About the Author

Lawrence H. Keeley is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has contributed articles to Scientific American and Nature, and has appeared in documentaries that have run on P.B.S., The Discovery Channel and The Learning Channel. He lives in Oak Park, Illinois with his wife and son.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Great book 30 Sep 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An true eye opener regarding the 'noble savage' myth. It proves mankind was always engaged in warfare, no matter what era or location.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  52 reviews
64 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Amazing Book 20 July 2002
By Biology Reader - Published on Amazon.com
This amazing little book ( 244 pgs. including footnotes and index.) should utterly change the way anthropologists view man's prehistory and the remaining prestate societies in the world. Keeley thoroughly and meticulously documents that prehistoric warfare was in fact far more frequent and deadly than modern warfare between state societies. Keeley shows that prestate warriors often more than not held their own in battles against civilized armies and often defeated them. Their ultimate defeats at the hands of state societies were often more attributable to introduced diseases and the logistical superiorty of modern economies than to military strategy and tactics. One particularly illuminating passage involves a New Guinean tribal leader who after seeing an airplane for the first time, asked for a ride and then permission to take along some heavy rocks. These rocks he wanted to drop on an enemy village!! He had understood within minutes the military significance of aircraft that had eluded many generals and admirals for a generation. Some of the passages in the book make for gruesome reading, particularly the sections on cannibalism, enemy torture, and civilian massacres. Most importantly, Keeley documents how anthropologists have in his words "pacified the past" out of a sense of guilt over imperialism and the two world wars of the 20th century. He shows numerous examples of anthropologists and archaeologists grasping at straws to explain away unambiguous evidence of warfare at numerous sites in North America and Europe. He even points out as a young archaeologist that he also engaged in a lot of similar wishful thinking. This book should be required reading in anthropology classes throughout the world, but sadly it will probably be ignored because it challenges too many entrenched beliefs.
57 of 64 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keely slaughters the myth of the golden age of peace 17 Nov 2006
By Scott C. Locklin - Published on Amazon.com
Keeley utterly demolishes the "golden age" idiotological mythos with hard anthropological, ethnographic and archaeological fact. He also, very cleverly to my mind, considering the biases of modern academics, gives "primitives" a great deal of credit for their fighting prowess. There were some flaws to his thesis, of course. But this is a sort of polemic; a bludgeon with which to beat home the unarguable fact that primitive man was a violent creature; not the Rousseauean "noble savage" of popular mythology.

It also contains some great black humor, such as his recounting of a Maori chief taunting the preserved head of an enemy chief: " You wanted to run away, did you? But my war club overtook you: and after you were cooked, you made food for my mouth. And where is your father? he is cooked:- and where is your brother? he is eaten:- and where is your wife? there she sits, a wife for me:- and where are your children? there they are, with loads on their backs, carrying food, as my slaves."

Humanity is ugly. The simple fact that we are unpleasant, violent apes seems to be lost on certain social classes of people. In my opinion, you can't begin to understand people without understanding that human beings are deeply flawed creatures. We are not made horrible by our social conditions, psychological trauma or any other such nonsense: humanity is just horrible. Any meaningful discussion of sociology, history or politics must start from these assumptions, or they are destructive folly.
94 of 114 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Archeology vindicates civilized man 4 Nov 2000
By Jean-Francois Virey - Published on Amazon.com
"In the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Indian women used marrow-cracking mallets to pound the faces of dead soldiers into pulp." - Lawrence H. Keeley
For Lawrence Keeley, the study of prehistory (a period which, for some peoples, ended only a few dozen years ago) has been torn between two paradigms: the Hobbesian and the Rousseauian. According to the former, primitives are warlike, and need the institution of the state to put an end to the nastiness and brutishness of their lives. According to the latter, civilization is the corrupter, subverting the harmony and peacefulness of primitive life with overpopulation, greed and the encouragement of exploitative behaviour.
For several decades, the Rousseauian myth has ruled academia, where swords have been "beaten into metaphors": omnipresent fortifications are interpreted as expressions of "the symbolism of exclusion" and weapons as a form of money or status symbols, so that- to paraphrase Keeley- the obviously bellicose becomes the arcanely peaceable.
But what the civilization-bashers had not counted on was that their Big Lie would ultimately be exposed by objective scientists working on the basis of incontrovertible facts: the archeologists, whose patient, reality-oriented detective work completely refutes the fashionable whitewashing of primitive peoples.
What bones tell us is that wars were more common among the primitives than among modern nations, that proportionately more people were involved in them and died in them. Admittedly, those wars were waged on a smaller scale than modern man's, because primitive economies could neither support the large populations nor the impressive logistics that enable modern nations to sustain long-term and wide-ranging war efforts. But relative to their population figures, primitives are a much more violent breed than civilized men.
As always, of course, statistics tell only part of the story. Just as enlightening are the picture of the corpse of a U.S. cavalryman, horribly mutilated by the Cheyenne, or the simple description of what a Tahitian warrior would do to his vanquished enemy's corpse: crush it flat with his war club, then cut a slit through it and wear it as a poncho. (Horror is mitigated by irony when one considers that, in the 18th century, "the explorer Louis de Bougainville reported that Tahitians exactly fulfilled Rousseau's predictions"...)
*War Before Civilization* is an excellent illustration of what the application of logic to reality can do to dispel the myths woven by evaders and ideologically motivated revisionists, and so long as the author sticks to his own discipline, he shines as a beacon of perspicaciousness and objectivity. Outside of his own field, though, Keeley is less brilliant: his recommendations for the preservation of peace in our age (such as compromising with our enemies or letting foreign powers monopolize resources we could produce ourselves) are examples of fallacious induction; his choice of Hobbes as the antithesis of Rousseau creates an unsavory alternative between two proponents of absolute power (which is all the more regrettable as Locke would have served the author's purposes just as well); and his endorsement of the theory that "real" war is total war makes him mistake the moral constraints of civilized warfare for a lack of realism or even inefficiency. As for his analysis of the causes of the academic distortion of the prehistorical record, it would have benefited from a familiarity with Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and Gross and Levitt's debunking of the academic left in *Higher Superstition*.
If you are the kind of person who always feels compelled to put such words as "civilized" and "primitive" in quotes, Lawrence Keeley's book is the best therapy I can think of, along with Robert B. Edgerton's *Sick Societies* and Ayn Rand's *Return of the Primitive*.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Was it ever so? 8 Feb 2010
By Charles S. Fisher - Published on Amazon.com
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
32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars War is Hell -- and it always was 26 Mar 2002
By xaosdog - Published on Amazon.com
Although extremely poorly edited, this slim volume represents a revolution in understanding early human history.
The received wisdom in cultural ethnology is that true war was unknown to our species before the advent of so-called civilization. Not so; this book draws upon archeological and comparative ethnological data to show persuasively that bloody war has been a constant in human development up until the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, despite advancements in the technology of slaughter, and despite the cataclysmic events of the two world wars, on average the likelihood of death in battle has never, at any point in human evolution, been lower than during the current century.
Much of the book is dedicated to an analysis of pre-civilization battle tactics (i.e., tribal tactics as observed during the modern period, ancient descriptions of tribal adversaries, inferences from the archeological record), and of their comparison with the methodologies of modern warfare. Keeley takes great pains to "defend" pre-civilization warfare as equally deadly and even "total" as any modern campaign.
Overall, this is fine scholarship, and important reading for anyone seeking to understand human culture or the conditions of human evolution.
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