War Before Civilization
by Lawrence H. Keeley

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Oxford University Press: 1996
245 pages

July 2004

Prehistoric violence or
the "peace of the primitives"?

In War Before Civilization, Lawrence H. Keeley conducts an investigation of the archaeological evidence for prehistoric violence, including murder and massacre as well as war. He also looks at nonstate societies of more recent times — where we can name the tribes and peoples — and their propensity for warfare with surprisingly deadly cumulative effects.

This investigation is necessary and timely. Keeley's clear analysis counters much recent popular history and other writing which takes for granted that mankind lived in some Golden Age of Peace before civilizations arose and began to make war. This peace of the primitives is a very old myth. Our desire for peace is natural, but we should not use erroneous pre-history to slur our hard-built civilization while giving a false pedigree to human peacefulness.

But this is prehistory, you say? Certainly, and that's what the archaeological and ethnographical evidence can clarify for us. Two concepts are critical: the very small populations, and their very thin margin of productivity.

In civilized wars, because modern states have larger territories, redundant transportation networks, and a broad margin of productivity above the bare subsistence level, years of destruction and blockade may be necessary to reduce one to starvation. But ... prestate societies had small territories and much slimmer margins of productivity. Primitive social units could be reduced to a famine footing by the consequences of a few days of raiding or even of a single surprise attack. Because the infrastructure and logistics of small-scale societies were more vulnerable to looting and destruction, the use of these methods was almost universal in primitive warfare. ...
Pre-Columbian Indian village slaughter

Here's one of Keeley's striking examples from pre-Columbian North America:

In some regions of the American Southwest, the violent destruction of prehistoric settlements is well documented and during some periods was even common. ...

For example, the large pueblo at Sand Canyon in Colorado, although protected by a defensive wall, was almost entirely burned; artifacts in the rooms had been deliberately smashed; and bodies of some victims were left lying on the floors. After this catastrophe in the late thirteenth century, the pueblo was never reoccupied.

Another, from the upper Midwest:

Contrary to Brian Ferguson's claim that such [inter-tribal] slaughters were a consequence of contact with modern European or other civilizations, archaeology yields evidence of prehistoric massacres more severe than any recounted in ethnography. For example, at Crow Creek in South Dakota, archaeologists found a mass grave containing the remains of more than 500 men, women, and children who had been slaughtered, scalped, and mutilated during an attack on their village a century and a half before Columbus's arrival (ca. A.D. 1325).

The attack seems to have occurred just when the village's fortifications were being rebuilt. All the houses were burned, and most of the inhabitants were murdered. This death toll represented more than 60 percent of the village's population, estimated from the number of houses to have been about 800. The survivors appear to have been primarily young women, as their skeletons are underrepresented among the bones; if so, they were probably taken away as captives. Certainly, the site was deserted for some time after the attack because the bodies evidently remained exposed to scavenging animals for a few weeks before burial. In other words, this whole village was annihilated in a single attack and never reoccupied.

Neolithic fortified camps in England overrun

Keeley discusses in several places the importance of fortification in prehistory. Neolithic villagers did not build ditches backed with palisades as symbolic structures for ritual or status, as asserted by writers referencing their own wish-fulfillment rather than archaeology. These barriers were built by the inhabitants out of fear for their lives, and this too often was justified:

A far different impression is conveyed by the reports of the archaeologists who have conducted extensive excavations of some of these enclosures. At several camps, the distribution of thousands of flint arrowheads, concentrated along the palisade and especially at the gates [Keeley gives a diagram of arrowheads at a Neolithic causewayed camp in England], provides clear evidence that they "had quite obviously been defended against archery attack" ... Moreover, the total destruction by fire of some of these camps seems to have been contemporaneous with the archery attacks.

At one such site, intact skeletons of two young adult males were found at the bottom of the ditches, buried beneath the burned rubble of the collapsed palisade-rampart. In one poignant instance, the young man had been shot in the back by a flint-tipped arrow and was carrying an infant in his arms who had been "crushed beneath him when he fell." Whatever ritual or symbolic functions the enclosures might have had, they were obviously fortifications, some of which were attacked and stormed.

Cave paintings of archery battles;
"primitive" versus "civilized" tactics

War Before Civilization is a much richer book than we might guess from its title. It includes several striking archaeological and ethnographic photographs, as well as tracings of Neolithic cave paintings of archery battles. For more recent ethnographical examples of warfare, Keeley ranges over much of the world, discussing Modoc Indians of America's Pacific Northwest; Kalahari Bushmen of Southern Africa (featured in the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy); Tahitians of Polynesia. (The index of War Before Civilization could usefully have been several times as detailed as it is.)

It may be surprising that "primitive" tactics often are effective against "civilized" tactics, even with advanced weaponry in the balance. American versus British troops in the American Revolution, the Zulu War contrast between the battles of Isandlwana and Rorke's Drift, the U.S. Army campaigns against Indians in the West, are instructive in various ways. Keeley shows the importance of flexibility, fortification, and logistics to victory — whether "primitive" or "civilized".

Deadly & frequent raids;
mobilization rates & casualty rates

Why are primitive raids and wars wishfully seen as unimportant or marginal to the health of tribes and nonstate societies? Because the numbers involved are much smaller than for inter-state wars, it is natural to assume that the effects of battle on the primitive populations and economies are trivial. This is incorrect. Inter-tribal raids often broke off after a handful of casualties, so their raids seem much less harmful than inter-state warfare; but the cumulative effect of frequent raids on small populations was devastating:

The high war death rates among most nonstate societies are obviously the result of several features of primitive warfare: the prevalence of wars, the high proportion of tribesmen who face combat, the cumulative effects of frequent but low-casualty battles, the unmitigated deadliness and very high frequency of raids, the catastrophic mortalities inflicted in general massacres, the customary killing of all adult males, and the often atrocious treatment of women and children. For these reasons, a member of a typical tribal society, especially a male, had a far higher probability of dying "by the sword" than a citizen of an average modern state.

Keeley's charts of relative mobilization rates and casualty rates among tribes and modern nations are fascinating. He suggests that the terrible Twentieth Century wars would have had a death-rate twenty times higher "if the world's population were still organized into bands, tribes, and chiefdoms": the typical tribal combat casualty rate of .5 percent per year, during the course of the century would translate to "more than 2 billion war deaths".

No "peace of the primitives"

War Before Civilization is a valuable contribution to understanding human nature, good and bad as we may call it, before and beside the spread of civilization. We cannot judge human progress without awareness of prehistory, including peace and war. The inhabitants of those fortified Neolithic villages which were attacked, stormed, and burnt will not have died entirely in vain if we learn something from their life and fate.

Our civilization allows us to conceive and establish social structures within which freedom, prosperity, and good-will may be extended in time and space. These conceptions may never lead us to a modern Golden Age of Peace, a real vanishing away of the use for weapons and defenses. But nostalgia for an imaginary peace of the primitives or of nonstate societies does not contribute factually to the discussion of constitutions, laws, and how best to get along with each other. The peace of the primitives before civilization is false to fact, contradicted by the archaeological and ethnographical evidence.


© 2004 Robert Wilfred Franson

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