Book Review: War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage

Once upon a time it used to be thought that “primitives” lead lives that were, to quote Hobbes, “…nasty, brutish, and short…”, times change and so did the lifestyle of the “Other”. Changed so much, in fact, that only European expansion, circa the age of Discovery, could provoke a war. Both ideas are the subject of War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence H. Keeley.

War%20before%20Civilization.jpgAlthough ostensibly about the above two ideas about the past, Keeley’s book is really an excellent anthropological analysis of war. In twelve chapters Keeley looks at the prevalence of war, weapons used, tactics, forms (e.g. raids, ambushes, battles, massacres, etc.), casualties (in terms of who the casualties are and how many there are – there is also a discussion of injuries and medical efficacy of treatments), who profits and loses and what those profits and losses are, causes and contexts, and how peace is negotiated. There is also a chapter comparing “primitive” warriors to “modern” soldiers.
There are several themes that run through the book. First, the type of war one can fight is predicated upon social organization and economics (or more precisely, ones subsistence base). This should not be taken to mean that because, say, a band uses tactics of ambushes and raids, they are less effective than, say, modern nation states. Keeley cites a number of, as he calls the, “prestate societies” that have held their own against modern states for varying periods of time. One of the most powerful figures in the book is where Keeley compares war fatality rates as a percentage of population killed per year. Groups like the Dani, Modoc, and Dinka are at the top whereas Germany and Russia, for all the carnage they have caused in the 20th century, are at the bottom of the scale. Scale is important in this context, as Keeley points out:

But how can such high losses be reconciled with the low casualty rates generally observed in primitive battles, where the action is often broken off when both sides have suffered a few dead? Part of the answer lies in the high sortie rate of primitive warriors. As was noted earlier, warfare occurs much more frequently in most primitive societies than in civilized ones. Thus a relatively low loss rate per war, battle, or raid can cumulate very rapidly to catastrophic levels. Suppose that a tribe with 100 warriors breaks off fighting or arranges a truce in battle after the loss of just 5 percent dead or mortally wounded. If such battles occurred about four times a year, the cumulative loss in just five years would be 64%, leaving only 36 warriors alive to defend the group.

Add to that the destruction of fields, livestock, and villages and you begin to glimpse how destructive warfare can be even in small societies. This is the second theme in Keeley’s book. Raids and ambushes combined with a scorched earthed policy are used by “prestate” societies and when modern states go up against them they frequently fare poorly until they adopt those tactics themselves. Think Algeria, Vietnam, Iraq, etc. I don’t find this 100% convincing as, despite all the variability Keeley talks about, He seems to reduce warfare to two basic types. Primitive scorched earth or modern military nationstate.
Chapter Eleven returns to the question mentioned in the beginning of this review. That is, what Keeley refers to as the pacification of the past. In this chapter, Keeley explores how we went from a Hobbsian view of the past to a Neo-Rousseauian view and provides suggestions on where we go from here in terms of the anthropological study of war. Chapter Twelve summarizes what we have learned in the book and provides some suggestions about how we, as a nation, should proceed. For those, however, you will have to read the book.
All in all, War Before Civilization is a fascinating and controversial look at a complex part of the human condition. I highly recommend it. In closing I can resist quoting one more lengthy bit that shows Keeley at his sly and humorous best:

A Belgian archaeologist who has excavated many Iron Age burials was criticized by several colleagues at a recent conference for referring to burials from this period as “warrior” graves, even though they contained spears, swords, shields, a male corpse clothed in armor, and in some instances the remains of a chariot. The critics asserted that these weapons and armor were merely status symbols and had only a symbolic function rather than a practical military one. Similarly, copper and bronze axes from the Late Neolithic and Bronze ages, formerly referred to as battle axes, are no longer classified as weapons but are considered a form of money. The 5,000-year-old Austrian glacier mummy recently reported in the news was found with one of these moneys mischievously hafted as an axe. He also had with him a dagger, a bow, and some arrows; presumably these were his small change.


11 Responses

  1. I read this about a year ago and was pulled in by the whole thing. Anthropology is way outside my field, but I’m non-professionally interested in war and its history so I picked this up at the library. People have been around a lot longer than the wars of bronze-age near east, despite the fact that a lot of history books start there.
    Anyway, it’s an excellent read and I highly recommend it even for those who aren’t normally interested in paleolithic anthropology.

  2. but I’m non-professionally interested in war and its history so I picked this up at the library.
    in light of your post regarding guns and your right-leaning proclivities the interest in war seems rather clarified!
    yours truly,
    c.v. snicker

  3. Re: that Alpine hiker’s “small change” in the form of arrows, as I recall, were carried neatly embedded in his flesh! Hm, that ain’t how I carry MY change! (what’s the emoticon for laughing so hard you blow green peas out your nose? — I was eating when I read the above review — snort snort).

  4. Yes, I just rechecked on those arrowheads. Oetzi was not carrying those arrows passively; they were embedded in his flesh. Also, in his hand, when he was found, he was apparently carrying another blade which cut through flesh into the bone, but this dropped out when he was moved and sank into a pond and was not retrieved. Upon further examination, he was found to have received another blow on his forearm that cut through flesh into the bone — probably while the store clerk on the other side of the Alps was “making change” for one of them bronze axes in his backpack, eh? (Good thing I wasn’t eating peas again).
    Reminds me of the time I saw a museum exhibit which stated that the Hyksos had “introduced” the ancient Egyptians to the chariot. “What?!” I shrieked, laughing out loud, grabbing my husband’s arm. “The Hyksos RAN OVER the Egyptians with their chariots, conquering them! That’s not MY idea of an introduction!”
    Then again, my doctor used the term “a little discomfort” to describe throbbing, tearing, mind-numbing pain…like child-birth.

  5. Oetzi was not carrying those arrows passively; they were embedded in his flesh.

    Maybe he was panhandling and asked someone for some spare change 🙂

  6. I agree, a very good book. I think studying precivilized warfare tells us something about human nature, unfortunately.
    One thing that stood out for me was the author’s claim that guns were not more effective than bows and arrows until the mid-19th Century. I really have trouble believing that, or believing muskets replaced archers in European wars far earlier than that for purely fashionable or psychological reasons.
    That’s a minor issue though. I highly recommend it too.

  7. From a pure effectiveness on the battlefield standpoint bows/arrows were in many ways superior to firearms for infantry up to the mid 19th-century.
    However, firearms had a number of advantages when you took the entire package into account; e.g. arming, training, and logistics of handling musketeers vs archers. A good longbowman took an extended period of time to train, and had to practice quite a bit as well. A musketeer could be trained to a useful level in a much shorter period of time. (Arguably the same could be said for training a crossbowman compared to a longbowman as well.)
    – Kurt

  8. Re: bows and arrows vs. guns pre-20th century
    Watch the movie “Glory.” Count the number of seconds it takes a good rifleman to fire a bullet, a single bullet. It took quite awhile, because the bullet was only a metal pellet. He had to also pour the powder down the barrel of the rifle (not spilling it), tamp it down with a long, slender rod, get the rod back out of the barrel of the rifle, put the rifle up to his shoulder, ready, aim, fire. Okay, open the next packet and start all over again for the next bullet.
    Or, watch the movie “Zulu” where men with rifles are up against men with spears. It’s only because the men with the guns fire in rows, one row firing while the next is loading, that they prevail. Because in the previous battle — they didn’t. The Zulus wiped out the British earlier at Isandhlwana, just as the Sioux wiped out Custer at Little Big Horn with bows and arrows.

  9. Wikipedia says the Native Americans at Little Big Horn had guns:
    Native American tribes across the continent were already proficient in bows and arrows, but switched to guns whenever they could.
    I’m still not buying the argument.

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