Saturday, January 26, 2013

Book Review: War Before Civilization by Lawrence H. Keeley

BookWar Before Civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage by Lawrence H. Keeley (Amazon link here).

Overview: The title pretty well sums it up: the peaceful, noble savage is a myth of Western romantic culture. Instead, conflict, whether characterized as warfare or armed banditry, was rampant and a normal part of life. Your odds of dying a violent death in such societies is much, much higher than in a modern society, even putting together deaths from violent crime and warfare. Primitive societies only become peaceful when "peace" is imposed on them by an outside power, such as the colonial empires of the 19th and 20th centuries. Peaceful coexistence is a byproduct of civilization.

Impression: I read this book on the Kindle. I originally had downloaded a sample, which provided the author's introduction and, later, purchased the whole book.

Based on the introduction, which discussed neolithic and copper age sites in Europe, I was under the impression that the book would discuss specifics of primitive warfare--i.e., details of fortifications, discussion of weapons and tactics, and so. While such details crop up--for instance, the distribution of arrow points at different locations around an enclosure showing where most of the fighting occurred--the book itself was an argument to dispel the long-held belief, even among anthropologists and ethnographers, that primitive tribes are inherently peaceful and that organized warfare is a relic of civilization.

However, as the author goes on to demonstrate from both archaeological evidence and ethnographic evidence from modern tribes, the opposite is true. Organized conflict has always been with us, and "peace" is actually the byproduct of strong civilizations. The "peaceful savage" is based on observations made of tribes and peoples that had already been pacified by the West. The author notes, for instance, three independent cross-cultural surveys of recent tribal and state societies from the around the globe showed only 1/5 of the societies "infrequently or never" engaged in warfare, and the majority of those were groups that "might more accurately be classified as defeated refugees than as pacifists." Another survey indicated that "90 percent of the cultures in the sample unequivocally engaged in warfare and that the remaining 10 percent were not total strangers to violent conflict." Although some cultures were pacifistic, they did so my fleeing territory rather than engaging in combat.

The author gives some other specific examples, such as the Kung ("Bushmen") of the Kalahari, during the period of 1920-1955, had a homicide rate four times that of the United States; and during the 50's and 60's, they had homicide rates of 20 to 80 times that of most industrialized countries. In that regard, the author notes that "[b]efore local establishment of the Bechuanaland/Botswana police, the Kung also conducted small-scale raids and prolonged feuds between bands and against Tswana herders intruding from the east." He notes other examples, such as a Copper Eskimo community first contacted in the early 20th century where every adult male had been involved in a homicide, to that Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego whose murder rate in the late 19th century was 10 times as high as the United States. Later, he notes that "the homicide rate of the prehistoric Illinois villagers would have been 1,400 times that of modern Britain or about 70 times that of the United States in 1980." But this raises an important point: "the seeming peacefulness of such small hunter-gatherer groups may therefore be more a consequence of the tiny size of their social units and the large scale implied by our normal definition of warfare than of any real pacifism on their part." In other words, when dealing with small groups, you cannot usefully separate a "raid" using a small number of people from a "battle." They are one and the same.

The author also addresses the issue of whether it is unfair to compare homicide rates in a small culture against a major nation, without taking into account warfare statistics. The author writes:
Let us undertake such a comparison for one simple society, the Gebusi of New Guinea. Calculations show that the United States military would have had to kill nearly the whole population of South Vietnam during its nine-year involvement there, in addition to its [the United States'] internal homicide rate, to equal the homicide rate of the Gebusi.
In short, "the overwhelming majority of known societies have made war. Therefore, while it is not inevitable, war is universally common and usual," and "frequent, even continuous warfare is as characteristic of tribal societies as of states." "The only reasonable conclusion is that wars are actually more frequent in nonstate socieities than they are in state societies--especially modern nations." The cure to warfare, then, is not less civilization, but more civilization.

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