Book Review – War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage

War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage is one of those works that induce an “Aha!” moment in observers of the human condition. I first read it over a decade ago and have recommended it to many, including my friend, Curtis Eykamp of Medway, Quirindi NSW, Australia. He ordered a copy, and while I was helping him take care of his 100-year old-father, Roy, I had the happy occasion to entertain the centenarian by reading to him. War Before Civilization was one of my selections.

And it grabs you from the get-go. In the preface Keeley explains how prevalent the bias against the acceptance that warfare existed in pre-history was among archaeologists in the post WWII era. Even to the point where evidence of pre-historic warfare was routinely ignored and even suppressed.

Roy, with the benefit of his 100 years of experience, agreed that men are, in fact, inherently and routinely selfish, combative, and violent.

Keeley spells out in exquisite detail how the common experience of pre-historic man was much closer to the Hobbesian  state of nature archetype than Rousseau’s idealized “noble savage”.

The noble savage myth contends that early man was free of sin and the restraints of concepts of right and wrong. As such, these people, who were referred to as “savages,” weren’t really brutal, but actually noble in their simplicity.

Keeley debunks this idealized view, revealing just how universal the experience of war is and always has been. He describes how endemically violent people are when they lack higher levels of social organization. Levels of social organization that organize larger numbers of people, beyond close relatives, that involves creating mechanisms for resolving conflict without violence.

Case in point: Pacific peoples who were frequently overwhelmed, conquered, or destroyed in their original lands by war-like neighbors when they were discovered. Most examples of Pacific peoples are actually refugees that were driven to undesired territories by their more violent neighbors.

Most peoples in paleolithic and neolithic societies were in constant danger of violence, raids, simple homicide and extermination.

As I read, 100-year-old Roy Eykamp wasn’t much interested in the academic study described in Keeley’s work, but I was. The tables and charts were fascinating. Keeley makes a compelling case that, contrary to conventional sociological wisdom, even the worst 21st century governments are no worse than existence in a “state of nature.” Most modern governments are, in fact, far better and the lives of those they govern vastly more preferable.

The author relies on secondary sources for his treatment of the effectiveness of ancient projectile weapons compared to firearms. He states that “…until the late 19th century, civilized soldiers were at a slight disadvantage in fire weaponry when facing primitive bowmen.”

Here, I disagree. Those primitive bowmen knew better. It’s why they transitioned to modern muskets as soon as they could get their hands on them.

The advantages were obvious: the ability to fire from a prone position, the ability to hold fire until advantageous and their enormous psychological effect on opponents. Perhaps the most profound advantage modern weaponry gave them was the ability to penetrate primitive armor at a distance.

To be fair, early muskets, were essentially equivalent to powerful cross bows, as noted in The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico. But powerful cross bows were beyond the technology of bowmen in less technologically advanced societies. And both bows and early firearms suffered in wet weather. 

But as gunpowder-powered weapons advanced beyond the matchlock, their advantages over bows became even greater and more obvious. But that’s a mere quibble in an otherwise excellent book.

For understand of the inherently violent nature of man and how violent life is under low levels of organization, read War Before Civilization.

It is available at Amazon.com  and abebooks.com.

 

©2018 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

Gun Watch

comments

  1. avatar Geoff PR says:

    Anyone who wants to believe that modern man has a sense of fairness and nobility (like your typical Progressive) has zero clue as to what humans can be counted on to do when raw hunger gnaws at their bellies.

    Their refusal to grasp that simple concept, even when presented with irrefutable proof, makes them ill-equipped to survive when it really matters.

    We, on the other hand, hold few such delusions.

    And that’s the primary difference between them and us.

    Progressives, and all Leftists everywhere, I dedicate this song to you…

    1. avatar Aaron says:

      i’m not aware that there are actually a whole lot of people, outside of naive hippies, who actually believe in the myth of the “peaceful savage”.

      in reality, the before the “evil white man” came to the new land, the native americans sometimes slaughtered each other and practiced “slash and burn” agriculture. They didn’t just sit around communing with nature and saying wise things like on TV. All peoples have always been combinations of good and bad.

      1. avatar ThomasR says:

        Sorry AARON; then you don’t have much access to progressive dogma. It is an item of faith by many on the leftist side that the early Hunter/gatherers were essentially living in peaceful harmony with nature and other fellow H/G’s.

        I just debated your typical leftist and his beliefs that The Christ was just a myth made up by the apostles; that the American Indians didn’t get really violent until the arrival of the Europeans; (just don’t think how they raided each other for rape, pillage, plunder and slaves long before the Europeans got to these shores) , that abortion really isn’t murder and that no one really needs an “Assault Weapon”.

        I will say though, he really didn’t get upset and start yelling until the abortion debate; he really didn’t like to even entertain the idea that an unborn baby really is a human being. This was especially when I told him he now knows how the Nazi”s felt about the Jews as they were marched into the ovens; after all, to the Nazi’s, the Jew’s also really weren’t fully Human.

        Leftistism/progressivism truly is a cult/religion of blood, tyranny, mass murder and worship of the state as God.

        1. avatar Gun Free School Zones are a crime against humanity says:

          Tom. Geoff pointed out that it is to our advantage to support abortion.

          Guess who is getting the vast majority of abortions? The proggies that are trying to ruin our way of life.

          As much as I dislike abortions………

        2. avatar ThomasR says:

          Really? Accept abortion as long as the evil being done benefits us?

          Mmmm, no.

          Like I’ve heard other places, if there truly is a just God, what is being done today is far beyond anything Sodom and Gomorrah had practiced, and so if we are not punished for what is being allowed today, then the people of Sodom and Gomorrah deserves an apology.

        3. avatar Indiana Tom says:

          Indians didn’t get really violent until the arrival of the Europeans; (just don’t think how they raided each other for rape, pillage, plunder and slaves long before the Europeans got to these shores) ,
          Da Injuns hated each other more than what they hated the big bad white man.

  2. avatar Gun Free School Zones are a crime against humanity says:

    I think the reason a lot of folks consider the bow to be superior to early muskets was their rate of fire was superior. Bows put more projectiles in the air per minute than is possible with a matchlock musket.

    But the bow had major drawbacks. How many arrows could be carried as opposed to powder and shot for a musket? Primitive folk used arrows that had no metal tips. How effective were they against a spanish soldier with breastplate and helmet?

    I recently took up archery and I’m enjoying it a great deal. But if I was given a choice of going to war with a bow or a Brown Bess musket?

    Musket, all the way.

    As for primitive man? He was a violent, greedy, malicious, horny bastard just like his modern day counterpart. He just lacked modern technology. He had to kill anybody he was pissed at one by one. Modern man can push a button and wipe out whole cities.

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      ” Primitive folk used arrows that had no metal tips. How effective were they against a spanish soldier with breastplate and helmet?”

      That’s a good question.

      I know the technology eventually got there, but when in history did that happen?

      And when did make a difference in warfare?

      1. The best answer to that question is in “The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico” by Bernal Diaz.

        Here is my review:

        http://gunwatch.blogspot.com.au/2017/06/review-of-true-history-of-discovery-and.html

        1. avatar Geoff PR says:

          Dean, thanks much for that.

          While looking it up, I discovered archive.org has it available for free download, in multiple formats :

          https://archive.org/details/in.ernet.dli.2015.81431

      2. avatar Gun Free School Zones are a crime against humanity says:

        I know that in ‘civilized’ places like europe the bow, crossbow and pike shared the battlefield with the matchlock musket. There was a cross over period when they complimented one another.

        But that ended when an effective flintlock system that was mass produceable on the cheap was put into service.

        There would be exceptions past this point. But primitive man lost wars while only occasionally winning battles.

    2. avatar Just the Facts says:

      Sorry, but you have it all wrong. A British Longbow is superior to any weapon short of a percussion cap rifled musket (and then it is still a toss up). But the musket has one HUGE advantage. A Longbow takes 10 years of training. That training makes a Longbowman very expensive.
      The lack of training required for firearms is probably responsible for the eventual loss of the Right to Bear Arms in England. When you can train soldiers in a matter of months, it is in the interest of the State to NOT to have people trained on weapons of war from the age of 6. Makes it a lot easier to “maintain order”

      And yes, fully armored knights have a “chance” against a longbow. But they also cost the same as a modern tank, and that was what the heavy crossbows were for.

      1. avatar Aaron says:

        native americans didn’t have longbow, and they didn’t have steel.

        a stone arrowead wasn’t effective against armor.

        the training requirements were a factor, but not the only one.

        1. avatar Just the Facts says:

          Oh I agree, Native American bows were not much compared to English Longbows. And it was very much in the interests of the colonists for the Native Americans NOT to get the tech. I could see the Native Americans becoming very dangerous with them. I do not think that the lack of steel tips would have been that much of a deciding factor unless going against armor. And armor was expensive.

      2. avatar Mister Fleas says:

        “A British Longbow is superior to any weapon short of a percussion cap rifled musket (and then it is still a toss up).”

        Firearms had another advantage over even the most power of bows; firearms could pierce armor far easier.

        1. avatar Kemikos says:

          If you’ve ever seen what a bodkin (a medieval armor-piercing arrowhead) being propelled by a hundred-pound-draw longbow can do to plate armor, you wouldn’t be so quick to discount it.

          And that’s plate. Lesser forms of armor were at an even bigger disadvantage. From the point of view of a longbowman, chain mail is just a series of interconnected holes…

        2. avatar Mercury says:

          Indeed. There are several historical accounts of the longbow failing against mounted knights’ armor. Here’s a clip demonstrating:

          https://hooktube.com/watch?v=D3997HZuWjk

          A lead ball from a musket most certainly would not be caught by (or bounce off of) that breastplate.

    3. avatar Mark N. says:

      Primitive man in prehistoric periods was facing enemies equipped with bows and spears tipped with antler bone or stone, and metallic armor was nonexistent until the bronze age. Even then most soldiers did not have armor other than leather or wooden shields and leather armor–if any. The Greeks fought in the nude, with only helms and shields. Their weaponry, modern for their era, was sufficiently effective against the enemy. In more modern times, the Romans had extremely sophisticated weapons of war beyond mere infantry and bowmen–they were the state of the art military for 300 years. In the late periods, most of their enemies were tribesmen armed with spears, iron swords, axes, blunt trauma weapons–and little armor to speak of outside of a helmet and a wooden shield.

  3. avatar Kyle in Upstate NY says:

    Never really understood such thinking as almost all tribal societies are incredibly warlike or end up getting conquered by those that are. The African tribes, the Native American tribes, the Polynesian tribes, the Norseman (Vikings), the Germanic tribes that fought the Romans, the Asian tribes of Mongolia that evolved into the Mongol warriors, etc…one only need look at our close ape relative, the chimpanzees, who are very violent with one another.

    Or the behavior of modern humans, who are incredibly tribal and warlike. We see this with the extremism of the gun control proponents, or how people riot when their sports team wins (!) and also loses, or the elitism of the big city elites who disdain the rural people of the country (that elitist disdain is in fact just a form of classic tribalism, and such people thus are behaving more like a primitive tribesman then an educated civilized human). We also see it in the gang warfare of the cities. Humans in their wilderness state are incredibly violent.

    You see that myth perpetuated by the types who claim that the lands of the United States don’t “belong” to us, because “we” stole them from the Native Americans. To which I just respond that the Natives were not living together in some peaceful kumbaya but were incredibly warlike with one another, and all the white man did was come and do the same to them that they had already been doing to one another for centuries. Just he had better organization and technology. Doesn’t make it right but the point is neither side was “good” or “bad” thus.

    1. avatar Guest says:

      Theres no such thing as a “Native” American.

      1. avatar LarryinTX says:

        Bull. *I* am a native American, I was born in SC.

        1. avatar Craig in IA says:

          Thanks, I love it! I’ve been spending summers in N MN for 40+ years on the Leech Lake Rez where my lake joint is located. Over the years I’ve hunted and fished with many Indians, our families have known each other since the 1920s and I’ll eat and hang out some evenings in the local “Indian Bar”. The Chippewa (oh, crap, now it’s supposed to be Anishnabe…) are great folk who like to play with the “tourists” who inevitably come in for a beer and try to be homies. So, sitting at the bar it’s fairly regular to have a couple talking about an incident and one will ask “was he an Indian?”, then notice you’re paying attention and “correct” him/herself with “uh, was he a native American?” while looking at you. I always reply “WTH? I’m a native American”. (Blue eyes and all.) They look at you a bit strange and I’ll then ask “WTF were YOU born? Always get a smile and then right back to the conversation. If you hang around LLR anyway, you’ll not hear “native American” among the Indians unless there’s some well-dressed white woman nearby.

    2. avatar Garrison Hall says:

      African “refugees from violence” are numerous enough in London that tribal loyalties have appeared with the result that the different tribes are now fighting each other.

      1. avatar Austin says:

        That’s just UK culture. Britons do exactly that same street violence over their soccer teams.

    3. avatar Mark N. says:

      Actually, the Native Americans were wiped out by the diseases we brought with us from Europe, diseases for which we had developed immunities but to which they had never been exposed. Millions died without ever going to war against the White Man.

  4. avatar Craig in IA says:

    Heck, if you want to learn about real total warfare, read the Old Testment. (Or the New with the Romans.) No prisoners, would even kill their animals. None of this 38th Parallel stuff.

  5. avatar RCC says:

    The local aboriginals in my part of Australia try to hide the fact that they were cannibles. Though apparently Chinese were preferred to whites as they tasted better. Unwanted babies were dumped etc. None of this is taught in school now, just peaceful fishermen etc noble savage myth.

    Nothing I have seen around the world has changed my opinion that civilisation is a very thin layer. Cambodia’s killing fields etc prove that.

    1. I am considering a review of “The Red Chief” by Ion Idriess, about an aboriginal Napoleon of the Kamilaroi language group near Gunnedah, New South Wales. It is based on oral history taken down in notes from a local historian around the turn of the century. The Red Chief was a historical figure from just before the arrival of Europeans. A skeleton found at his burial site extrapolated to a height of 6’4″, a giant among aboriginals. It is an excellent companion to War Before Civilization.

      1. avatar Geoff PR says:

        “I am considering a review of “The Red Chief” by Ion Idriess, about an aboriginal Napoleon of the Kamilaroi language group near Gunnedah, New South Wales.”

        The stars must be aligned, Dean.

        It just so happens that “The Red Chief” by Ion Idriess, is also available at archive.org in multiple formats :

        https://archive.org/details/redchiefastoldby009531mbp?q=The+Red+Chief

      2. avatar Tassiebush says:

        I haven’t read that particular book but Ion Iddries was a fantastic author and a fantastic Australian. I’m always delighted to hear mention of him. The desert column is a pretty amazing read. Fascinating reading a first hand account of desert fighting and mobile warfare in Middle Eastern desert.

    2. avatar Geoff PR says:

      “The local aboriginals in my part of Australia try to hide the fact that they were cannibles. Though apparently Chinese were preferred to whites as they tasted better.”

      I worked with a guy from Borneo years back who freely admitted his ancestors were cannibals. And in the somewhat recent past.

      Odd thing was, his last name was very Chinese.

      As to how Chinese people taste, although my sample size was one, certain parts of her tasted just fine… 😉

      1. avatar Gun Free School Zones are a crime against humanity says:

        Boiled, fried, roasted?

        Not raw, I hope? You know how unsanitary raw meat is?

        1. avatar Geoff PR says:

          Yeah, yeah, I know.

          Let’s just say it made her very happy. 🙂

          And when she was happy, I was happy.

          (Sacrifice for the one you love…)

    3. avatar Scoutino says:

      I heard that Chinese were tastier, but after couple of hours you get hungry again.

  6. avatar Kendahl says:

    Another book is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. It traces the reduction in violence from prehistory to modern times. At the prehistory point, it agrees with War Before Civilization.

  7. avatar former water walker says:

    And Cortez conquered millions of Aztecs with primitive firearms- helped with hatred for them(human sacrifice daily). And smallpox. And superstitious injuns. Read Bernal Diaz del Castillo. No such thing as a “noble savage”…

  8. avatar Chris T from KY says:

    American history courses like to ignore the Indians desire for firearms. If they could have ditched all of their bows for rifles they would have. The introduction of “fire sticks” into early North America culture allowed tribes to annihilate entire populations of enemy Indians long before the founding of the United States.

    1. avatar Chris T in KY says:

      north american indians vs russians

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Sitka

      The Spread of Firearms among the Indians on the Anglo-French Frontiers

      https://www.jstor.org/stable/1184207?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

    2. avatar Just the Facts says:

      The Indian bows were not very good. English colonies did not use bows for fear that the Native American’s would learn to make them

      “After the 1622 attack, 400 longbows with 800 sheaves of arrows (a sheaf has 24 arrows) were to be sent to Jamestown. The leaders of the colony, however, directed that the weapons be sent to Bermuda and stored there within easy sailing distance of the colony. It was feared that if longbows fell into the hands of the Powhatans they would learn English technological secrets and improve their bows, making them more deadly.”

      1. avatar Chris T from KY says:

        I thInk the colonies were very lucky the Indians never learned how to make the crossbow.

  9. avatar ironicatbest says:

    . .. All these years of evolution and we still sit and stare at the campfire……

    1. avatar Scoutino says:

      Hominids stared into the camp fire for 3 millions years. Hard to shake off the habit in couple hundred winters.

  10. avatar Mark N. says:

    Violence is a genetically selected survival characteristic. We have no fangs, no claws, no thick hide or horns. To survive we had to be smart and incredibly violent. Violence protects the clan/tribe by providing food and other resources necessary for group survival through elimination of rivals. Anyone who thinks that we can become peaceful by eliminating weapons must necessarily ignore the immutability of our essential genetic makeup and character.

    1. avatar Joe R. says:

      “Human life does not exist apart from Physics and Human Nature, and neither of these ingredients will evidence discernible change within any amount of human generations that you can readily fathom.” [J.M. Thomas R., TERMS, 2012, Pg. 16]

      “Consider cows and elephants. Throughout the short history of man these animals have
      been the sport, food, beast of burden, and the pet of man. The breeding process has more directly followed the process of the killing-off of the more aggressive, (towards man essentially), and less-wieldable (read: the ‘trouble-makers’).
      Again, and in every instance of creature aforementioned, the push-back or the
      postponement of returning to the truly-feral is, even after thousands of years of the types of meddling mentioned above, separated by a linear distance of possibly only one to two generations; and certainly less than one generation should such animal’s basic-need be deprived wholly.
      So too it is with Man [among Mankind]. Mankind, generally, can be placated to a
      temporally fleeting prosperity and a flourishing gap of outward hostility. However this is not Societal Agreement, and not a forwarding of the idea of ‘Tomorrow’ any more than it can be ensured that, one: the affected parties do not become bored with such providence, or prosper in population to the point that they grossly overtake the providers themselves, or two: the affected parties become dissatisfied with the level of received support and begin to tax the providers’ means of providing to the point of un-sustainability.
      Again, and in either case, sustainability is quickly abolished if the means of support is
      also quickly reduced by some widespread hardship. In the case of the ‘trouble-makers’, clearly the most aggressive can be fleetingly bred out of a standing population, and the promise of the fruition of War among the remaining reduced to seemingly insurmountable prospects.
      However, MANKIND, CANNOT BE ERASED OF THEIR BASIC INSTINCTS; and
      here, it is postulated [in Truth] that such WILL FOREVER BE-THE-CASE (for the same reason
      as for other living things). That reason is the ever-present, (however phantomly-looming)
      pressure created by the PERMANENT NOW which is fraught with the possibility of
      Armageddon-like (at the very least individual), struggle with Man’s environment and time. Man’s environment will never allow for the permanent disregard, by man, of the potential
      for what physical pressure such environment might be able to apply. More simply, mankind
      cannot ignore or permanently remove from his thought process what his environment, including
      fellow inhabitants, can be, at its most savage.” [J.M. Thomas R., TERMS, 2012, Pgs. 140-141]

    2. avatar uncommon_sense says:

      Anyone who thinks that we can become peaceful by eliminating weapons …”

      The frequent notion of “eliminating weapons” is so utterly and totally preposterous that I am at a total loss to explain why it is so frequent.

      For those that need a reminder, clubs and spears are extremely effective, extremely lethal, and available wherever there are trees or construction materials. In other words extremely lethal and effective weapons are available virtually everywhere — and always will be no matter how much time and money anyone ever pours into trying to “eliminate weapons”.

      1. avatar Joe R. says:

        You can’t ban enough household goods / basic daily necessities to ban EFP’s.

        You need to get your MFn stupid ahole neighbors who needed a job, in your government, to quit being tyrannical communists or they’ll have to go very very violently. Either way, they all need a nut kick (up to the ankle) for claiming: 1) that they can protect you on an individual level; and 2) that is what they are doing.

        1. avatar Johnny108 says:

          I love it when some hippy type tells me that banning weapons will bring peace.
          That’s when I tell them that you can make high explosives out of table salt and electricity.
          That, for $50 and a trip to the hardware store, I can vaporize a house, and everyone in it.
          The basic materials to make weapons can NEVER be outlawed completely.
          Ever.
          (Being army EOD for 8 years taught me a lot of nifty stuff!)

  11. avatar Ogre says:

    Here is an interesting article about what the Progressive Democrats have planned for us, based upon the model of California: https://medium.com/s/state-of-the-future/the-great-lesson-of-california-in-americas-new-civil-war-e52e2861f30

    And I agree that humans are genetically hard-wired in our brains to be violent – read Desmond Morris’ “The Naked Ape” for a detailed explanation of how we still have this trait descended from our prehistoric ancestors.

  12. avatar Gregolas says:

    The myth of “the noble savage” comes from Rousseau, who predicated much of his theory of government upon it and other unproven suppositions. One of his most famous quotes along these lines is, “Man is born free, but is everywhere in chains.” See, “Rousseau and Revolution”, p. 28-31, by Will and Ariel Durant (Simon & Schuster 1967)

  13. avatar William Ashbless says:

    Just finished “Empire of the Summer Moon” about the rise and fall of the Comanche nation from the time they got horses until pacified by the US Cavalry. They were big on capturing children from homesteads they destroyed(killed the parents) and raising them as their own. They were horribly cruel and there was one young girl(maybe ten) that was brought to one of their negotiations with Texans that was horribly disfigured by burns. Her adoptive Comanche family woke her up for chores in the morning by dropping a live fireplace coal on her face. She was horribly disfigured and the Texans went apeshit when the Comanches tried to use her as a bargaining chip. Many of our native Americans were quite creative at torturing captives.

    1. avatar ThomasR says:

      Yep. One torture used by a gulf coast tribe was to push in pine splinters into the skin, all over a captives body, taking days to do it, until there was no skin exposed; then with much partying and celebration, set the human pin cushion on fire, going out with a blaze of agony/glory.

      Ummm, yeah, brutal torture of captives was very common for many, if not most, indigenous tribes.

  14. avatar Jim Bullock says:

    Suggesting resources … good.

    I wonder if we can do that without sending people to Amazon, given their policies?

  15. avatar Docduracoat says:

    I have no doubt American Indians were savage.
    You can talk all you want about war and torture among the American Indians
    No one has mentioned the fact that most white captives preferred to remain among their Indian captors
    There are many of these stories including the mass capture of 100 whites in New England and many Comanche captive stories
    These people would run away after being reunited with white society to rejoin the Indians
    Maybe white society was too restrictive and Indians had more freedom

    1. avatar Gun Free School Zones are a crime against humanity says:

      It could be as simple as white society not accepting you back after spending some time amongst the ‘savages’. Especially if you were a woman.

  16. avatar Paul m says:

    You want to see what desperate humans are capable of? Go to the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. Being law enforcement in Florida I’ve worked several hurricanes. The last one being Katrina. If anyone ever wondered why private citizens need firearms, including semi-auto rifles with detachable magazines, you won’t after visiting one of these.

  17. avatar Gun Owning American says:

    Anyone who thinks that man isn’t violent is ignorant of history.

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