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