REVIEW: War Before Civilization – The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence H. Keeley

Saturday , 7, March 2015 6 Comments

I completely understand wanting to turn back the clock.  Go back to simpler times.  Return to Eden.  Flee from the rat race of urban life and revert to a primitive, tribal “state of nature” — where we can be peaceful, wild and free — hunting the buffalos, but as bros, you know?

In “War Before Civilization”, Lawrence Keeley not only dispels this ridiculous notion of a pacific past, but savagely clubs it to death — with plenty of archaeological and ethnographical evidence.  Only the “most cushioned from physical discomfort and inconvenience by industrial technology are the most nostalgic about the primitive world”.

Keeley started writing the book after unsuccessfully requesting funds from the U.S. National Science Foundation to excavate several Early Neolithic village sites in Belgium.  He hoped to uncover ancient palisades and fortifications similar to others in the area.  He was denied the grant until he referred to these other sites as “enclosures” rather than “fortifications”.  The politically correct NSF archaeologists couldn’t fathom the concept of prehistoric warfare.   To their eyes, violence in prestate societies was infrequent, nonlethal, unimportant, ritualistic, and unsophisticated.

But as Keeley subsequently proves, there’s only so many mass graves and skulls embedded with arrowheads that one can pretend don’t exist.  Eventually, the evidence piles up:  prehistoric warfare was frequent, deadly, and serious — more “Conan the Barbarian” and less “Dances with Wolves”.

Keeley makes his case methodically, thoroughly, and unflinchingly.  Fair warning: the details can be gruesome at times.  Nonstate groups do not recognize surrender, do not take prisoners, frequently mutilate corpses and resort to cannibalism.

Of particular interest to the Castalia crowd are the 4g related passages about primitive and guerrilla warfare by non state actors.  Keeley quotes a colonial New Englander to describe this martial  approach:

In our first war with the Indians, God pleased to show us the vanity of our military skill, in managing our arms, after the European mode.  Now we are glad to learn the skulking way of war.

As Keeley shows, this skulking way is neither ineffective nor necessarily cowardly.

Primitive (and guerrilla) warfare consists of war stripped to its essentials: the murder of enemies; the theft or destruction of their sustenance, wealth, and essential resources; and the inducement in them of insecurity and terror. It conducts the basic business of war without recourse to ponderous formations or equipment, complicated maneuvers, strict chains of command, calculated strategies, time tables, or other civilized embellishments.

Pass this one on to anyone longing for a post-Western Civilization era of pagan peace.  Remind them that the homicide rate of prehistoric Illinois villages was 1,400 times that of modern Britain or about 70 times that of the United States in 1980.  Remind them that it can take less than a generation for those not predisposed to violence to become killers, but much longer the other way around.  Consider this passage:

The best-known peaceful agriculturalists are the Semai of Malaysia, who strictly tabooed any form of violence (although their homicide rate was numerically significant).  Their reaction to any use of force involved “passivity or flight.”  Interestingly, they were recruited as counterinsurgent scout troops by the British during the Communist insurgency in Malaya in the 1950s. The Semai recruits were profoundly shocked to discover that as soldiers they were expected to kill other men. But after the guerrillas killed some of their kinsmen, they become very enthusiastic warriors. One Semai veteran recalled, ‘We killed, killed, killed. The Malays would stop and go through people’s pockets and take their watches and money. We did not think of watches or money. We thought only of killing. Wah, truly we were drunk with blood.’ “

Thankfully for the Semai, after the war they resumed their non-violent lifestyles. The Semai, and Keeley, demonstrate that we need more civilization, not less.  In an era of barbarity, nothing could be more noble.

6 Comments
  • Back in the early 80s I was a history and philosophy student at University of Missouri-Columbia. In class one day a young lady asked about the noble savage. How peaceful and good life was in primitive times. The prof said: my philosophy professors put it: “The noble savage is an interesting idea, but otherwise total Bull crap. There nothing noble about being hungry, poor and living a short violent life.”

  • Ostar says:

    Same myths underly the eco greens. The pre-West American natives supposedly lived in harmony with nature, only taking what they needed. Yet a thorough study of the Central American jungles found evidence that every significant area of land had slash and burn agriculture practiced on it some time in the last few thousand years.

  • Mike says:

    Konrad Lorenz ripped this myth up nicely in his book On Aggression.

  • TimP says:

    I think Dances With Wolves might be a bit more violent than you think. From memory it includes an inter-tribal war between two tribes of less than 100 people each, with a dozen or so dead between the two sides.

    These sorts of violence are often ignored by idolizers of barbarianism though, even when it’s blatant and obvious.

  • […] warfare tends to be – almost gleefully – fastened on by  as part of the ideology of state systems which rationalize both the threat […]

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