Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage"/>
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Debunking Another Lie:
Lawrence H. Keeley’s War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage

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Lawrence H. Keeley
War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1996)

This slender volume published by Oxford University Press is an invaluable contribution to the historical and anthropological literature. Author Lawrence H. Keeley, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is an archaeologist specializing in the prehistory of northwestern Europe.

According to Keeley, the thoughts of English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau embody two competing paradigms of peace, violence, and civilization.

Hobbes believed the inertial “natural” state of humanity to be war, not peace. In Keeley’s rendering Hobbes was nevertheless a universalistic egalitarian who did not think human beings were “innately cruel or violent or biologically driven to dominate others”—a faith Keeley shares.

But the dominant ideological-academic paradigm of today is Rousseau’s, which denies “civilization its humanity while proclaiming the divinity of the primitive” (p. 6).

The most interesting and surprising observation Keeley makes about these two men is this one: “Unlike Hobbes, Rousseau seemed genuinely interested in whether his contentions were confirmed in the observations of real ‘savages’ then being encountered by European explorers. His disciples accompanied French explorations and brought back mixed reports.”

But Rousseau and his followers “were too thoroughly convinced that the natural state of human society was a peaceful combination of free love and primitive communism to see [the] violent first encounters as anything but rare aberrations” (p. 7).

“Prejudices” and “blinders,” Keeley says, prevent professional anthropologists and archaeologists from acknowledging “unambiguous physical evidence” of primitive violence. Successive waves of “existentialism, structuralism, structural Marxism, poststructuralism, and postmodernism” in the humanities and social sciences “have left American universities a ‘burned-over district’” (pp. 221–22, n. 1).

Keeley demonstrates conclusively that prevailing dogmas about primitive life—the myth of the peaceful savage corrupted by white civilization—is contrary to fact.

Keeley marshals three kinds of evidence to make his case: prehistoric findings by archaeologists, 20th century ethnographic surveys by cultural anthropologists who lived among still-extant primitive peoples, and historical accounts of early contact between whites and nonwhites.

“A Scarcity of Peace”

“Given the neo-Rousseauian tenor of the present day, it comes as a shock to discover that the proportion of war casualties in primitive societies almost always exceeds that suffered by even the most bellicose of war-torn modern states” (p. 88).

Professor Keeley debunks two primary myths in particular: the romantic, Left-wing, anti-Western, Rousseauian-Fenimore Cooper (he mentions the latter author by name) primitive idyll, as well as a WWII-era academic perception that nonwhite tribesmen waged a stylized, less horrible, special kind of primitive warfare that differed radically from “real” or “true” war conducted by modern, civilized states. By comparison, primitive warfare was seen as unprofessional, undisciplined, unspecialized, ineffective, unserious, and relatively harmless.

But, Keeley asserts, genuinely peaceful societies have been extremely rare: 90–95% of known societies have engaged in warfare on a routine basis.

One fascinating chapter in history I had not been aware of involved the stark contrast between the violent Spanish and US frontier engagement of Amerindians in Mexico and America versus a far more intelligent, peaceful, and just handling of essentially the same situation in Canada (pp. 152–57).

In North America, Indian tribes on both sides of the 49th parallel were frequently the same. Likewise, Euro-Canadians and Euro-Americans were essentially the same racially and ethnically.

In Mexico and the US there was frequent bitter warfare. But in Canada subjugation, pacification, and segregation on reservations was accomplished peacefully. Keeley’s explanation of how this occurred is extremely interesting. Essentially, it was a function of different central government and law enforcement policies.

Another opinion of Keeley’s is that the Inuit may have committed genocide against the Greenland Vikings: “The unequivocal traditions of the Inuit, not recorded until 1850, claim that their ancestors administered the coup de grâce to the fading Norse colonies in the course of mutual raids and massacres” (p. 77). There is archaeological evidence to support the tradition.

The author analyzes the cross-cultural history of warfare from every conceivable angle: its prevalence and importance, frequency, degree of mobilization, tactics, weapons, fortifications, battles, raids, ambushes, massacres, primitive versus civilized warfare, prisoners, captives, war deaths, wounds, mutilation, trophy-taking (of body parts), cannibalism, looting and destruction, territorial acquisition, motives and causes of warfare, population density and pressure, trading, raiding, frontiers, attitudes toward war and peace, and the maintenance of peace.

Cannibalism

His discussion of cannibalism (pp. 103–106) illustrates his approach to these various subjects.

Anthropologists distinguish three kinds of cannibalism.

Ritual cannibalism, the most frequent type, involved consumption of a portion of a corpse for magical purposes—brain, heart, liver, bits of flesh, or ashes from various body parts mixed with a beverage. Such cannibalism was very widely distributed, though not the norm in prestate warfare.

Culinary or gastronomic cannibalism consisted of eating human meat as food.

Starvation cannibalism occurred under famine conditions.

Academic disputes arise particularly over culinary cannibalism. “Neo-Rousseauians” deny that it ever existed anywhere, except under conditions of extreme starvation. While not true, “Certainly, it appears that many of the societies accused of culinary cannibalism either were being slandered by their enemies or, at most, practiced ritual cannibalism.” Alleged cases of culinary cannibalism often turn out to be exaggerations of ritual cannibalism or misinterpretations of customs having nothing to do with cannibalism, such as preserving skulls as war trophies.

Nevertheless, culinary cannibalism has occurred.

Ethnographic evidence concerning the Polynesians of the Marquesas Islands derived from native self-reports initially categorized them as ritual cannibals. However, wholesale consumption of human flesh leaves distinct forensic archaeological evidence in the form of human bones treated like the bones of meat animals.

Subsequent archaeological evidence from the Marquesas revealed, contrary to ethnographic accounts, that the scale of culinary cannibalism was large, and increased as the population expanded and other sources of meat disappeared.

Additional evidence for culinary cannibalism has been found among tribes and chiefdoms in southern Central America and northeastern South America. Many tribes “reputedly consumed large numbers of their dead foes and captives. Notwithstanding some kind of magical or religious justification, several of these groups seemed to have positively relished human flesh.”

People in Oceania, sections of the Congo, and Amerindian tribes in the American Southwest also ate human victims. Cannibalism occurred as well in Early Neolithic (3000–4000 BC) southern France and portions of Bronze Age and Early Iron Age Europe.

The Aztecs are a special case. Keeley does not accept the contention of Marxist Jewish anthropologist Marvin Harris that the Aztec empire was the only “[culinary] cannibal state.” (Aztec society is considered a state or civilization rather than a tribe.)

“There can be little doubt,” Keeley writes, “that the Aztecs annually sacrificed large numbers of war captives in their great temples and that parts of these victims’ bodies [ritual cannibalism] were eaten. There were even recipes for human stews.” Archaeological excavation “has uncovered ample evidence of human sacrifice but none yet of cannibalism.” He leaves open the possibility that future excavations might turn up evidence of culinary cannibalism.

Keeley concludes, “It is clear that the consumption of enemies’ corpses has occurred in the warfare of several tribes and chiefdoms. Victorious states may have ruthlessly exploited the vanquished, but, with the exception of the Aztecs, they have never actually consumed them.”

Discussion of cannibalism covers only four pages in Keeley’s book, and I have omitted most of the details, supporting evidence, and citations.

Scaling the Data

Keeley presents the data he has gathered and tabulated proportionally, measuring deaths and other figures against the size of the societies in question. It is this approach that suddenly places primitive and modern warfare on a proper analytical footing.

The author has constructed several graphs, typically with percentage figures along one axis and type of society along the other: prehistoric, primitive, civilized, tribal, ancient, modern, hunter-gatherer, horticulturalist, pastoralist, and state entities.

Graphs show percent of male populations mobilized, percent killed and wounded in specific battles, annual war deaths as percentage of mean population, percent of deaths from warfare by society, and percent of territorial change per generation.

An appendix consisting of seventeen supplementary tables tabulating statistical data used in the text is included at the end of the book. The tables were constructed from a wide array of academic studies, many of which were cross-cultural in nature.

Because the proportional approach is central to Keeley’s method, it is worth quoting his argument at length:

Some readers may be unconvinced by percentage comparisons between populations of hundreds or thousands of people and populations of millions or tens of millions—that is, they are more impressed by absolute numbers than ratios. However, consistent with such views, such skeptical readers must also disdain any calculations of death rates per patient or passenger-mile and therefore always choose to undergo critical surgery at small, rural, Third World clinics and fly on small airlines. At such medical facilities and on such airlines, the total number of passenger or patient deaths are always far fewer than those occurring on major airlines or at large university and urban hospitals. These innumerate readers should also prefer residence on one of the United States’s small Indian reservations to life in any of its metropolitan areas since the annual absolute number of deaths from homicide, drug abuse, alcoholism, cancer, heart disease, and automobile accidents will always be far fewer on the reservations than in major cities and their suburbs. (p. 214 n. 21)

Not Perfect

Keeley deserves enormous credit for debunking an asinine anti-white narrative (which his book very effectively does), but he is not perfect.

Keeley harbors the academic’s simplistic, black-and-white detestation of Germany, saying that by his “conservative calculation,” excluding deaths from disease and starvation, “the annual homicide rate of Nazi Germany (1933 to 1945)” qualifies it as “the most homicidal society ever recorded” (p. 206, n. 11).

Nowhere is the deadliness of Communism discussed. The USSR is mentioned only in connection with its casualties in WWII: “In modern history, Nazi Germany is unique in both the scale and the indiscriminateness of its homicides” (p. 214, n. 28).

Keeley even writes, “The human-hide lampshades produced at Nazi death camps are perhaps the modern era’s preeminent symbol of evil” (p. 102).

He does not define his nonstandard use of “homicide,” but it obviously includes alleged camp deaths and probably some or all enemy military deaths as well. Nevertheless, Germany (or Europe, when figures are inclusive) is at the bottom, not the top, of his tabulated statistical rankings, which invariably show primitive warfare to have been far more lethal and violent, proportionally speaking, than modern conflicts.

In WWII, the Allies “delivered the world from evil” through the use of “total war.” Keeley approvingly quotes British historian H. P. Willmott’s belief that 57 million dead is “a small price to pay for ridding the world of depraved wickedness” (p. 222, n. 2). (Academics, like politicians and bureaucrats, are casual about the loss of human life as long as the killing serves their ideological predilections.)

Keeley is a garden-variety egalitarian: “all members of our species have within rather narrow limits of variation the same basic physiology, psychology, and intellect.” Variations in temperament or intellect “have no value in explaining social or cultural differences between groups.” People of every racial background win Nobel Prizes. “The many and profound differences in technology, behavior, political organization, and values” among the peoples of the Earth are explained solely by “nongenetic” “material and social factors.” “This attitude reflects not just the antiracist tenor of the twentieth century, but also the accumulated facts and especially the experiences of ethnographers” (p. 180).

The allusion to “accumulated facts” as proving human sameness is significant because, unlike most academics, Keeley places a high premium on facts and evidence—it was, after all, hard archaeological and anthropological data that compelled him to abandon his faith that civilization is inherently evil.

Clearly, breaking free of one overarching societal myth does not of necessity open a man to new ideas, or produce general skepticism or caution. Keeley does not ask himself, “If this was wrong, what other widely-held beliefs might also be constructed upon sand?” Instead, he simply reaches a dead end and switches his impressive critical faculties off.

This is not to say that the author beats the reader over the head with his misguided beliefs—he doesn’t. They play little role in the overall discussion. Nevertheless, they constitute his guiding principles.

Furthermore, Keeley does not draw sensible conclusions from his empirical findings, leading him to deduce some rather appalling “lessons” from his survey.

Though rejecting the myth of the pacified past out of hand, and with it the unequivocal conclusion “that the only answer to the ‘mighty scourge of war’ is a return to tribal conditions and the destruction of [Western] civilization,” he remains committed to the “practical prospect for universal peace” (p. 179).

Peace will be achieved in familiar Left-wing fashion by creating

the largest social, economic, and political units possible, ideally one encompassing the whole world, rather than allowing those we do have to fragment into mutually hostile ethnic or tribal enclaves. The degree of mutual interdependence created by modern transportation and communications long ago rendered the concepts of national and ethnic self-sufficiency and self-determination absurd and dangerous delusions. (p. 181)

World peace will be achieved without resort to “totalitarian tyranny, disastrous economic policies, or state imposition of cultural or religious uniformity”—or, for that matter, massive warfare and permanent, institutionalized violence and injustice (p. 181).

So the man who challenged stereotypes through laborious theoretical and empirical work didn’t learn as much from his intellectual breakthrough as one might have expected.

Fortunately, Keeley generally keeps these cherished if erroneous beliefs to himself and permits his considerable accumulation of the evidence do most of the talking. The author adheres to facts rather than dogma at least within his specialty—no small feat for an academic.

I highly recommend this book. It is full of useful information and insights. At only 245 pages it is quite short—183 pages of text plus an appendix, bibliography, footnotes, and index. The rudimentary 4-page index could have been usefully expanded.

White nationalists and patriotic military personnel alike—active duty, academic, retired, conservative, libertarian, or pro-white—can learn a great deal from this overview. A cursory check of the Internet provides no indication that the book is being consistently used as a standard text in military curricula.

Professor Keeley has done a great service by writing War Before Civilization.

 

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15 Comments

  1. Nick
    Posted February 24, 2012 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    The romanticism about the “noble savage” always makes me laugh.

    This teary-eyed mourning about Amerindians/Maori/Africans being conquered by the evil Europeans have been around forever. We’re fed countless sob stories about these “beautiful cultures” being wiped out. However, their cultures were not exactly something to aspire to before the Europeans arrived. You know, tribes with patriarchal authority ruled by a male line, the kind of stuff Europeans are supposed to hate themselves for.

    I’ve grown up next to Maori, who often have this arrogant attitude. They often inflate their mythical past as warrior tribes, and put down us Kiwis at every opportunity. Also, here’s a part of article about the Maori:

    “Even cannibalism, often described by anthropologists in religious and ritual terms, was practical. It was largely restricted to fighting men and to what is technically called “exocannibalism” (eating people of outside groups), but it was consciously though of as the most convenient solution to the logistical problem of feeding the troops in the field. Slain enemies of all ages and both sexes were often eaten on the spot. Surplus meat was carried in baskets by war prisoners, who, as the supply dwindled, were themselves in constant danger of being slaughtered and eaten. Even slaves of long-standing were often killed and eaten (Vayda, 1960, pp67-72). In fact, humans were the only large land animals that constituted a regular part of the Maori diet.”

    That’s the beautiful tribal Maori culture.

    These warrior cultures are basically the same the world over (although most didn’t eat each other as much as the Maori) but while pathetic, low-IQ, conquered peoples like to brag about their mythical past as “free warriors” to compensate for their new status in society (as a defeated group on the bottom), Europeans never stop guilt-tripping about ours and it seems we never will until we’re all finished as a race, once and for all.

    Think about this the next time you hear some Maori bragging about “once we were warriors” and doing that gay Haka dance (why are they even allowed to do that?)

    • Andrew Hamilton
      Posted February 25, 2012 at 10:06 am | Permalink

      In the quotation from the article about the Maori of New Zealand there is an in-line citation to “Vayda, 1960.”

      That’s Andrew Vayda. Keeley lists his books in the bibliography; the 1960 volume is titled Maori Warfare. On p. 112 Keeley calls Vayda “one of anthropology’s most distinguished students of primitive warfare,” and says that Vayda has decried “the obscurantism of certain distinguished social scientists” who have drawn false distinctions between primitive and civilized war.

  2. Jaego Scorzne
    Posted February 24, 2012 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    Typically, a Tribe might have several levels of warfare. Boasian Anthropolgists love to focus on the least deadly, the violent sport level. Among Indians that was counting coup or touching your opponent with a stick. Among New Guinea Papuans, it was standing a hundred feet apart and throwing insults and spears and leaping out of the way of the latter. The next level of war is small raiding and theft. Above that is an attempt at genocide or dispossesion. Both these cultures had the second level and the Plains Indians at least had the third.

  3. White Man
    Posted February 25, 2012 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    Talking about the crimes of the Soviet Union can make one look closer to a certain tribe.

  4. phil
    Posted February 25, 2012 at 6:17 am | Permalink

    In the early 1950′s in grade school we were indoctrinated with the idea that “Only human beings kill their own kind”
    I wondered at the time about tom cats that snuk in the house to kill my sisters kittens. Sherliy woke up once when she rolled over on a dead kitten. The mother cat had found them and brought them to their “grandmother” I suppose for help.
    Of course the liberal education establishment was interested in delegitimize the U.S. killing people (doing war) because at that time we were fighting communist in Korea.
    Later in the cold war they switched to the line that people were the only animals that made war.
    Then in the late 60′s Jane Goodall came along an shot that one down with her chimpanze studies.
    Leftist are lying coniving sob’s.

  5. Junghans
    Posted February 25, 2012 at 10:23 am | Permalink

    Only a liberal fool like Keeley would contradict himself with “absurd and dangerous delusions” about the “sameness of modern man”. His PC, subsumed ignorance about W.W.II in general, and the Third Reich in particular, is also glaringly evident.

  6. Stronza
    Posted February 25, 2012 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Scalp Dance: Indian Warfare on the High Plains by Thomas Goodrich is a non-p.c. version of wars between settlers and Plains Indians. (Gulp.) Might this be the same Thomas Goodrich who wrote Hellstorm, which I believe was discussed on c.c. some time ago.

    • White Republican
      Posted February 28, 2012 at 12:06 am | Permalink

      Thomas Goodrich is also the author — with Debra Goodrich — of The Day Dixie Died: The Occupied South, 1865-1866, which appears to be a politically incorrect account of Reconstruction.

      • Stronza
        Posted February 28, 2012 at 8:36 am | Permalink

        Thanx for your info, WR.

  7. Posted February 26, 2012 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    David E. Stannard, professor at the U. of Hawaii, is among those academics who critique the West for claiming cannibalism existed among non-White tribes. He claimed it never happened.

    Then again, he’s also the author who wrote in “American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World” that prior to the dirty Europeans arriving, about a zillion Native Americans lived (happily, perhaps) in the Americas.

    • White Republican
      Posted February 26, 2012 at 7:15 pm | Permalink

      I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the works David E. Stannard cites as an “authority” is William Arens’ The Man-Eating Myth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), of which Revilo P. Oliver wrote in The Enemy of Our Enemies:

      “The continuous rewriting of history, so graphically described in George Orwell’s 1984, may seem to the racial mentality of Jews no more that a common-sense provision for ensuring ‘social justice’ and the like. For example, a Jew recently wrote a book to prove that no tribe of savages ever practices anthropophagy: all stories of cannibalism, except in a few cases of acute hunger (e.g., the Donner Party in California), were invented by the nasty ‘race prejudice’ of the swinish Aryans.”

      Oliver added:

      “I don’t know whether that claim is important for Jewish purposes, but if it is, it is surely a proof of the evils of ‘racism’ that it isn’t feasible as yet to have all books of history and ethnology that mention cannibals dumped down a ‘memory hole’ into ever-burning incinerators in all the libraries of the world. So far as I know, this attitude toward historical facts has never been systematically investigated, but Samuel Roth, the eminent and courageous Jew to whom we owe so much, touches on it in his references to the ‘Old Testament.’ But, I repeat, we must not be misled by the emotional binges of writers who hate Jews and cannot consider the problem objectively. Whatever tampering with facts may seem to us, we must remember that to the Jews it is simply an expression of their righteousness, however little we may be able to comprehend such an attitude. It is strictly comparable to the mentalities, equally alien and mysterious to us, that Professor Haas studied in his fundamental Destiny of the Mind.”

  8. Petronius
    Posted February 27, 2012 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Austrian anthropologist Irenäus Eibl-Eiblsfeldt’s classic books are also very enlightening on that matter: “Love and Hate”, “War and Peace”. I must say, being surrounded by PC dogmas, I find it pretty entertaining to read about the cruelty, tribal egotism, superstition and the sexist, ethnocentric,”territorialist”, violent and discriminating behaviour among f.e. Australian bushmen.

    There is a punchline to this that there are indeed universal patterns of human behaviour that stone-age like races like the Aborigines share at the core with contemporary high civilisation Whites or Asians. Kubrick demonstrated this so brilliantly in “Space Odyssey” and “Clockwork Orange”. There is a grain of truth in the leftist claim that “deep down we are all the same”, but ironically these are for the most part not exactly things that would lead to universal brotherhood ..

    • Andrew Hamilton
      Posted February 28, 2012 at 8:04 am | Permalink

      A somewhat similar thought occurred to me about universalism while reading the book.

      Human beings belong to the same species (but not to the same race—there is no “human race”). So there is necessarily a genetic, anthropological, behavioral, emotional, and psychological substrate shared by all the subspecies of mankind, one of which is a universal propensity for violence.

      But it is blatantly false to claim that, apart from skin color, there is universal sameness. (Undeniable group differences in skin color, anatomy, and physiology must drive the haters nuts.) Biological races exist and everyone knows it, including the people who deny it. There are many important differences of all kinds.

      Indeed, this truth is tacitly acknowledged by every anti-white racist and egalitarian on Earth, as demonstrated by the universal obsession with race and racism, seething hatred of whites, and the ascription of unique evil to us.

      Anti-white racism, which today saturates world culture, flies directly in the face of egalitarian dogma and the pious, hypocritically-expressed belief in sameness. White skin is deemed the signature of a race uniquely evil, utterly different from other peoples. Similarly, Jews are deemed divinely superior. And so on.

      • Henry
        Posted February 28, 2012 at 9:17 am | Permalink

        Andrew said:

        Anti-white racism, which today saturates world culture, flies directly in the face of egalitarian dogma and the pious, hypocritically-expressed belief in sameness. White skin is deemed the signature of a race uniquely evil, utterly different from other peoples. Similarly, Jews are deemed divinely superior. And so on.

        Yes, the Light unto the Nations has not shone favourably on the white man.

        The Jew has named and shamed whitey before the world but the greatest trick he ever played was getting whitey to accept his guilt without protest or even a hint of struggle on the way to the gallows.

        Ignorance and self-loathing have proven to be mightier than the sword.

  9. Henry
    Posted February 27, 2012 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    The “peaceful” savage had been slow roasted on a spit and consumed by the “noble” savage long before the white man dropped anchor in those sleepy lagoons.

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