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.
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)
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.