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Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage Hardcover – April 19, 2003

ISBN-13: 978-0312310899 ISBN-10: 0312310897 Edition: 1st

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In this detailed if strident book, Harvard archaeologist LeBlanc and his co-author dismantle the notion of the noble savage, a myth that "implies that if we can just...remember our ancient abilities to be one with the natural environment, warfare will stop and ecological balance will be regained." LeBlanc begins by describes his own field experiences, in which he and his colleagues routinely ignored "clear evidence for warfare"; later, following the lead of some "fanatical sociobiologists" at Harvard, he began formulating an academic stance focused on what he saw as humanity's ecologically disastrous and inherently violent true nature. It took him more than 25 years to fully change his mind, he says, and still more evidence is needed to prove his hypothesis. And the myth, he says, is entrenched in popular culture as well as science--most people envision prehistoric people as peace-seeking nature lovers. LeBlanc insists repeatedly that it is not only foolish, but also dangerous, to believe in an Edenic past when the evidence reveals overpopulation and violence wherever we look. Like many scientists before him, LeBlanc looks to technology as the answer to ancient problems. "For the first time in history," he writes, "we have a real ability to provide adequate resources for everyone living on the planet." But by not fully addressing the fact that technology has yet to solve may of our contemporary social ills, LeBlanc almost falls into the thrall of another myth-that of a gleaming future that seems drafted from science fiction.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"Timely reading... LeBlanc's short book makes accessible to general readers controversial ideas well-known in (archaeology)... (and) offers a serious critique of both 'rational choice' by our leaders for short-term ends and of environmental neglect in a market economy as leading to disaster."
-St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"In a provocative and simulating book, Steven LeBlanc places warfare at the center of human existence. He sees it as a constant battle over scarce resources from the earliest days of our history. In so doing, he gives us hope for the future, in a world where we have the potential to feed everyone. He gives us an important contribution to a growing debate over the causes and future of war."
-Brian Fagan, professor of Anthropology, University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of The Little Ice Age

"Timely reading offers a serious critique of 'rational choice' by our leaders for short-term ends as leading to disaster." (William H. Leckie, Jr. St. Louis Post-Dispatch)

"Constant Battles is a well-armed rebuttal to the notion that our ancestors all just got along." (The Wall Street Journal)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press; 1st edition (April 19, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0312310897
  • ISBN-13: 978-0312310899
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.1 x 9.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #373,309 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

To say the least, that would be hard.
Sam Thayer
LeBlanc makes a strong case that virtually all ancient societies collapsed from an endless cycle of overpopulation, resource depletion, and warfare.
Russell Finley
I, as a professor who teaches early art and culture, find this book a refreshing addition to my course material.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

77 of 84 people found the following review helpful By Russell Finley on April 2, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Do not read this book if you are wedded to the idea that we humans once lived in harmony with our natural environment. LeBlanc argues that we were slaughtering each other over scarce resources long before the invention of agriculture or the advent of complex societies. Although not the first to pooh-pooh the idea of the peaceful, noble savage, he is one of the first to do so using prehistoric archaeological evidence.

LeBlanc makes a strong case that virtually all ancient societies collapsed from an endless cycle of overpopulation, resource depletion, and warfare. My favorite example, among many, was Troy. Archaeologists had a hard time finding it because Homer's description placed it near a bay. The Greek islands were not always the barren, desolate rocks that you see today. They were turned into stone by human activities: the elimination of forests, non-sustainable farming, and overgrazing (which continues to this day.) The bay that once fronted Troy was filled in by silt from the denuded hillsides centuries ago leaving the ruins stranded many miles from the sea.

The author argues that overpopulation, followed by resource depletion and warfare, was more than just common; it was inevitable. Given the option to do so, people eventually went after their neighbor's resources.

LeBlanc points out that there is a strong tendency for researchers to whitewash their archaeological findings. I have to agree with him. Years ago, when I first read of the bronze age iceman mummy discovered in the Alps, the researchers had suggested that he was probably a peaceful sheepherder who had been caught in an unexpected blizzard. The polished bronze ax found in his possession was too soft to cut down trees. It must have had religious or ritual significance.
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82 of 97 people found the following review helpful By E. N. Anderson VINE VOICE on August 27, 2003
Format: Hardcover
First the good news: LeBlanc's main message is right. People in almost all societies have fought, and very often it's all about resources. Traditional societies of all sorts, from hunter-gatherers to early states, often overused their environments badly, and then either tried to cope by taking resources from the neighbors, or weakened themselves to the point where the neighbors could scarf up on them. LeBlanc urges us contemporary humans to take heed, and clean up our ecological act so that we can reduce (hopefully eliminate) the danger of war.
So far, so good. Thus, on balance, this is a good book and a very valuable one. LeBlanc notes that whatever innate aggressions humans have, their actual wars are typically over land and resources, and thus are preventable. We all need to hear this, in an age when politicians and writers love to naturalize war and aggression as inevitable. (Yes, I know, war isn't just about resources, but it usually involves much concern about them.)
The problems come with LeBlanc's exaggeration and sometimes shaky scholarship (on which see exchange of letters in ARCHAEOLOGY for Sept.-Oct 2003). First, while the myth of the ecologically harmonious "savage" was once common and is still with us, the myth of the peaceful savage seems quite rare. LeBlanc cites only one source for it, and he's wrong about that one. He cites Rousseau (hardly an anthropologist). In fact Rousseau never used the term "noble savage" (it's from Dryden), and R's "savage" was the chimpanzee, of whose sometimes-violent behavior R was well aware. (He tells some stories of their attacks on Africans.) Anthropologists know traditional people are often warlike. H. H.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Marty on June 14, 2007
Format: Paperback
From the above reviews of LeBlanc's "Constant Battles," we can clearly see that the "noble savage" interpretation of pre-history engenders strong emotional responses, more in the vein of current TV political shows where name calling is the norm and less in the vein of academic discourse where there should be an appeal to facts and clear reasoning. In fact, in approaching this subject, it might be best to try and put both emotions and political views, if not aside, at least in the background.

LeBlanc is quite clear in stating his own academic history with this topic, the need for this and other studies on the topic, his methodology and his copious citations from peer reviewed scholarship. In addition, he points out that a very large portion of previous scholarship on early human societies assumed a great deal about the pacifist nature of these societies in the face of often clear but nearly universally overlooked evidence as to the bellicose nature of humans and our simian relatives, the chimpanzees.

To these ends, then, LeBlanc provides readers with an amply researched and argued thesis about the ubiquitous nature of warfare among human societies that is often triggered by a given group exceeding their own territory's "carrying capacity." In fact, this thesis is one that is echoed by Jared Diamond in his "Collapse" where Diamond provides clear cut evidence that much contemporary war is caused by environmental distress squeezing out carrying capacity.

Btw, one reviewer refers to the "Human Resource Area Files" when its proper title is, in fact, the "Human Relations Area Files.
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