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War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage [Paperback]

by Lawrence H. Keeley
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 18, 1997 0195119126 978-0195119121 Reprint
The myth of the peace-loving "noble savage" is persistent and pernicious. Indeed, for the last fifty years, most popular and scholarly works have agreed that prehistoric warfare was rare, harmless, unimportant, and, like smallpox, a disease of civilized societies alone. Prehistoric warfare, according to this view, was little more than a ritualized game, where casualties were limited and the effects of aggression relatively mild. Lawrence Keeley's groundbreaking War Before Civilization offers a devastating rebuttal to such comfortable myths and debunks the notion that warfare was introduced to primitive societies through contact with civilization (an idea he denounces as "the pacification of the past").
Building on much fascinating archeological and historical research and offering an astute comparison of warfare in civilized and prehistoric societies, from modern European states to the Plains Indians of North America, War Before Civilization convincingly demonstrates that prehistoric warfare was in fact more deadly, more frequent, and more ruthless than modern war. To support this point, Keeley provides a wide-ranging look at warfare and brutality in the prehistoric world. He reveals, for instance, that prehistorical tactics favoring raids and ambushes, as opposed to formal battles, often yielded a high death-rate; that adult males falling into the hands of their enemies were almost universally killed; and that surprise raids seldom spared even women and children. Keeley cites evidence of ancient massacres in many areas of the world, including the discovery in South Dakota of a prehistoric mass grave containing the remains of over 500 scalped and mutilated men, women, and children (a slaughter that took place a century and a half before the arrival of Columbus). In addition, Keeley surveys the prevalence of looting, destruction, and trophy-taking in all kinds of warfare and again finds little moral distinction between ancient warriors and civilized armies. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, he examines the evidence of cannibalism among some preliterate peoples.
Keeley is a seasoned writer and his book is packed with vivid, eye-opening details (for instance, that the homicide rate of prehistoric Illinois villagers may have exceeded that of the modern United States by some 70 times). But he also goes beyond grisly facts to address the larger moral and philosophical issues raised by his work. What are the causes of war? Are human beings inherently violent? How can we ensure peace in our own time? Challenging some of our most dearly held beliefs, Keeley's conclusions are bound to stir controversy.

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Throughout much of this century the notion has been gaining ground, bolstered by genocide and Holocaust, that modern warfare is more barbaric than war has ever been. Alongside this view has grown a romantic impression that primitive cultures were, and are, more peaceful. Lawrence Keeley, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois, aims to dispel this inversion of the connotations of "civilization." He cites the historical evidence that humans have always been just as bloodthirsty as they are today, and that indeed in the days when death was less clinical it was often nastier. War, it seems, has always been with us. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Review


"The evidence that Mr. Keeley marshals is vivid, varied, and often complex."--The New York Times Book Review



Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; Reprint edition (December 18, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195119126
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195119121
  • Product Dimensions: 8 x 5.4 x 0.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #348,188 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
54 of 58 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Amazing Book July 19, 2002
Format:Paperback
This amazing little book ( 244 pgs. including footnotes and index.) should utterly change the way anthropologists view man's prehistory and the remaining prestate societies in the world. Keeley thoroughly and meticulously documents that prehistoric warfare was in fact far more frequent and deadly than modern warfare between state societies. Keeley shows that prestate warriors often more than not held their own in battles against civilized armies and often defeated them. Their ultimate defeats at the hands of state societies were often more attributable to introduced diseases and the logistical superiorty of modern economies than to military strategy and tactics. One particularly illuminating passage involves a New Guinean tribal leader who after seeing an airplane for the first time, asked for a ride and then permission to take along some heavy rocks. These rocks he wanted to drop on an enemy village!! He had understood within minutes the military significance of aircraft that had eluded many generals and admirals for a generation. Some of the passages in the book make for gruesome reading, particularly the sections on cannibalism, enemy torture, and civilian massacres. Most importantly, Keeley documents how anthropologists have in his words "pacified the past" out of a sense of guilt over imperialism and the two world wars of the 20th century. He shows numerous examples of anthropologists and archaeologists grasping at straws to explain away unambiguous evidence of warfare at numerous sites in North America and Europe. He even points out as a young archaeologist that he also engaged in a lot of similar wishful thinking. This book should be required reading in anthropology classes throughout the world, but sadly it will probably be ignored because it challenges too many entrenched beliefs.
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53 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Keely slaughters the myth of the golden age of peace November 16, 2006
Format:Paperback
Keeley utterly demolishes the "golden age" idiotological mythos with hard anthropological, ethnographic and archaeological fact. He also, very cleverly to my mind, considering the biases of modern academics, gives "primitives" a great deal of credit for their fighting prowess. There were some flaws to his thesis, of course. But this is a sort of polemic; a bludgeon with which to beat home the unarguable fact that primitive man was a violent creature; not the Rousseauean "noble savage" of popular mythology.

It also contains some great black humor, such as his recounting of a Maori chief taunting the preserved head of an enemy chief: " You wanted to run away, did you? But my war club overtook you: and after you were cooked, you made food for my mouth. And where is your father? he is cooked:- and where is your brother? he is eaten:- and where is your wife? there she sits, a wife for me:- and where are your children? there they are, with loads on their backs, carrying food, as my slaves."

Humanity is ugly. The simple fact that we are unpleasant, violent apes seems to be lost on certain social classes of people. In my opinion, you can't begin to understand people without understanding that human beings are deeply flawed creatures. We are not made horrible by our social conditions, psychological trauma or any other such nonsense: humanity is just horrible. Any meaningful discussion of sociology, history or politics must start from these assumptions, or they are destructive folly.
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91 of 109 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Archeology vindicates civilized man November 4, 2000
Format:Paperback
"In the aftermath of the Battle of Little Bighorn, Indian women used marrow-cracking mallets to pound the faces of dead soldiers into pulp." - Lawrence H. Keeley
For Lawrence Keeley, the study of prehistory (a period which, for some peoples, ended only a few dozen years ago) has been torn between two paradigms: the Hobbesian and the Rousseauian. According to the former, primitives are warlike, and need the institution of the state to put an end to the nastiness and brutishness of their lives. According to the latter, civilization is the corrupter, subverting the harmony and peacefulness of primitive life with overpopulation, greed and the encouragement of exploitative behaviour.
For several decades, the Rousseauian myth has ruled academia, where swords have been "beaten into metaphors": omnipresent fortifications are interpreted as expressions of "the symbolism of exclusion" and weapons as a form of money or status symbols, so that- to paraphrase Keeley- the obviously bellicose becomes the arcanely peaceable.
But what the civilization-bashers had not counted on was that their Big Lie would ultimately be exposed by objective scientists working on the basis of incontrovertible facts: the archeologists, whose patient, reality-oriented detective work completely refutes the fashionable whitewashing of primitive peoples.
What bones tell us is that wars were more common among the primitives than among modern nations, that proportionately more people were involved in them and died in them. Admittedly, those wars were waged on a smaller scale than modern man's, because primitive economies could neither support the large populations nor the impressive logistics that enable modern nations to sustain long-term and wide-ranging war efforts.
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Was it ever so? February 8, 2010
Format:Paperback
In an era where cooperation, compassion and empathy are touted as neglected, even denied, aspects of human behavior, it is refreshing to have someone point out in vivid detail that humans are neither intrinsically violent nor non-violent but that our prehistoric past is littered with evidence of some pretty nasty behavior. Frans de Waal would have our monkey heritage rife with empathy in contrast to what he felt had been a universal portrayal of humans as just another species in the war of one against all. The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society The Dalai Lama sees us as intrinsically compassionate. Now Keely bludgeons us with the evidence that prehistoric folk may have been proportionately more violent than the Nazi's or the US in Vietnam. Those ancestors of ours engaged in warfare and did it with all the vigor their fragile productive systems and hand-held weapons allowed them. Example after example of archeological and recent anthropological evidence are presented of slaughter, torture, resource devastation, slavery, etc. and the proportion of victims was much higher than in modern warfare.

Prehistoric folk exercised tactical planning, invasion, denial of sustenance, all the practical aspects of war. The greatest difference between then and now is that they did it in more frequent and shorter encounters and they did not engage in warfare to dominate another people as tax farmers for food, male producers or canon fodder. They killed their male enemies right away or took them home to be tortured and maybe consumed. The extent to which captives were used as food is not clear. There were some societies, maybe the Aztecs for which this was the case.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A textbook, not a novel
A wonderful discussion of the myth of the 'noble savage' ideology. Sound anthropological, archaeological, and ethnological study of the causes of war and peace. Read more
Published 5 days ago by Pratchett Fan
4.0 out of 5 stars Conclusive without getting caught in the culture wars
The myth of the peaceful primitive has, along with our strange concept of "natural" foods been something I could never understand. Read more
Published 29 days ago by R. Morrell
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting history of conflict
The idea that cultures before the development of civilization were peaceful and idyllic always boggled my mind. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Elliott
2.0 out of 5 stars Seems better suited for an academic journal
The author writes clearly and persuasively, but his arguments seem to be aimed at skeptical academics rather than a general audience. Read more
Published 1 month ago by SkepticalMind
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb, a wonderful achievement
Keeley provides the best available book on the nature of war in primitive societies. The scholarship cited is extraordinarily detailed and yet very readably presented. Read more
Published 2 months ago by Integrity Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars A real reversal in thinking
For a child of the 60s whose education stressed a view of the American Indian as a basically peaceful group that was forced into warfare to defend his/her land and way of life this... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Timothy R. Roberts
4.0 out of 5 stars Great data, will written, but overreaching with its conclusions
Excellent book that makes a great argument about prestate warfare and how serious and deadly it really was. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence...
My husband, who I ordered the book for, reports that the book was well-written with detailed descriptions. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Elaine Z
5.0 out of 5 stars War: A Stratum of Human Life
An important issue, thick with details from history, archaeology, anthropology, forensics; all handled with internal analysis, and comparative analysis. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Jon
5.0 out of 5 stars War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage
Good book, good insights, good historical perspectives. Well written, deeply and profoundly analyzed. Anyone who is interested in the history and psychology of wars can go there!
Published 8 months ago by Laidinha
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