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War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage Paperback – December 18, 1997

ISBN-13: 978-0195119121 ISBN-10: 0195119126 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; Reprint edition (December 18, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195119126
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195119121
  • Product Dimensions: 7.9 x 0.6 x 5.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #203,739 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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.


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

Customer Reviews

This is a must-read for anyone interested in humanity.
Robert Crawford
He also, very cleverly to my mind, considering the biases of modern academics, gives "primitives" a great deal of credit for their fighting prowess.
Scott C. Locklin
This concise and well written book is a fine description and analysis of prestate warfare.
R. Albin

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

67 of 72 people found the following review helpful By Biology Reader on 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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62 of 71 people found the following review helpful By Scott C. Locklin VINE VOICE on 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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95 of 117 people found the following review helpful By Jean-Francois Virey on 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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33 of 39 people found the following review helpful By xaosdog on March 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
Although extremely poorly edited, this slim volume represents a revolution in understanding early human history.
The received wisdom in cultural ethnology is that true war was unknown to our species before the advent of so-called civilization. Not so; this book draws upon archeological and comparative ethnological data to show persuasively that bloody war has been a constant in human development up until the latter half of the twentieth century. Indeed, despite advancements in the technology of slaughter, and despite the cataclysmic events of the two world wars, on average the likelihood of death in battle has never, at any point in human evolution, been lower than during the current century.
Much of the book is dedicated to an analysis of pre-civilization battle tactics (i.e., tribal tactics as observed during the modern period, ancient descriptions of tribal adversaries, inferences from the archeological record), and of their comparison with the methodologies of modern warfare. Keeley takes great pains to "defend" pre-civilization warfare as equally deadly and even "total" as any modern campaign.
Overall, this is fine scholarship, and important reading for anyone seeking to understand human culture or the conditions of human evolution.
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