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64 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Amazing Book
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...
Published on July 19, 2002 by Biology Reader

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The story is pretty simple
It doesn't require a book to tell this story. An article would more than suffice. That given, the book is well written and convincing with lots of detail to back up the author's thesis.
Published 20 months ago by rett lemoult


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64 of 68 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Amazing Book, July 19, 2002
By 
This review is from: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (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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57 of 65 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
This review is from: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (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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94 of 114 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Archeology vindicates civilized man, November 4, 2000
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This review is from: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (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. But relative to their population figures, primitives are a much more violent breed than civilized men.
As always, of course, statistics tell only part of the story. Just as enlightening are the picture of the corpse of a U.S. cavalryman, horribly mutilated by the Cheyenne, or the simple description of what a Tahitian warrior would do to his vanquished enemy's corpse: crush it flat with his war club, then cut a slit through it and wear it as a poncho. (Horror is mitigated by irony when one considers that, in the 18th century, "the explorer Louis de Bougainville reported that Tahitians exactly fulfilled Rousseau's predictions"...)
*War Before Civilization* is an excellent illustration of what the application of logic to reality can do to dispel the myths woven by evaders and ideologically motivated revisionists, and so long as the author sticks to his own discipline, he shines as a beacon of perspicaciousness and objectivity. Outside of his own field, though, Keeley is less brilliant: his recommendations for the preservation of peace in our age (such as compromising with our enemies or letting foreign powers monopolize resources we could produce ourselves) are examples of fallacious induction; his choice of Hobbes as the antithesis of Rousseau creates an unsavory alternative between two proponents of absolute power (which is all the more regrettable as Locke would have served the author's purposes just as well); and his endorsement of the theory that "real" war is total war makes him mistake the moral constraints of civilized warfare for a lack of realism or even inefficiency. As for his analysis of the causes of the academic distortion of the prehistorical record, it would have benefited from a familiarity with Ayn Rand's Objectivism, and Gross and Levitt's debunking of the academic left in *Higher Superstition*.
If you are the kind of person who always feels compelled to put such words as "civilized" and "primitive" in quotes, Lawrence Keeley's book is the best therapy I can think of, along with Robert B. Edgerton's *Sick Societies* and Ayn Rand's *Return of the Primitive*.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Was it ever so?, February 8, 2010
By 
This review is from: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (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. He doesn't mention New Guinea or the Solomon Islands for which this has been claimed for the recent past. Because captive males could not be controlled by small societies, they were eliminated. Western conquerors professed outrage at this but then they could afford to imprison and feed prisoners. They were also horrified at primitives' mutilation of opposing casualties but thought nothing about similarly destroying whole villages at night and burning their sources of sustenance. And, as the colonists in Eastern North America illustrated, latent imperialists became as much adept at taking scalps as their supposedly barbaric opponents. There was no lack of murder and enslavement of native women and children on frontiers.

Prehistoric fighters also tried to avoid set piece battles, or did them briefly, preferring what amounted to guerilla warfare. In fact the author claims that modern armies can not win guerilla warfare without engaging in similar tactics, frequently recruiting natives to fight natives. And the bow may have been more powerful than the gun before rifling made things more accurate. It is interesting that I don't remember the author using the word genocide. For genocide was certainly practiced prehistorically. The numbers involved were simply much smaller. A raid at night could easily kill all the males of one tribe or clan, and surviving women and children would live out their lives among people whose language was different.

When you think about it, the horrors of modern war experienced by the victims may have been no less horrible than having one's village or camping place swept into and destroyed, witnessing husbands and grown boys tortured and slowly killed, being raped and maybe mutilated and then being enslaved with one's children being distributed to others as slaves. Your world, though much smaller than say Byelo Russia during WWII , was destroyed more thoroughly than the damage seesawing armies of Germany and the Soviet Union visited upon the land and people of Byelo Russia. We see the latter as more violent because the total number is much much greater and it is (so to speak) us on whom it was visited, but actually proportionately much less damage was done. The German's mowed down hundreds of thousands with guns, shuffled a similar number into gas chambers and planned to work and starve the rest to death. They never got that far but prehistoric people did. Where is empathy in it all? Biologically empathy is only for our in-group, universal compassion seems oddly missing.

Keeler claims that things like trade and intermarriage usually made matters worse because many conflicts about these led to warfare. The only exemption seems to have been when exchange involved products that neighbors could (or would) not make. This led to a kind of stability because destroying your neighbors also destroyed the goose that laid the golden egg. There were some pacific peoples, but few, and many of them were defeated peoples who lacked the power to strike out.

Keeler tries to explain the difference between US violence towards Indians and its rarity in Canada. He sees it as a function of an even handed legal order in the west preceding occupation in Canada and the reverse south of the border. Certainly had the British in the 13 colonies and the Federalists after the revolution had their way white/Indian relationships might have been different. But the shear population density of the early US created a tidal wave never achieved north of the border. The Indian-as-trapper-white-as-buyers relationship of early commerce collapsed southward as both frontiersmen, white trappers, speculators and farmers kept pushing westward in spite of some attempts to control them. William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, as Indian Agent in St. Louis, was a paradigm of the contradictions. He both made meager attempts to protect Indians west of the Mississippi and invested in their undoing. In Canada Hudson Bay and the crown kept conflict more under control.

Although I was often impressed by the sophistication of many of Keeley's sweeping statements, I was somewhat troubled by his analysis of the rise of the anthropological view that primitives were not warlike. He sees it as a reaction to the violence of WWII and the A bomb. In revulsion to civilized violence and the vanishing of traditional peoples anthropologists sought hope for humanity by seeing our predecessors as people who lived without war. To me this seems too simple.

Similarly his comments about military historians seeing total war as inventions of Grant and Sherman opens a can of worms. "Primitive warfare is simply total war conducted with very limited means," which I agree with. It was the greater productive capacity of the West along with its diseases and pests that allowed it to dominate native peoples, not so much its superiority in arms. The author claims that lack of recognition of the ancientness of total warfare led military strategists to fight wars as games of chess leading to indecisive outcome among which he claims were the Crusades, the 100 year and 30 year wars. This claim raises lots of questions. Charles and Phillip of Spain gibbeted, burned and disemboweled with the best of them in the Lowlands. de Soto rampaging from Florida to the Mississippi was able to frighten his enemies and survive for an amazingly long time because of his armor, the sharpness of his swords, his attack dogs, his horses and, above all, his ruthlessness. At any point his indigenous enemies had the resources and the manpower to overwhelm him. Nonetheless, he almost got away with it.

Although my comments may be a little disjointed, I found the book challenging and sometimes very depressing. I would have like to have found more of the world that preceded civilizations somewhat more harmless and I suppose you could say they were in terms of ability to destroy their environment and peoples distant from them. The same limitations of resources and organization which made their conflicts shorter also meant that the damage was much more local. If your village was the one that was attacked that might be of little consolation to you but at least the violence was not so universal.

Has the world become more peaceful? It doesn't seem so. Who would choose to be collateral damage in Iraq or Afghanistan. Who would choose to live in Eastern Congo, Gaza, The Colombian jungle, Kashmir, Chechnya, etc., etc.? This book will really get you thnking. The author has done a great service.

Charlie Fisher author of Dismantling Discontent: Buddha's Way Through Darwin's World
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32 of 38 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars War is Hell -- and it always was, March 25, 2002
By 
xaosdog "xaosdog" (Cardiff-by-the-Sea, CA USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (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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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Peace Lost, July 21, 2000
This review is from: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Paperback)
This book has a lot going for it. The style in which it is written may appeal to a broad audience as well as specialists. It puts lengthier, more technical discussions in notes at the back of the book and makes its points short and sweet (about 180 pages of text). The format of contrasting views of human violence by way of Rousseau and Hobbes is effective and carried throughout. Ethnographic and archeological examples are both fascinating and well chosen. These examples gain even more in interest when discussed in certain aspects of war, e.g. weaponry and fortifications. There are several ways in which this book is wanting, however. It employs a dichotomy throughout between "civilized" and "primitive" war. These words deserve to go the way of an inaccurate musket; more relevantly, they mask an acknowledged continuum of warfare. For example, a table in the appendix shows that hunter-gatherers engage in war less often than other "primitive" societies, such as pastoralists. It makes more sense to understand the variance in warfare among all societies than create an artifical dichotomy, despite its usefulness as an organizing theme for the book, between civilized and primitive warfare. The other major weakness of the book is its lack of a good definition of "war". The author overemphasizes economic motivations in primitive warfare at expense to blood revenge, wife stealing, etc. It isn't clear whether small-scale raiding in the form of blood revenge gets counted as "war" among primitive societies; it shouldn't be if it involves but a wronged man and a couple of his allies raiding. More precise descriptors such as "raiding" should thus be used. Most readers will still find the bold and blunt exposition as well as subject matter outweighs these weaknesses. Bid farewell to paradise.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A truly important book, July 29, 1999
By A Customer
This review is from: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Paperback)
This is one of the more important books of recent years, persuasively dispelling the myth that non-technological societies possess an innocence and a devotion to peace that modern societies lack. Based on solid research, this book counters the popular contention that the introduction of Western values and customs tends to destroy the purported tranquility of primitive life. All students of history, particularly those inclined to view Western culture as inherently inferior to the cultures of Rousseau's "noble savages," ought to read this book. An outstanding work.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars War is all too human, January 4, 2011
By 
Mark S (Toronto, ON) - See all my reviews
This review is from: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Paperback)
Although Keeley dispels the myth of the peaceful savage, by recounting its universality amongst all the peoples of the populated continents, this book offers much more. He succinctly describes, along with substantial empirical evidence, and mitigated by a healthy dose of skepticism about archaeological and anthropological findings, the fundamental aspects of warfare, and human beings, in both civilized and primitive societies.

Keeley's other main argument is that warfare is a function of society; indeed, quoting Turney-High, "Warfare is social organization" (p. 47). It is society's features, its population size and density, economy and social system, which determine the various natures and limits of military warfare. Sophisticated battle strategies and multitudes of complex weaponry should not be used to assess the intellectual capacity of a society's inhabitants. Indeed, time and time again, primitive warfare has defeated civilized warfare. Only when population size and logistics (the capability and means to provide food, ammunition, men, and any other resources) are brought into the picture do the civilized states, or any other societies, have a triumphant advantage. Not wanting to dehumanize the constant cruel warring of primitive societies, which he discusses in explicit detail, Keeley mentions that warriors were not awarded the highest statuses in their societies. Indeed, such warriors were considered to be polluted by their kills; and so they needed to be purged before re-entering their tribes (pp. 144-147). And like civilized societies, peace is a difficult enterprise for all societies regardless of their sophistication: the supposed mitigants of war, intermarriage and trade, are actually irritants that are more likely induce war, as modern history has also shown.

Ultimately this is Keeley's fundamental thesis, that primitive peoples are as human as the citizens of modern states. To assign them the qualities of the "peaceful" savage, wistfully lost to modern man, is to deny them the same humanity as when they are called "bloodthirsty" savages.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Solid Myth-Breaker, November 13, 2010
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For anyone looking for a good basis of evidence to combat myths of a serene and blissful prehistory, this book will not disappoint. However, what recommends it so highly is the author's admission that he, too, participated in what he calls the "pacification of the past," but as an archaeologist he was forced to re-examine his assumptions about primitive peoples in light of so much hard evidence that proves our ancestors were just as likely to engage in violent disputes as "civilized" people have been.

Keeley is no war hawk, looking for easy justifications for war. In fact, he seems genuinely troubled by the evidence at times, and makes the point that if humans want to find ways to end war, lying to themselves about history and pre-history isn't going to produce the answers. Based on his analysis of prehistorical warfare and historical warfare, his conclusions are troublingly statist and seem to lean toward a "one-world government" scenario, though he offers some general observations about ways to avoid war.

Keeley presents his case engagingly, and this book should be accessible enough for any layman. His colorful anecdotes about primitive societies may appeal to those with a dark sense of humor.

Because so much of the book involves dispassionately comparing the war motives and methods of primitive societies to the corresponding aspects of civilized war-making, the book could also serve as a good primer for anyone beginning a general study of warfare.
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24 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars definitely not politically correct, May 27, 2004
By 
coach (Albuquerque, NM USA) - See all my reviews
This review is from: War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Paperback)
It has been some years since I read this book, but having come across it again by chance recalled the impact it made on my first reading. Forgive any flaws in my memory of the details, but this is what I have carried with me from "War Before Civilization." If you adhere to the concept of the 'peaceful savage,' the book may offend you. If you believe in a past 'golden age' where life was simple and carefree compared to the present, you will likely dismiss this book. If you think life now is harder and more dangerous than it was in the past, you will not get much out of this read. If you are sure that primitive societies lived long, healthy, safe lives in harmony with the environment and at peace with one another, then stay in your bubble and skip this book. Keeley does not carry the guilt many today feel regarding the destruction of "primitive" cultures and societies. Archaeology and statistics more than sociology and anthropology form the basis of Keeley's conclusions (if I recall correctly). To summarize: people are violent regardless of the era, and more so when resources are scarce, meaning modern technology makes more resources available now than were available 'Before Civilization.' Modern science allows people to live healthier and longer now than in the past - i.e. probably very few people died from Alzheimer's or cancer in primitive societies because hardly anyone lived long enough to acquire these diseases, regardless of what the causes today are (old age, diet, genes, pollution, whatever). Sure, more people today die in armed conflict than did 'Before Civilization', but as a percentage of the whole, the numbers today are no worse, if not better, than in the past. In addition, the losses today are more easily survived by the whole, as there are more people to start with in a modern society (which doesn't do the individual dead any good, but that's not the point). And while killing methods today are both faster and more efficient, healing and recovery from non-fatal wounds has also improved (e.g. gangrene vs. penicillin). Now if you were one of the people who survived broken bones, avoided impacted wisdom teeth or the need for a root canal, recovered from injuries, always had proper clothing and shelter regardless of the weather, had abundant and consistent nutrition without access to a grocery store or vitamins or your backyard garden, had no allergic reactions to anything, reproduced with ease, skipped any birth defects, resisted all those nasty viruses, bacterial infections, and festering wounds, then you might have lived long enough to meet your grandchildren. It definitely would have been a 'Golden Age' for you and you alone, but doesn't that same thing apply to any era? With that kind of good fortune, you probably would have been running things in a primitive society just by outliving everybody else. And while any complaints we today have about the imperfections of modern 'Civilization' may be legitimate, "War Before Civilization" makes it abundantly clear that, ultimately, complaining is a luxury.
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War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage
War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence H. Keeley (Paperback - December 18, 1997)
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