Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Book Review: War Before Civilization

War Before Civilization; The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence H. Keeley, 1996, Oxford University Press, paperback edition, 1997, 245 pages.

War Before Civilization is one of those works that cause observers of the human condition to have an "Aha!" moment.

I first read the book over a decade ago. I have recommended it to many, including my friend, Curtis Eykamp of Medway, Quirindi NSW, Australia.

He ordered a copy, and while I was helping take care of his 100 year old father, Roy, I had the happy occasion to entertain Roy by reading to him. War Before Civilization was one of my choices.

I read through the preface, which explains how prevalent the bias against the acceptance of warfare in pre-history was among archaeologists in the post WWII era. Evidence of pre-historic warfare was routinely ignored and suppressed.

Roy nodded in agreement. His 100 years of experience agreed that men are routinely selfish, combative, and violent.

Keeley spells out in exquisite detail how the common experience of pre-historic man is much closer to the Hobbesian archetype in the State of Nature than the "noble savage" of Rosseau.

Keeley proceeds to show us how universal war is and was. He shows how violent people are when they lack higher levels of social organization. Higher levels of social organization, that organize larger numbers of people beyond close relatives, involves creating mechanisms for resolving conflict without violence.

Pacific people sometimes exist; they are simply overwhelmed, conquered, or destroyed by war-like neighbors when they are discovered. Most examples of pacific peoples are refugees that were driven to undesired territory by more violent neighbors.

100 year old Roy Eykamp was not interested in the academic study in Keeley's work, but I was. The tables and charts were fascinating. It is clear even the worst 21st century governments are no worse than existence in a "state of nature". Most governments are far better, and most residents within those realms live far better lives.

Most in paleolithic and neolithic societies were in constant danger of violence, raids, simple homicide and extermination.

The author relies on secondary sources for his treatment of the effectiveness of ancient projectile weapons compared to firearms. He states that "...until the late 19th century, civilized soldiers were at a slight disadvantage in fire weaponry when facing primitive bowmen."

I disagree. The primitive bowmen immediately transitioned to muskets as soon as they could obtain them. The advantages were obvious: the ability to fire from a prone position, the ability to hold fire until advantageous and the enormous psychological effect on opponents. Perhaps the most profound advantage is the ability to penetrate all primitive armor at a distance.

To be fair, very early muskets, were essentially equivalent to powerful cross bows, as noted in The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico. But powerful cross bows are beyond the technology of bowmen in less technologically advanced societies.

Both bows and early firearms suffered in wet weather. Bows because bowstrings became useless when wet, firearms because of damp gunpowder.

As gunpowder weapons advanced beyond the matchlock, the advantages over bows became obvious. This is a mere quibble in an otherwise excellent book.

To understand how violent life is with low levels of organization, read War Before Civilization.

It is available at Amazon.com  and abebooks.com.

©2018 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice and link are included.

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