War Before Civilization

Lawrence H. Keeley

I approached this book with grave reservations carried over from another book about which I had grave reservations (Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate). Many of my reservations about Pinker were dissolved—or at least complexified—by a thorough reading of his work, which is flawed but vital reading. Many of the flaws, it seemed to me, clustered around his treatment of the history of violence and the “Noble Savage”. This book by Keeley was a prime source, so it was essential to follow it up.

While still flawed, Keeley’s work is compelling reading. Even if you disagree with some or much of it, there is evidence and argument here that seems essential for correcting or modifying various delusions about “prehistoric peace” that have abounded in the 20th century. I’ll certainly focus here on the bones I have to pick; but don’t let that reassure you that Keeley’s assault on our post-colonial romanticism is at all unsuccessful.

My main problem with Keeley’s approach is that, in order to demolish the “neo-Rousseauian” elements of modern anthropology, he is far too ready to generalize about archaeological evidence. A central concept for him is the power of “hard evidence” to get past the problems of projecting contemporary ethnography into the prehistoric past.

A common perspective of the “neo-Rousseauian” (whether deserving of this derogatory label or not) is that European colonization, or contact with more local, more complex agricultural societies, has typically been so disruptive that ethnography is suspect at best, or hopelessly skewed at worst, in terms of trying to divine the nature of pre-contact tribal life. Keeley’s dismissal of this idea contains some grains of truth, but he does seem to misrepresent the views of the target I know a little about—R. Brian Ferguson—which leaves me a little suspicious of the rest of his discussion. (Keeley’s contention that academia has become rife with neo-Rousseauian dogma is probably overstated; still, even though it may be less embedded in our society than people such as Keeley and Pinker believe, one-dimensional myths about the past do exist.)

Of course archaeology is crucial in determining the validity of ethnographic observations for reconstructing prehistory. However, while his analysis of archaeological remains—especially regarding his speciality, the early Neolithic in Europe—is astute in its details, he is a little too ready to take a few examples of prehistoric violence as blanket license to extrapolate from the abundant evidence of war in contemporary tribal life right back through the hundreds of thousands of years of human existence.

Another problem here is the frame of his discussion. It’s true that his target, the belief that the Hobbesian civilized state is the origin of much human violence, does exist, and deserves critical attention. It’s also true that there’s a lot of evidence of brutal and effective warfare among both historic and prehistoric nonstate societies. However, the most coherent “primitivists” seem to be those who see the genesis of agriculture—not the state, however closely the two may be linked—as the source of endemic human conflict. This isn’t to say that foraging life is inherently peaceful; but there’s a more interesting argument to be made about the differences between foraging and agricultural societies than there is between nonstate and state-based societies—all the fascinating literature of anti-state anarchism notwithstanding. In strictly framing his argument using the State as the dividing line across which cultures are compared, and lumping together hunter-gatherer and agricultural nonstate societies, he isn’t missing out on a reality of “peaceful savagery”; but he is obscuring the most interesting axis of debate.

It becomes a little annoying in this respect that he persistently draws on that early Neolithic European period for evidence of endemic conflict in the archaeological record. Jason Godesky argues that the waves of invaders that spread agriculture north and west across Europe were in part a kind of vanguard that testified to how the cradle of agriculture, the Near East, had quickly reached certain limits as this new use of the land depleted the soil and populations boomed. The foragers they encountered certainly didn’t adopt agriculture gratefully as a way to escape nasty, brutish and short lives; they fought, and lost. This period appears to be one of the prime examples of agriculture as a violence-generating cultural divide between peoples. Of course it doesn’t show that the Mesolithic populations that were overcome were complete pacifists; and it’s a good example of violence happening without states. But again, locating the axis of debate using the state instead of agriculture is significant.

And, while the ethnography he draws on is varied, you don’t have to be that attentive to notice the frequency with which a certain notoriously violent tribal society in New Guinea are referred to. Some general examples of tribal war are often hammered home with the frequently repellent specifics from this particular region. “For example, among the Mae Enga…” becomes a kind of refrain, extremes from this specific culture of subsistence gardeners being used implicitly to consolidate an image which serves for vast spans of human history.

A key source for New Guinea ethnography, Mervyn Meggitt’s Blood Is Their Argument, according to a reviewer, describes in detail “how well-intentioned but ill-conceived land legislation [by Australia] has been one of the main causes of a resurgence of warfare in the Highlands.” Neglecting to mention this doesn’t, of course, negate Keeley’s usually well-constructed argument. However, it’s an interesting recurrence, in the dynamic between Keeley and his sources, of the dynamic between Pinker’s book and his use of Keeley.

Now, the basic lesson here is that you can’t construct a complex argument from source material that agrees 100% with your own thesis. You’re probably being a bit blinkered in your reading if you manage it. I offer merely as an interesting observation this contradiction of a key idea of Keeley’s (that colonial forces had little significant impact on tribal war) in one of his key sources. Likewise, Pinker’s general intent in The Blank Slate is, of course, to give the influence of genetics its due in our analysis of human society. However, in relying on Keeley for his argument that war is ubiquitous (and by implication, at least partly governed by biological inheritance), Pinker is similarly presuming to grab an expert’s data and ignore their conclusions. Under the unequivocal heading “The Irrelevance of Biology”, Keeley roundly denounces genetic explanations, citing our obviously hard-wired “aptitude for social cooperation” as a reason for it being “far easier to explain peace than war.” I don’t claim to be immune to this presumptuous pillaging of data. Maybe it’s because I’m only recently becoming acutely aware of this dynamic in myself as well as others that I see it so clearly.

Anyone wishing to cling to simplistic illusions of peace as a natural human state tragically disrupted by either agriculture or civilization should read this book and experience a little healthy disillusionment. Keeley’s mistakes in his use of ethnography and archaeology may be greater or lesser mistakes, but certain recent golden age myths deserve to be either knocked over or tested more throroughly.

I’m constantly alert to counter-myths getting a new shot of life as their opposite numbers stumble. Keeley certainly isn’t immune to this but, importantly, he’s clearly making an honest attempt to understand humans and ameliorate war here. His evidence shows that while war may be near-universal, abhorrence of it is too.

And in the end, it’s this ambivalent and complex unity of humanity—warts and all—that Keeley is most concerned with. He sees simplification of both Rousseau and Hobbes, the whole Us vs. Them polarization of the debate, as a false division of common humanity:

The myths of either primitive or civilized superiority deny the intellectual, psychological, and physiological equality of humankind.

I think there’s still an important debate about the shades of difference within this unity, which aren’t insignificant. I sympathize greatly with the various contemporary academics who are both free of radical illusions about primitive life, yet are keen to highlight the many ills that the past 10,000 years or so have brought to our species. Keeley gets most of his points across by studiously avoiding his most formidable theoretical opponents. But ultimately, it’s probably just good tactics for Keeley to ignore what’s left to debate in trying to comprehensively dispel some of the grosser delusions—widespread or not—that our confused modern inheritance has allowed.