Enduring Myth of 'Noble Savage' vs. a Species at Continuous War?

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), August 17, 2003 | Go to article overview

Enduring Myth of 'Noble Savage' vs. a Species at Continuous War?


Byline: Keith Windschuttle, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Prehistoric warfare is a topic that matters very much today because it has the ability to tell us a great deal about the human condition and even the human future. The nature and extent of warfare deep in our tribal past can help throw light on whether human beings are a fundamentally warlike or peaceful species. If the human condition has always been bound by warfare then a pessimism about the prospect of changing this and an investment in a heavily armed nation state would be the rational choice.

But if human nature is ultimately peaceable then it makes more sense to be optimistic, to believe all disputes can eventually be resolved nonviolently, and to work for an international order dedicated to negotiation and conciliation.

It is no secret that Western society is today radically divided by these assumptions, between Americans from Mars and Europeans from Venus. Moreover, most Western countries are themselves internally divided along similar lines, between pessimistic, hard-headed conservatives and optimistic, soft-hearted liberals.

Given the importance of the topic you would expect it to have attracted an enormous amount of debate among those who study prehistory. Yet Steven A. LeBlanc's new book "Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful Noble Savage" is only the fifth major study of the issue to be published in English in the past 100 years. In fact, in all that time, Mr. LeBlanc is only the second author to unequivocally argue that, for most of its existence, homo sapiens has waged almost constant war on its own kind and that primeval society was far more warlike than any of its civilized successors.

Mr. Le Blanc's sole predecessor was Lawrence Keeley who revolutionized this debate in 1996 with an extraordinary work, "War Before Civilization." Mr. Keeley used archaeological evidence to show that prehistoric villages in both Europe and North America had almost all been constructed with fortifications and that a high proportion of the skeletal remains of their inhabitants showed they had been killed by weapons of war: spears, arrows, swords and clubs. Prehistoric massacre sites were common.

Mr. Keeley used anthropological studies to show that in most remaining tribal societies, whether Amazon Indians or New Guinea highlanders, comparative fatality rates from war were four to six times higher than even the worst experienced by modern nations, such as Germany and Russia in the 20th century. In tribal society, warfare was a recurring, annual, even seasonal occurrence.

Mr. Keeley's work was an academic treatise with all the scholarly paraphernalia of references, bibliography, tables and graphs. Mr. LeBlanc has taken the same message and tried to pitch it to a wider, more popular audience. For my taste, this Harvard archaeologist was mistaken to adopt a folksy prose style and a lot of personal anecdotes. Most readers of books like this are well-educated people who actually prefer footnotes and properly-sourced citations. The author would have been better served by erring on the side of a more rigorous presentation and by grounding more of his claims in the literature of the academic journals.

He has also made a mistake in including a chapter analyzing warfare among chimpanzee bands. Chimp culture is so far removed from that of humans - we had a common ancestor millions of years ago but humans are not descended from chimps - to make the comparison largely irrelevant.

Nonetheless, anyone who reads Mr. LeBlanc in conjunction with Mr. Keeley will find the two a persuasive combination. Together they show there can now be little doubt that as far back as we have credible archaeological and anthropological evidence, human beings have inhabited not a realm of peace but a world of war.

Mr. LeBlanc's book makes one valuable contribution to the debate. He addresses a question that remained a yawning gap in Keeley's work: whether hunter-gatherers have been as warlike as tribal villagers. …

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