Digging Up Prehistoric Dirt on War

By William Mullen Chicago Tribune | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), May 22, 1996 | Go to article overview

Digging Up Prehistoric Dirt on War


William Mullen Chicago Tribune, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


FROM the trenches of World War I to the death camps of World War II to the "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia and Rwanda, the brutality of the 20th century has been stupefying, taking an estimated 100 million lives.

Lucky for us, said University of Illinois at Chicago professor of archaeology Lawrence Keeley, that 20th-century weapons like machine guns, laser-guided missiles and supersonic warplanes are inefficient tools of war. If modern soldiers had used stone-tipped arrows, spears and war clubs, he says, more than 2 billion people would have been slain in this century.

The subject of war and mankind has been a matter of intellectual analysis for centuries. But Keeley has declared war on the intellectual thinking that has prevailed since World War II.

Keeley says we should disregard the message of "Pocahontas" and "Dances With Wolves." Prehistoric people lived no more harmoniously or less destructively than modern humans.

They were more murderous than people are today, Keeley says, though we perversely assume that we're superior in all endeavors - even killing others.

His claims have already drawn fierce support as well as criticism, the latter from scholars who say he ignores evidence of long periods of peace in prehistoric cultures.

Archaeologists and anthropologists reconstruct human life in prehistory (before the invention of writing and cities) by sifting through whatever remains have survived - bones, village sites and ancient garbage heaps.

Since World War II, said Keeley, scientists have misinterpreted or overlooked ample evidence of the prehistoric human propensity for massacre.

In a book published in April, "War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage," Keeley cites and re-interprets physical evidence excavated worldwide and long known to archaeologists, to arrive at that conclusion.

Robert Carneiro of Columbia University in New York, considered the nation's leading anthropological authority on warfare, believes Keeley is rectifying serious oversights in human historical record.

"(Keeley's) thesis is very true, very important and has been neglected by many in the anthropological profession," said Carneiro.

"It's eye-opening," Chip Stanish, chairman of the Field Museum of Natural History's anthropology department, said of Keeley's book. …

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