Letters


War of Words about War

R. Brian Ferguson ("The Birth of War," 7/03-8/03) has long believed the past was peaceful and has stead-fastly ignored the archaeology refuting that myth. What he fails to realize is that most archaeologists have also fallen prey to the same myth and that, consequently, the research he relies on itself misreads the past as sublimely peaceful. Although he is now willing to see some warfare in the past-essentially only in the past 10,000 years-Mr. Ferguson continues to believe the myth that people have lived in ecological balance throughout most of human history, and as a result uses outdated interpretations in an attempt to salvage his own politically correct interpretations.

Why people engage in warfare is an important topic, and archaeology and ethnology provide essential information about it. Public policy derives ultimately from what we collectively think about this issue. Readers of Natural History who want to be usefully informed about the causes and history of warfare should also read newly formulated sources, such as Lawrence Keeley's book War Before Civilization and my own Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage.

My goal in my book Constant Battles was to synthesize the considerable body of information on past warfare and ecology. The evidence is overwhelming that warfare and ecological balance have been linked for millennia. Warfare in the past is patterned and explainable. Most important, warfare was just as intense and deadly in the deep past as it was in the more recent past.

Steven A. LeBlanc

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology

Harvard University

Cambridge, Massachusetts

R. Brian Ferguson discusses prehistoric evidence as poorly as one might expect from a non-archaeologist. His omissions and errors are too numerous for this brief response-almost every generalization he makes about when and why warfare began is contradicted by archaeological facts.

Let one example suffice, the assertion that warfare began when people settled down and began farming. Wrong. The Natufians of the Near East, still as foragers, were the first people in the world to live in permanent villages-stone-walled houses, house mice, and so on. Yet they were quite peaceful, at least compared with recent tribal people. The equally sedentary Pre-Pottery Neolithic people who followed were the world's first farmers, and they, too, were peaceful. Meanwhile, their contemporaries, the mobile foragers of the Nile Valley, were very violent. Similarly, in the American Midwest, war deaths were common among Late Archaic foragers (3800-1500 B.C.); rare during the later semi-agricultural, sedentary Middle Woodland period (1500 B.C.-A.D. 900); and became common again among the later Mississippian farmers (900-1450).

Note too that during the three-day Civil War battle of Gettysburg, only 3 or 4 percent of those actively engaged were killed. Thus, many of the "peaceful" prehistoric people Mr. Ferguson mentions lived in circumstances, in many cases lasting for generations, that were as murderous, or more murderous, than one of the bloodiest modern battles.

As for the difference between human capabilities and what people actually do, all humans are capable of understanding archaeology, logic, and arithmetic. But, just as with making war, not all of them do so all of the time.

Lawrence H. Keeley

University of Illinois at Chicago

I suggest that the underlying motive for conflict is internal to societies and cultures, not external. War and the preparation for war enables people with certain abilities to acquire greater power and more resources, not primarily from their enemies, but in relation to others within their own society.

Suppose I am an engineer skilled at building walls. Because I will do well in times of war, my behavior will subtly favor a culture of war, thereby gaining me higher standing in my society and a larger share of its wealth. …

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