August 13, 2009

Indians in War Before Civilization

During an online debate, someone referred me to a book called War Before Civilization. I hadn't heard of it, so I looked it up.War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage (Oxford University Press, 1996) is a book by Lawrence H. Keeley, an archeology professor at the University of Illinois who specialises in prehistoric Europe. The book deals with warfare conducted throughout human history by societies with little technology. In the book, Keeley aims to stop the apparent trend in seeing civilisation as bad.


Professor Keeley conducts an investigation of the archaeological evidence for prehistoric violence, including murder and massacre as well as war. He also looks at nonstate societies of more recent times—where we can name the tribes and peoples—and their propensity for warfare. It has long been known, for example, that many tribes of South America's tropical forest engaged in frequent and horrific warfare, but some scholars have attributed their addiction to violence to baneful Western influences.

Keeley says peaceful societies are an exception. About 90-95% of known societies engage in war. Those that did not are almost universally either isolated nomadic groups (for whom flight is an option), groups of defeated refugees, or small enclaves under the protection of a larger modern state. The attrition rate of numerous close-quarter clashes, which characterize warfare in tribal warrior society, produces casualty rates of up to 60%, compared to 1% of the combatants as is typical in modern warfare. Despite the undeniable carnage and effectiveness of modern warfare, the evidence shows that tribal warfare is on average 20 times more deadly than 20th century warfare, whether calculated as a percentage of total deaths due to war or as average deaths per year from war as a percentage of the total population. "Had the same casualty rate been suffered by the population of the twentieth century," writes Nicholas Wade, "its war deaths would have totaled two billion people." In modern tribal societies, death rates from war are four to six times the highest death rates in 20th century Germany or Russia.

One half of the people found in a Nubian cemetery dating to as early as 12,000 years ago had died of violence. The Yellowknives tribe in Canada was effectively obliterated by massacres committed by Dogrib Indians, and disappeared from history shortly thereafter. Similar massacres occurred among the Eskimos, the Crow Indians, and countless others. These mass killings occurred well before any contact with the West. In Arnhem Land in northern Australia, a study of warfare among the Indigenous Australian Murngin people in the late-19th century found that over a 20-year period no less than 200 out of 800 men, or 25% of all adult males, had been killed in intertribal warfare. The accounts of missionaries to the area in the borderlands between Brazil and Venezuela have recounted constant infighting in the Yanomami tribes for women or prestige, and evidence of continuous warfare for the enslavement of neighboring tribes such as the Macu before the arrival of European settlers and government. More than a third of the Yanomamo males, on average, died from warfare.

According to Keeley, among the indigenous peoples of the Americas, only 13% did not engage in wars with their neighbors at least once per year. The natives' pre-Columbian ancient practice of using human scalps as trophies is well documented. Iroquois routinely slowly tortured to death and cannibalized captured enemy warriors. In some regions of the American Southwest, the violent destruction of prehistoric settlements is well documented and during some periods was even common. For example, the large pueblo at Sand Canyon in Colorado, although protected by a defensive wall, was almost entirely burned; artifacts in the rooms had been deliberately smashed; and bodies of some victims were left lying on the floors. After this catastrophe in the late thirteenth century, the pueblo was never reoccupied.

For example, at Crow Creek in South Dakota, archaeologists found a mass grave containing the remains of more than 500 men, women, and children who had been slaughtered, scalped, and mutilated during an attack on their village a century and a half before Columbus's arrival (ca. A.D. 1325). The Crow Creek massacre seems to have occurred just when the village's fortifications were being rebuilt. All the houses were burned, and most of the inhabitants were murdered. This death toll represented more than 60% of the village's population, estimated from the number of houses to have been about 800. The survivors appear to have been primarily young women, as their skeletons are underrepresented among the bones; if so, they were probably taken away as captives. Certainly, the site was deserted for some time after the attack because the bodies evidently remained exposed to scavenging animals for a few weeks before burial. In other words, this whole village was annihilated in a single attack and never reoccupied.
Rob's response

Wow. Sounds pretty horrific, and bad for the world's indigenous people.

I asked correspondent Al Carroll if he knew of this book. His reply:I've heard of it. Keeley doesn't outright lie, he just makes some pretty questionable distortions.

1. He frequently cites discredited works, such as studies on the Yanomami, supposedly once thought to be the most violent tribe ever, but now known to not be at all like that.

2. He groups together as "primitive" any nonwestern society, whether agricultural or hunter gatherer. So a lot of what he claims is proof that "primitives" were also violent is really proof of just how "civilized" groups could be violent earlier on.

3. Some of the conclusions he draw from stats he uses are unwarranted. For example he claims that a quarter of all young males who died in one tribe were from warfare. Then he later admits but downplays that this happened over three decades. Compare that to the losses of European nations in WW I, sometimes the majority of young males dead in less than four years.
Whew. That makes me feel a little better.

This Wikipedia summary seems inflammatory. For instance, it jumps from "mass killings [that] occurred well before any contact with the West" to "a study of warfare among the Indigenous Australian Murngin people in the late-19th century." But the latter occurred well after contact with the West. Any reports of intertribal conflict after Europeans stole most of their resources and forced them to compete for the remainder should be viewed with suspicion.

Skepticism warranted

In fact, there are several things to be skeptical of here:

1) The fragmentary nature of pre-contact physical evidence. Data for most of history's prehistoric tribes either doesn't exist or hasn't been uncovered yet.

2) The collection bias of pre-contact physical evidence. Violent cultures may have left clear evidence of their nature behind while peaceful cultures didn't.

3) The European observers' bias against "savages" and "heathens." This may have tainted any post-contact reports of violence.

4) The collapse of traditional social structures through disease and warfare with the invaders. As in the Murngin case, this may have tainted any post-contact evidence.

Summing up this summary, we have:

  • A few possibly isolated incidents, including the Sand Canyon attack and Crow Creek massacre.

  • Scary claims about scalping and torture--which prove Indians were violent toward captives and victims, but not they they engaged in violence more often than others.

  • A few sweeping claims about what most tribes did.

  • In short, don't believe everything you read. It remains to be seen whether War Before Civilization offers a solid case against indigenous cultures.

    For more on the subject, see Human Sacrifice "Prevalent" Among Indians? and Warlike Indians.

    1 comment:

    Rob said...

    For more on the subject, see Methodology in War Before Civilization.