Saturday, August 16, 2003


By Steven A. LeBlanc, with Katherine E. Register

St. Martin’s , $24.95, 271 pages. illus.


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. Mr. Keeley lumped both together under the category of primitive or tribal society. However, for at least 95 percent of the past 200,000 years, humans were hunter-gatherers.

Agriculture — even the most elementary kind such as that still practiced in New Guinea — is a comparatively recent invention, less than 10,000 years old. Tribal villagers who tend gardens have an obvious need to defend the plots in which they have invested their labor and on which their very ability to survive depends. Hunter-gatherers, on the other hand, are mostly nomadic people with fewer territorial imperatives. If challenged by rivals, they can usually move on to more congenial locales. On the face of it, villagers and nomads should have quite different propensities to go to war.

Mr. LeBlanc devotes a chapter to this issue with a detailed analysis of three hunter-gatherer populations for which there is reliable evidence: the !Kung bushmen of south-west Africa, the Eskimos of arctic America and the Aborigines of Australia. The picture that emerges of these nomads (or foragers, as Mr. LeBlanc prefers to call them) is little different from that of more sedentary agriculturalists. “From the earliest foragers found archaeologically to historical accounts of foragers from all corners of the globe,” Mr. LeBlanc writes, “the evidence shows that they fight and kill in deadly earnest.”

For instance, archaeologists working on the Saunaktuk Inuit site on the Beaufort Sea, in the Northwest Territories of Canada, have recovered the remains of many women and children that show violent death and dismemberment. In Arnhem Land in northern Australia, a study of warfare among the Murngin people in the late-19th century found that over a 20-year period no less than 200 out of 800 men, or 25 percent of all adult males, had been killed in intertribal warfare.

Since the 17th century, a great debate has raged within Western culture about the original condition of humankind. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes argued that in the state of nature life must have been miserable, brutal, ignorant and short. Only with the advent of civilization did people come to enjoy comfort, peace and longevity. A century later, the French Enlightenment’s Jean Jacques Rousseau turned all this on its head, arguing that the first humans lived in simple happiness, at one with the natural environment. Civilization was a corruption of this idyllic golden age, a falling from grace.

Both perspectives were entirely speculative. Neither Hobbes nor Rousseau ever made an empirical investigation of the real world of tribal societies. Nonetheless, their analyses subsequently exercised a powerful hold on the Western mind.

Among intellectuals in the humanities, especially those drawn to the field of anthropology, the radical optimism of Rousseau has long held sway. Right up until the present, the majority of anthropological studies of primitive societies have been conducted on assumptions derived from the French Enlightenment’s disdain for the burdens of civilization.

Even Mr. LeBlanc cannot shake himself free of this tradition. He concludes his book with the hope that his study of this topic will, in some unspecified way, contribute to the eventual elimination of warfare. The very work he has produced, however, is an effective antidote to Enlightenment romanticism. It is, in fact, a powerful confirmation of the world view of Thomas Hobbes and his pessimistic realism about humanity’s perpetual predilection for violence.

Keith Windschuttle is an Australian whose books include “The Illing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Out Past.”

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