Saturday, August 02, 2003
This column will appear in Against the Odds #6.
LAWRENCE KEELEY KNOWS THAT PEOPLE ARE NO DAMN GOOD, AND IT’S ABOUT TIME YOU DID
There are two distinct types of non-controversial books. The first type is innocuous, and simply says nothing that people need to get worked up about. The vast majority of all published nonfiction falls into this category.
The second type—extremely rare of course—is the book that tends to clear the field. These are the books that raise the slaughterhouse mallet and club the sacred cows to death. Books which don’t change the debate as much as end it.
The clearest example of this latter type of book I can think of in the last few years has been Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization (Oxford University Press, 1996). It is far less known than it deserves to be, precisely because it is so utterly uncontroversial.
The prevailing idea before Keeley, based on the powerful influence of the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, was that war is an adjunct of civilization; before civilization, primitive man lived in a pristine state of peace. After Rousseau, the belief was nurtured in the 20th century by the increasingly influential discipline of anthropology. In 1940 Margaret Mead wrote, “War is only an invention, not a biological necessity.” The implication was that, like all the other inventions, war was a product of civilization.
And this became the accepted wisdom: Civilization (especially Western Civilization) = war. Precivilization = perfect peace. “Less by sustained argument than by studied silence or fashionable reinterpretation,” notes Keeley, “prehistorians have increasingly pacified the past.” Rousseau ruled the day.
Now nominally, Rousseau had been thrown to the wolves some time before. In the 1970s some on the Left insisted that Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge (with their million-plus death toll in Cambodia) were not in fact Marxists, but rather “radical followers of Rousseau.” Clearly this was a pained attempt to rescue the badly listing Marx rather than a serious criticism of Rousseau; The Rousseau vision of a peaceful precivilized world remained the official standard, even if Rousseau’s name wasn’t attached to it.
In the prevailing academic point of view, all evidence of precivilized military activity—weapons, shields, fortifications—became “ritual objects” or “status symbols” But Keeley describes the circumstances in which military artifacts have been found, and leaves absolutely no doubt in the reader’s mind what they were for.
Keeley’s thesis was not especially new to those familiar with the “killer apes” of Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz from the 1960s. But Ardrey and Lorenz were theorists in the realm of evolutionary psychology—while Keeley, with 40 more years of discoveries in his belt, is specifically and bluntly archaeological. He quotes chapter and verse from irrefutable instance after irrefutable instance of violent prehistoric warfare, and the cumulative effect on the “peaceful savage” construct is devastating.
At one point Keeley has fun with his opponents:
…copper and bronze axes from the Late Neolithic and Bronze Ages, formerly referred to as battle axes, are no longer classified as weapons [by academics] but are considered a form of money. The 5,000-year-old Austrian glacier mummy recently reported in the news was found with one of these moneys mischievously hafted as an ax. He also had with him a dagger, a bow, and some arrows; presumably these were his small change. [emphasis added]
Later forensic research confirmed Keeley’s skepticism about the Oetzi mummy (as he has come to be called). The March 2003 issue of the medical journal Radiology revealed that Oetzi had vascular damage from an arrowhead in his left shoulder, a wound which almost certainly contributed to his death. This discovery could have shocked absolutely no one who was paying attention.
In fact, pretty much every single archaeological find in the last seven years has tended to buttress Keeley and eviscerate the Rousseauians. Most notable have been the recent discoveries about the Anasazi Indians in southwestern Colorado, and our now-near-certainty of the manner in which they disappeared (hint: think fava beans and Chianti), and the methods used to take them:
“There was evidence of trauma in excess of what you’d need to process a body,” says an archaeologist. “One child was hit so hard in the mouth — probably with a stone or a club — that teeth had been broken off. Something more than simple starvation was going on. This was more along the lines of raiding.”
The human myoglobins found in preserved human feces at the Cowboy Wash archaeological site in Colorado and reported in Nature in September 2000 have largely (though not totally) ended the Anasazi cannibalism controversy. But the assumption that the Anasazi were eaten because they lost a battle, or a war, is no longer seriously challenged.
“There is a cherished belief among archaeologists and anthropologists that Puebloan people were peaceful farmers,” said one archaeologist. “It was closely related to the view of American Indians as noble savages. It’s not what archaeologists wanted to believe at the time.” The 1999 publication of two monographs about the Anasazi, Man Corn: Cannibalism and Violence in the Prehistoric American Southwest by Christy and Jacqueline Turner, and Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest by University of Southern California Professor Steven LeBlanc, reconfirmed the Keeley thesis.
Keeley’s conclusions seem to have been accepted across the board; his book has been praised in both National Review and The Nation. Reviewers used terms like “groundbreaking” and “devastating” to describe it. The best hostile reviewers could come up with was a feeble attack on Keeley’s motives, that Keeley was replacing one myth with another: “The evidence,” said one, “suggests that the truth lies somewhere between the myth of the peaceful savage and the myth of the warlike savage.” But a meek argument like this only surrenders the field to Keeley.
So, in the end, what does it mean for us if Keeley is right and Rousseau is wrong? If we are born with violence in our hearts—and right now it’s really looking that way—where does that leave us?
Religions have never denied the innate human tendency towards violence, and at this point it looks like they were ahead of the curve. Their explanation for it—declared or implied original sin—makes as much sense as anything else, in my opinion. I would prefer to be optimistic about the future and believe that if civilization is not the cause of warfare, then maybe someday it can be its solution.
The alternative would then be something like the pulpy cynicism of Robert E. Howard’s famous lines: "Barbarism is the natural state of mankind. And barbarism must ultimately triumph." And I would rather not believe that.
In any case, it serves us well to remember what Keeley reminds us: That military historians are often the most profound psychologists among us, and that people are no damn good.