War before civilisation

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The study of warfare in archaic and prehistoric societies has enjoyed something of a fashion in recent years, even including the thesis that warfare played a critical role in the evolution of humanity.[1] In the scientific literature (or at least in the literature of scientific vulgarisation), Lawrence Keeley’s book War before civilization has achieved a certain status as a work of reference.[2]

Keeley begins by situating two opposing views of primitive human society that have emerged in Western social theory since the Renaissance: on the one hand that of Hobbes, who famously described the primitive condition of man before the emergence of the state as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”, and on the other that of Rousseau, who was one of the first and most influential exponents of the idea of the original “noble savage” corrupted by civilisation.

As Keeley points out, the Hobbesian view of man provided a useful subtext for European colonial powers who argued that by policing the inter-tribal relations of primitive peoples they were bringing peace where none had been before. This situation changed radically after World War II: the two world wars shattered the confidence of intellectuals in the old colonial powers in the superiority of Western civilisation; the unparalleled barbarity of Nazism, arising in one of the greatest and most cultured European nations, as well as the disintegration of the colonial empires in bloody conflict (Dien Bien Phu, the war in Algeria, the suppression of the Mau-Mau revolt in Kenya) made the Rousseauesque view suddenly far more attractive. As a result, anthropological and archaeological studies tended to ignore or misinterpret the evidence for violent conflict contained in ethnographic studies or archaeological fieldwork: fortified settlements, for example, were interpreted as religious sites and the frequent appearance of weapons in burials as mere symbols of prestige. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Keeley does not ask whether the new approach to violence in archaic societies might be related to the current fashion for justifying the old colonialism and even proposing a return to a new pax americana (see especially Niall Ferguson’s Empire and Colossus).

This said, Keeley’s statistical approach, both in living archaic societies and in the archeological record, leaves little doubt that warfare has been prevalent throughout human history, and that it has often been every bit as bloody and cruel as the battles of World War II, or the martyrdom of Vietnam. He demystifies the relatively “harmless” nature of archaic societies’ “set-piece” battles which generally end with a minimum of casualties, pointing out the far more murderous, and frequent, nature of ambushes and surprise attacks which can sometimes result in the extermination of entire settlements or even societies. The statistical approach, while it can open our eyes to the basic facts, nonetheless has definite limits when it comes to understanding them: the reductio ad absurdum of this approach can be seen in his remark that in one of the “peaceful” societies that he mentions – a polar Inuit group of 200 people who, until they were contacted at the beginning of the 19th century, were so isolated that they believed themselves the only humans in existence – a homicide every 50 years would equal the homicide rate of today’s United States. The mere fact that archaic and modern warfare both involve killing by no means makes them identical. As Marx remarked in another context: “Hunger is hunger; but the hunger that is satisfied by cooked meat eaten with knife and fork differs from hunger that devours raw meat with the help of hands, nails and teeth. Production thus produces not only the object of consumption but also the mode of consumption, not only objectively but also subjectively.”[3] For one thing, archaic societies are classless, there is no constraint involved in the decision to go to war and military aggression is not undertaken by forced armies of conscripts:[4] the very nature of primitive communist societies means that warfare depends entirely on volunteers. Nor is there anything like the privileged officer caste which remains safely behind the lines, as was notoriously the case in World War I, and indeed in all modern warfare: archaic war chiefs lead from the front and share the same risks as those they lead. Nor does the “primitive” warrior experience the depersonalisation of much modern warfare: nowhere in archaic societies, for obvious reasons, will we find the equivalent of the B52 bomber pilot in Vietnam or Iraq who rains death with impunity on an entire population, much less the modern drone pilot in a Nevada military base whose experience of warfare resembles nothing so much as a video game. Indeed, one of the reasons Keeley evokes for the low rate of casualties in primitive set-piece battles is that they often set face to face warriors related by marriage or blood – a warrior will take his place in the battle line with the deliberate intention of avoiding the risk of injuring or killing a relative. Primitive warfare, in short, is less “inhuman” in the proper sense of the term.

For us, the main interest in Keeley’s book is twofold:[5] first, in his analysis of the reasons for the “peaceful” or “warlike” nature of different archaic societies, and second in his exploration of the attitudes of these societies to war and to warriors themselves.

One point to emerge clearly from Keeley’s study is that, while wholly peaceful archaic societies may be rare, all are by no means equally violent. We cannot do justice here to Keeley’s interesting discussion of the various anthropological theories advanced to explain why war breaks out between different groups – the issue of vendetta, for example, would merit a study in itself – rather we will limit ourselves to highlighting the role of “disaster-driven warfare”: “it is becoming increasingly certain that many prehistoric cases of intensive warfare in various regions corresponded with hard times created by ecological and climate changes” (Chapter 9, “Bad Neighbourhoods”). In other words, archaic societies tend to resort to warfare when the carrying capacity[6] of their local environment changes for the worse and they are unable to adapt to the change quickly enough through the development of technology.

One thing often missed in studies of archaic warfare is the question of how war is viewed by the participants themselves, and this to our mind is one of the most interesting aspects of Keeley’s book, so much so that we will quote it at some length. Keeley’s discussion of this topic can be grouped under the following headings:

1. People’s view of the activity of war itself,

2. The attitude towards warriors and killing,

3. The warrior chief.

It comes as little surprise that in general, women have a wholly negative view of war: in the case of defeat they often stand to lose the most with the least chance of resistance, in the case of victory they stand to gain the least, and their economic activity (gardening, etc.) is more vulnerable to pillage. “Representing the unanimous opinion of her sex in a society where land disputes were the most common cause of fighting, one Mae Enga woman protested: ‘Men are killed but the land remains. The land is there in its own right and it does not command people to fight for it’. As far as men are concerned, Keeley goes on to note that “At some level, even the most militant warriors recognised the evils of war and the desirability of peace. Thus certain New Guinea Jalemo warriors, who praised and bragged about military feats and who took great pleasure in eating both the pigs and the corpses of vanquished enemies, readily confessed that war was a bad thing that depleted pig herds, incurred burdensome debts, and restricted trade and travel. Similarly, despite their frequent resort to it, Kapauku Papuans seem to hate war. As one man put it: ‘War is bad and nobody likes it. Sweet potatoes disappear, pigs disappear, fields disappear, and many relatives and friends get killed. But one cannot help it. A man starts a fight and no matter how much one despises him, one has to go and help because he is one’s relative and one feels sorry for him.”. An ethnographic study of New Guinea warriors known for bravery found that without exception they suffered from nightmares and exhibited forms of neurosis comparable to those observed in modern combatants.

This negative attitude to warfare is strikingly confirmed by the idea, common the world over according to Keeley, that a warrior who had just killed an enemy was “regarded by his own people as spiritually polluted or contaminated. Often he had to live for a time in seclusion, eat special food or fast, be excluded from participation in rituals, and abstain from sexual intercourse” (Chapter 10, “Naked, poor, and mangled peace”). Keeley goes on to give concrete examples: “Because he was a spiritual danger to himself and anyone he touched, a Huli killer of New Guinea could not use his shooting hand for several days; he had to stay awake the first night after the killing, chanting spells; drink ‘bespelled’ water; and exchange his bow for another. South American Carib warriors had to cover their heads for a month after dispatching an enemy. An African Meru warrior, after killing, had to pay a curse remover to conduct the rituals that would purge his impurity and restore him to society. A Marquesan was tabooed for ten days after a war killing. A Chilcotin of British Columbia who had killed an enemy had to live apart from the group for a time, and all returning raiders had to cleanse themselves by drinking water and vomiting. These and similar rituals emphasize the extent to which homicide was regarded as abnormal, even when committed against the most bellicose enemies”.

Despite these misgivings (to put it mildly) about killing, courageous and skilful warriors were universally esteemed. This is hardly surprising: in a situation of endemic warfare, the warriors’ success could be all that stood between the tribal group and extermination by the enemy. What is more surprising is that, according to Keeley, even warlike societies reserved their greatest esteem not for warriors but for their “peace chiefs”, whose desired qualities had nothing to do with warfare: “The six desired characteristics of an Apache headman, for instance, were industriousness, generosity, impartiality, forbearance, conscientiousness, and eloquence (…) Among the Mae Enga, it was recognized that ‘rubbish men’ – those with the least wealth and the lowest status – were often the most effective warriors”. Where Keeley falls down, is in his (in our view) rather facile comparison with the attitude of modern societies towards returning soldiers: he ignores the class division of modern society, which means that the mass of the armed forces come from the working class and share the contempt and exploitation of the ruling class with their civilian class brothers and sisters.[7]

Is man violent by nature? Perhaps we can be permitted to conclude with a hypothesis. In nature, all animals are contradictory: on the one hand, violence is to be avoided because it puts at risk the individual’s survival, hence its ability to reproduce; on the other, violence is a necessary and inevitable part of life because every animal is in competition with others both to survive and to reproduce. Man shares this natural heritage, but he is also different. Man’s capacity for cultural adaptation, his capacity for mutual solidarity which is one of the foundation stones of his culture, has made him the most successful predator on the planet and to this extent he has freed himself from nature’s obligation to violence. We are not then surprised, on reading Keeley’s work, to discover this contradiction between on the one hand man’s capacity for violence when confronted with the struggle for survival, and on the other so widespread and so powerful a revulsion at the exercise of violence against his fellows. This contradiction will only be resolved by the removal of one of its terms, by the disappearance of the need to compete with his fellows in a society where the division among different tribes is replaced by the participation in a worldwide human community: in short, in communism. Yet the disappearance of violence will not come about through an ecumenical realisation of our common humanity, but through “the negation of the negation”: “force plays yet another role in history, a revolutionary role; in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one, it is the instrument with the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilised political forms”.[8]  

Jens, 09/05/2013


[1]. See for example a study published by Samuel Bowles in the June 2009 issue of Science, and reviewed in The Economist of the same week. This study is definitely a minority view among scientists since it is based on a group selection theory of evolution as against the “selfish gene” theory which is today the generally accepted evolutionary model.


[2].  Lawrence Keeley is a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois in Chicago. His book is also available in French (Les guerres préhistoriques) but not in Spanish. His book was first published in 1996 and reprinted in 2001.


[4]. Or indeed of slaves as under the Egyptian Fatimids, or of levies among a tributary population like the Turkish Janissaries.


[5].  An important part of the book is devoted to demonstrating the effectiveness of archaic tactics compared to those of state societies, a subject which need not concern us here.


[6]. For a summary of the notion of carrying capacity, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrying_capacity


[7]. It is worth pointing out that the examples cited by Keeley, and which we have quoted here, are all drawn from peoples known for being particularly bellicose and frequently engaged in warfare.


[8]. Engels, Anti-Dühring



General and theoretical questions: