Some opinions on primitive warfare

Still more obscure is the subject of warfare before civilization. If we are guided by what was observed about primitive societies in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, we may suppose that from time to time pitched battles were staged in the Paleolithic period, but these would have been what anthropologists have called “ritual battles.” Men from competing communities met on a “battlefield” to exchange insults and arrows, and after a few casualties brought the event to a close. Another kind of battle that must have occurred in Paleolithic times was far more serious and costly. When a massacre was planned, but the target community learned of the plan early enough to prepare for it, a real battle may have taken place, as the aggressors were themselves surprised. The battle would have continued until either the aggressors were repelled or the defenders were killed.

How often such encounters occurred is much debated by anthropologists. The generalization that simple or pre-civilized societies were peaceful, a generalization that Margaret Mead based on field work in Samoa, has for some time been rejected by many anthropologists and prehistorians. One of the first to object, in the 1940s, was Harry Turney-High, an anthropologist whose specialization was society in pre-Columbian America.2 In 1996 the revisionist view was fully articulated by Lawrence Keeley.3 Wielding statistics from osteological evidence, Keeley concluded that people in primitive societies were much more likely to die a violent death, by human hand, than people in civilized societies have been.

Violent death, however, does not necessarily imply war or even a battle: individual homicides and family feuds may have accounted for much of the skeletal trauma. Even the massacre of an entire community may not easily fit most definitions of “war,” although the word has an unusually elastic meaning (in his History of Warfare John Keegan devoted ten pages to the question, “What is war?”). Succinctly, the 1969 edition of American Heritage Dictionary defined war as “a state of open, armed, often prolonged conflict carried on between nations, states, or parties.” A recent study argues in considerable detail that in the Near East the evidence for war in the Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Early Neolithic period is very slim.4 Others suggest that the various forms of mass violence were less frequent than Keeley thought they were. John Carman charged that Keeley’s conclusions rest on only eleven instances of mass violence in 30,000 years of European prehistory, and that “on the basis of this short list, Keeley attempts to persuade us that war was widespread in Europe before the Bronze Age and that it was as violent and unpleasant as any modern war.”5

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