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January 09, 2005

Primitive Warfare

For anyone interested in the effects of warfare in primitive societies (hunter-gatherers or small-scale agricultural societies), I can recommend two books that I have read recently:

Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt: The Biology of Peace and War, London, 1979

Lawrence H. Keeley: War before Civilization, New York, 1996.

Eibl-Eibesfeldt approaches the subject from a biological point of view, and includes evidence from other primates, from child psychology, etc, whereas Keeley looks at the archaeological and anthropological evidence. If you want to read just one book, I would recommend Keeley, as it is more up-to-date and has more detailed information on actual cases.

Both authors argue that in recent decades the prevalence and importance of war among primitive peoples has been understated by anthropologists. Eibl-Eibesfeldt comments that ‘the often repeated claim that hunters and food-gatherers in general are more peaceful than people at a higher cultural level is certainly false, and so obviously false that one wonders how it can persist so stubbornly in the face of the overwhelming abundance of long known facts’. Keeley concludes that ‘peaceful prestate societies were very rare; warfare between them was very frequent, and most adult men in such groups saw combat repeatedly in a lifetime… In fact, primitive warfare was much more deadly than that conducted between civilized states because of the greater frequency of combat and the more merciless way it was conducted’ (p.174).

Apart from political correctness, Keeley suggests that the importance of war in primitive societies has been underestimated because students of war have applied inappropriate ‘civilized’ criteria, and concluded wrongly that primitive war is ‘inefficient’. Pitched battles involving large numbers of fighters are rare in tribal warfare, and when they do occur they are sometimes of a semi-ritual nature, with few casualties. This has misled observers into thinking that war is not taken seriously in these societies. But according to Keeley the usual form of tribal war is continuous low intensity action - ambushes, raids on enemy villages, destruction of crops, etc. Male enemies are seldom taken prisoner, but killed on the spot (or taken for ritual torture or cannibalism), while females and children are taken as wives or slaves. ‘Primitive... warfare consists of war stripped to its essentials: the murder of enemies; the theft or destruction of their sustenance, wealth, and essential resources, and the inducement in them of insecurity and terror’ (p.75) Cumulatively the effects can be devastating, leading to tribes being annihilated or scattered and absorbed into other groups.

I can’t resist ending with Keeley’s description (p.99) of war in tribal Tahiti, which some 18th century explorers misguidedly saw as the embodiment of Rousseau’s happy state of nature:

“In Tahiti, a victorious warrior, given the opportunity, would pound his vanquished foe’s corpse flat with his heavy war club, cut a slit through the well-crushed victim, and don him as a trophy poncho”.

Posted by David B at 06:12 AM