The peaceful savage

From Before the Dawn:  Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors, by Nicholas Wade:
Both [Lawrence H.] Keeley and [Steven] LeBlanc believe that for a variety of reasons anthropologists and their fellow archaeologists have seriously underreported the prevalence of warfare among primitive societies.  "While my purpose here is not to rail against my colleagues, it is impossible to ignore the fact that academia has missed what I consider to be some of the essence of human history," writes LeBlanc. "I realized that archaeologists of the postwar period had artificially 'pacified the past' and shared a pervasive bias against the possibility of prehistoric warfare," says Keeley.
Keeley suggests that warfare and conquest fell out of favor as subjects of academic study after Europeans' experiences of the Nazis, who treat them, also in the name of might makes right, as badly as they were accustomed to treating their colonial subjects.  Be that as it may, there does seem a certain reluctance among archaeologists to recognize the full extent of ancient warfare.  Keeley reports that his grant application to study a nine-foot-deep Neolithic ditch and palisade was rejected until he changed his description of the structure of "fortification" to "enclosure."  Most archaeologists, says LeBlanc, ignored the fortifications around Mayan cities and viewed the Mayan elite as peaceful priests. But over the last 20 years Mayan records have been deciphered.  Contrary to archaeologists' wishful thinking, they show the allegedly peaceful elite was heavily into war, conquest and the sanguinary sacrifice of beaten opponents.
Archaeologists have described caches of large round stones as being designed for use in boiling water, ignoring the commonsense possibility that they were slingshots.  When spears, swords, shields, parts of a chariot and a male corpse dressed in armor emerged from a burial, archaeologists asserted that these were status symbols and not, heaven forbid, weapons for actual military use.  The large number of copper and bronze axes found in Late Neolithic and Bronze Age burials were held to be not battle axes but a form of money.  The spectacularly intact 5,000-year-old man discovered in a melting glacier in 1991, named Ötzi by researchers, carried just such a copper axe.  He was found, Keeley writes dryly, "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."
It was a peaceful religion, as they say.


Joseph W. said...

Great book! My favorite passage is one I quote in this comment a while anthropologist's interview with some !Kung Bushmen (elsewhere lauded as "the harmless people"...and genetically, possibly, the closest thing to our remote ancestors who first left Africa):

The archaeologist had already established that when they get angry enough, the Bushmen shoot each other with poisoned arrows, hoping to kill. They're telling him about all the animals they've killed, so he asks about how many men they've killed...(I'm leaving out the symbols for the "click" sounds in their language) --

"Without batting an eye, Toma, the first man, held up three fingers, ticking off the names on his fingers...

"Bo, the next man...replied, 'I shot Kushe in the back, but she lived.'

"Next was Bo's younger brother, Samkxau: 'I shot old Kana in the foot, but he lived.'

"I turned to the fourth man, Old Kashe, a kindly grandfather...

"'I have never killed anyone,' he replied. Pressing him, I asked, 'Well, then, how many men have you shot?'

"'I never shot anyone,' he wistfully replied. 'I always missed.'"

(I also recommend the same author's The Faith Instinct if you haven't read it...amongst other things, he describes the religious practices of the !Kung Bushmen.)

Grim said...

Is that the book you were citing as evidence that a capacity for religion is biological and inheritable (or not, in some cases)?

Joseph W. said...

The Faith Instinct is part of my evidence for that, yes. Wade goes further and argues that a religious instinct is not only heritable, but is an evolutionary advantage because of the way it ties communities together.

Other writers, like Pascal Boyer, use evidence to argue that religion is a by-product of other instincts rather than something that evolution selected for...but I found Wade a lot more convincing, though his conclusions are less flattering to atheists like me...since it implies we're not so much superior thinkers as just "missing a piece." Which, come to that, fits the scriptural idea that God "saves whom he pleases and hardens whom he pleases."

Texan99 said...

I also liked the part where an archaelogist explains his theory to some tribesmen that they're really fighting other tribesmen over meat rather than women. When they have been made to understand the question, they first laugh and then say, "We like meat, but we like women a lot more."

I'm finding the book more interesting, though, for its treatment of the likely exodus from Africa. Wade claims that genetic evidence strongly supports a first few waves resulting in H. erectus to the East and Neanderthals to the west, quite early, and then behaviorally modern humans leaving around 50,000 years ago in a single small band of no more than a few hundred breeding adults. They had something new, perhaps language, and fairly quickly wiped out the earlier strains.

Ymar Sakar said...

When WWI and WWII broke the Western spirit and belief in its own civilization, other civilizations of the past started looking a lot better in nostalgia. A fake one, but nonetheless required in a world with no god and no western virtue.

Texan99 said...

I've just now realized that the book I'm reading is the one that got everyone up in arms a few months ago for talking about race as though it had some kind of biological reality. The New York Times Review of Books calls Wade's ideas "pernicious." I haven't gotten to the part where he goes off the PC rails, so I can't say yet how convincing those arguments are.

I actually bought the book on a recommendation I stumbled on somewhere, and in the confused belief that its author was the same as "Nick Lane," one of my favorite science writers, whose 2004 and 2005 books "Power, Sex, Suicide" (about mitochondria) and "Oxygen" are two of the most wonderful popularizations of science I have ever read. Lane is a professional biochemist. Wade is more of a journalist, though a pretty good one.

Joseph W. said...

Before the Dawn is not that book...though the author is the same...the book that upset everyone is A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race, and Human History. (Which I haven't read but am looking forward to one of these days.)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Before the Dawn was also controversial (and still is), but A Troublesome Inheritance has surpassed it. I loved BTD. The meat/women quote is from the Yanomamo tribe in the Amazon.