and 87% fought more than once a year. A typical tribal society lost about 0.5% of its population in combat each year, Keeley found. Had the same casualty rate been suffered by the population of the twentieth century, its war deaths would have totaled two billion people.
On the infrequent occasions when primitive societies fought pitched battles, casualty rates of 30% or so seem to have been the rule. A Mojave Indian war party was expected to lose 30% of its warriors in an average battle. In a battle in New Guinea, the Mae Enga tribe took a 40% loss. At Gettys burg, by comparison, the Union side lost 21%, the Confederates 30%. An archaeologist, Steven LeBlanc of Harvard University, recently reached similar conclusions to Keeley after an independent study. "We need to recognize and accept the idea of nonpeaceful past for the entire time of human existence," he writes. "Though there were certainly times and places during which peace prevailed, overall, such interludes seem to have been short-lived and infrequent. . . . To understand much of today's war, we must see it as a common and almost universal human behavior that has been with us as we went from ape to human"185
Primitive warriors were highly proficient soldiers, Keeley notes. When they met the troops of civilized societies in open battle, they regularly defeated them despite the vast disparity in weaponry. In the Indian wars, the U.S. Army "usually suffered severe defeats" when caught in the open, such as by the Seminoles in 1834, and at the battle of Little Bighorn. In 1879 the British army in South Africa, equipped with artillery and Gatling guns, was convincingly defeated by Zulus armed mostly with spears and ox-hide shields at the battles of Isandlwana, Myer's Drift and Hlobane. The French were seen off by the Tuareg of the Sahara in the 1890s. The state armies prevailed in the end only through larger manpower and attritional campaigns, not by any superior fighting skill. How did the warriors of primitive societies get to be so extraordinarily good at their craft? By constant practice during some 50,000 years of unrestrained campaigning. Even in the harshest possible environments, where it was struggle enough just to keep alive, primitive societies still pursued the more overriding goal of killing one another. The anthropologist Ernest Burch made a careful study of warfare among the Eskimos of northwest Alaska. He learned, LeBlanc reports, "that coastal and inland villages were often located with defense in mind—on a spit of land, or adjacent to thick willows, which provided a barrier to attackers. Tunnels were sometimes dug between houses so people could escape surprise raids. Dogs played an important role as sentinels. The goal in all warfare among these
Eskimos was annihilation, Burch reported, and women and children were normally not spared, nor were prisoners taken, except to be killed later. Burning logs and bark were thrown into houses to set them on fire and to force the inhabitants out, where they could be killed. Burch's study reveals that the surprise dawn raid was the typical and preferred war tactic, but open battles did occur."
Both Keeley and 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 treated 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 from "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 Otzi 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."
Despite the fact that the deceased was armed to the teeth, archaeologists and anthropologists speculated that he was a shepherd who had fallen asleep and frozen peacefully to death in a sudden snowstorm, or maybe that he was a trader crossing the Alps on business. Such ideas were laid to rest when an X-ray eventually revealed an arrowhead in the armed man's chest. "In spite of a growing willingness among many anthropologists in recent years to accept the idea that the past was not peaceful," LeBlanc comments, "a lingering desire to sanitize and ignore warfare still exists within the field, Naturally the public absorbs this scholarly bias, and the myth of a peaceful past continues." If primitive societies of the historic past were heavily engaged in warfare, it seems quite possible that their distant ancestors were even more aggressive. A genetic discovery made as part of a study of mad cow disease lends some credence to this idea.
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