The Efficacy of Primitive Warfare

A propensity for warfare is prominent among the suite of behaviors that people and chimpanzees have inherited from their joint ancestor. The savagery of wars between modern states has produced unparalleled carnage. Yet the common impression that primitive peoples, by comparison, were peaceful and their occasional fighting of no serious consequence is incorrect. Warfare between pre-state societies was incessant, merciless, and conducted with the general purpose, often achieved, of annihilating the opponent. As far as human nature is concerned, people of early societies seem to have been considerably more warlike than are people today. In fact, over the course of the last 50,000 years, the human propensity for warfare has probably been considerably attenuated.

"Peaceful pre-state societies were very rare; warfare between them was very frequent, and most adult men in such groups saw combat repeatedly in a lifetime," writes Lawrence H. Keeley, an archaeologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Primitive warfare was conducted not by arrays of troops on a formal battlefield, in the western style, but by raids, ambushes and surprise attacks. The numbers killed in each raid might be small, but because warfare was incessant, the casualties far exceeded the losses of state societies when measured as a percentage of population. "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. Primitive war was very efficient at inflicting damage through the destruction of property, especially means of production and shelter, and inducing terror by frequently visiting

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