Monday, July 03, 2006

Return to Posting

No posting yesterday, not because there was nothing at all interesting happening in the exciting world of archaeology (is that ever the case?), but we were busily painting a ceiling and drinking champagne. Without a drop cloth. That, gentle readers, is Living On The Edge.

Anyway, since we have no social life and aren't off doing making this a 4-day weekend doing something fun. . . .

Primitive warfare update The fraud of primitive authenticity
Two billion war deaths would have occurred in the 20th century if modern societies suffered the same casualty rate as primitive peoples, according to anthropologist Lawrence H Keeley, who calculates that two-thirds of them were at war continuously, typically losing half of a percent of its population to war each year.

This and other noteworthy prehistoric factoids can be found in Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn, a survey of genetic, linguistic and archeological research on early man. Primitive peoples, it appears, were nasty, brutish, and short, not at all the cuddly children of nature depicted by popular culture and post-colonial academic studies. The author writes on science for the New York
Times and too often wades in where angels fear to tread. A complete evaluation is beyond my capacity, but there is no gainsaying his representation of prehistoric violence.

Kind of a review of Nicholas Wade's book, Before the Dawn. It's very much an opinion piece, but shows how more widespread the idea of a very violent past is becoming.

H/T to Amaxen @TPW.

UPDATE: I've not followed the reaction to these sorts of studies closely, but the couple of (academic) reviews I've come across so far don't seem to take up a lot of issue with the argument that past people have been mythologized as largely peaceful. One thing that did strike, me, however, was the thought that both this concept and its opposite -- primitive people as barbaric savages -- had more to do with a need to distinguish ourselves from them for whatever contemporary purpose we have in mind. Anna Simons, in a review of Keeley's War Before Civilization seems to suggest that this is the case:

Keeley does not doubt the psychic unity of mankind; there is endless archaeological evidence that warfare has alternated with peace across all types of societies, during all periods of time. Even so, anthropologists have insisted on reading the ethnographic record through one of only two sets of lenses, those supplied by Rousseau and by Hobbes. For Keeley this is all unforgivably unscientific and thus deeply troubling, but inadvertantly he may be unmasking more deep-seated problems. For instance, how are we to explain the myth's persistence? If we have been so mistaken in projecting our vision onto others, does this reflect our need (or is it a universal need?) for "us/them," "now/then" divides? And if the mythical narratives we cast backward are inaccurate, what does this suggest about the accuracy of our gaze ahead? (p.151)

Anna Simons Review of War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. by Lawrence Keeley
Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War. by Robert L. O'Connell
Current Anthropology > Vol. 38, No. 1 (Feb., 1997), pp. 149-151