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  • War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, and: Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War
War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. By Lawrence Keeley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Pp. xiv + 245. $35 (cloth); $13.95 (paper).
Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. By Barbara Ehrenreich. New York: Owl/Holt, 1997. Pp. x + 292. $25 (cloth); $14.95 (paper).

Lawrence Keeley wrote War before Civilization as a corrective to the idea, prevalent especially among prehistorians, either that ancient societies were basically peaceful, “that warfare and prehistory did not mix” (p. ix), or that, if warfare did exist in such settings, it was more ritualized and stylized than destructive and traumatic. Using both ethnographic and archaeological data from non-Western bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states, Keeley cogently and persuasively argues that, in fact, war was very much a part of life for peoples of the past. Furthermore, “primitive war” with its raids, ambushes, and surprise attacks was much more frequent, more deadly, and equally or more “total” in its effect on property and lives than the more specialized and technologically sophisticated wars fought by modern “civilized” states. “The facts recovered by ethnographers and archaeologists indicate unequivocally that primitive and prehistoric warfare was just as terrible and effective as the historic and civilized version. . . . Peaceful prestate societies were very rare; warfare between them was very frequent, and most adult men in such groups saw combat repeatedly” (p. 174).

In defense of this thesis Keeley devotes most of his well-written book to discussion and documentation of several aspects of precontact native warfare, some of which he judges as superior to modern battle, including weapons, tactics (more frequent encounters and raids rather than fewer but prolonged actions), forms of combat (small ambushes [End Page 431] and large raids on settlements preferred), and casualties (much deadlier than modern war in terms of proportion of war deaths relative to total population). The author also considers the material gains and losses of native war, especially the high logistical vulnerability of small-scale societies to looting and destruction.

Keeley then devotes several chapters to the causes and contexts of nonstate warfare, ultimately concluding that conflict is less closely associated with population density and more closely associated with any sort of situation that requires or encourages exchange or mutual acquisition of desired resources between societies. He argues that “the fact that exchange and war can have precisely the same results is often forgotten by archaeologists. When exotic goods are found at a site, they are almost invariably interpreted as being evidence of prehistoric exchange. That such items might be the spoils of war seldom occurs to prehistorians. . . . Thus archaeologists doubly pacify the past by assuming that all exotic items are evidence of exchange and that exchange precludes war. The ethnographic evidence implies that both of these assumptions are invalid; war moves goods and people just as exchange, and exchange can easily incite warfare” (p. 126). Keeley further identifies proximity to unusually bellicose neighbors, severe economic hardships, and frontier locations and conditions that frequently encourage exchange as additional contexts for nonstate warfare. (The term frontier, however, is not clearly defined: does it refer to border areas between societies, or does it include outside groups from the perspective of a given center?)

The author also devotes an interesting chapter to the reasons underlying the development of the concept of the “pacified past” among Western scholars, identifying the general aversion to war that developed in Western societies following the trauma of World War II and the apocalyptic fears of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War years, combined with a growing tendency to view the rapidly disappearing traditional lifestyles of native peoples with sentimentality and nostalgia. In such a setting, he argues, the nastier aspects of native life have come to be explained as the result of Western contact, and native war becomes the epitome of the evils that “civilization” and “progress” have inflicted upon tribal life—a life that must have been more peaceful, virtuous, and happy than modern life because we wish it to be so.

Some readers may be inclined to argue that Keeley’s work is too generalized for their tastes. Many, however, might find his narrative admirably restrained when contrasted with the free-wheeling opinions on the origins and development of war offered by Barbara Ehrenreich [End Page 432] in Blood Rites. Ehrenreich is not interested in the specific causes (assumed to be basically materialistic) that spark specific conflicts but in the qualitative, social-psychological sense of communitas, ecstasy, and the sense of the sacred that are said to accompany states of war. She rests her argument on several basic premises: that violence lies at the heart of sacrality and that war is a form of sacred violence based on early hunting and rooted in a repressed primordial experience of early Homo, alleged to have cowered as fearful prey of more skilled animal predators at every sound in the night (p. 22). In this interpretation, war, likened to other rituals of blood sacrifice, is said to celebrate and reenact the human transformation from prey to predator, which is why war has been and continues to be experienced as ecstatically “religious.”

In part 1 of her essay the author speculates rather freely about the role of early humans as prey and the “rebellion” against this situation, which she sees as the ultimate inspiration for blood sacrifice in later prehistoric and historic settings, as carnivorous gods continued to demand and, so to speak, devour flesh and blood, be it human or animal surrogate, in grisly rites. Part 2 focuses on war itself, as Ehrenreich romps through history discussing, in very general terms, the origin of war, types of warriors, the sacralization of war (for example, by using its victims for blood sacrifice), the merging of militancy and Christianity, and the extension of the uplifting experience of the “glory” of war from elite warriors to ordinary citizen-soldiers with the invention of the gun and nation-state. She concludes with a brief examination of the “worship” of war during and after World War II, as exemplified in the nationalism of German Nazism, State Shinto in Japan, and the ritualized “patriotism” of the United States.

Blood Rites is cleverly argued but often heavily speculative and facile. Scholarly works are cited, but many grandiose and over-generalized statements are presented without further grounding. Yet Ehrenreich’s arguments are frequently intriguing, even if often fanciful and superficial, and the book is definitely thought-provoking. It is debatable, however, whether the content of myths and epics and native ritual should be considered accurate and literal windows onto an ancient primordial past, and I cannot help but wonder if it is really necessary to seek an ultimate explanation for the excitement and group solidarity engendered by war in the murky mysteries of the mind of primordial humans when there is solid ethnographic evidence that suggests and documents more immediate reasons to glorify war in political ideology and political economy.

Similar questions can be raised about other basic assumptions [End Page 433] employed by Ehrenreich. For example, is the meaning of beasts in native exegesis properly associated with predation, or are animals identified as an expression of the Other in its myriad forms and meanings? Is the meaning and motivation of sacrality, blood sacrifice, and war essentially rooted in and defined by violence per se, as the author asserts, or does this perspective seriously misconstrue the significance of all these issues? Does fascination about violence and anxiety about dangerous predators reflect early human experience or the author’s (and our) own twentieth-century cultural milieu? It is tempting to enjoy this book because it reduces the complicated passion for war to simplistic and essentially unverifiable psychological mysteries, often primordial ones at that. Many readers may have difficulties accepting Ehrenreich’s basic hypotheses for the same reason.

Mary W. Helms
University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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