War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage by Lawrence H Keeley came out in 1996. As publishing goes, that means the book was conceived and written a couple of years before, and was based on the author's knowledge of what was then recent scholarship - the previous decade or two. There would be time over thirty years or so for the general thrust of the book to permeate the thinking of anthropologists in general, and a sea-change occur. When one such as I comes along, who is merely a dabbler in anthropology, we don't know whether the bitter arguments the author had encountered are long since over. Is Keeley's view now the dominant one? Have his previous foes now been relegated to presiding over Flat Earth Society meetings?
I had read about Keeley's book in several places, but not read it myself. Was I going to be touting the anthropological equivalent of Metallica if I dared post?
James threw me a link from the BBC just a few posts ago which puts forth the same argument Keeley railed against in the 1990's: earlier peoples didn't have real war, just personal raids 'n stuff. Therefore, we can all rejoice because War Is Not Innate(!) and only came around with civilization. That's the myth descended from Rousseau, the counter-myth to the one descended from Hobbes, that primitive man was all savagery and his life nasty, brutish, and short. That doesn't seem to fit the archaeological record very well either. These twin myths have vied for control of the intellectual space for two centuries, the latter in the 19th C, the former in the 20th. Both are wrong.
If the claim is that groups of 200 individuals did not have "large-scale battles" in the current sense, well duh, yeah. If there are only 50-60 males suited for combat, and somebody has to stay home to guard the current goods, territory, crops, and kinsmen, how did anyone think otherwise? However, lots of people died from these personal raids, many more than die in war today. Continual low-intensity warfare means that everyone spends most of their time doing something other than war. Yet over time, a death here and a death there adds up. In some societies, it turns out that 20, 30, even 60% of adult male skeletons show weapons-violence as cause of death. 0.5%/year can add up. They didn't take male captives either, and often not females either. If you were caught you were killed.When you add in the once-in-a-generation massacres that were also frequent, in which 10-50% of the population could be wiped out at one go, the odds of dying from violence were pretty high. Much higher than today, or at any time in the modern period, even when there were horrendous body counts. As a percentage of population,we moderns are pikers.
We may not think it looks like "real" war, but people really die from it. Lots. Whether it's looking down on those tribes as not being advanced enough to have real war, or looking up to them as spiritually advanced gentle people who aren't interested in the horrors we moderns engage in, it still casts them as different, other than ourselves. But they were and are just about like ourselves, not much worse nor better. Civilised societies try to make rules about war to limit the damage. They don't approve of sneak attacks, killing civilians, executing prisoners, burning crops or destroying means of production. It's supposed to be just soldiers versus soldiers - in which case the richer, larger state has the best chance of winning.
Smaller powers have to use those "unfair, guerrilla" tactics, or they will lose and be destroyed. And those tactics are effective. Notice that whoever uses them keeps winning against larger powers until the larger powers decide they have had enough and adopt those strategies too.
Trying to describe these conflicts as based on "personal" rather than something larger is also just an evasion. In clan living and tribal organisation, that's what's important. That other tribe did not pay the full bride price after the initial installment. They are monopolising the fish weirs. They not only shot Harry, but they took his body and dishonoured it. If we let that go, they'll do it again. Well, duh again. Modern states do the same thing, however they deck them out in rationalizations. We need that port from Country B or Country C's navy will have an advantage.
Keeley notes that trade does not prevent war - in fact, one's trading partners are the ones most likely to give or receive offense. Nor is population growth much of a driver of war. It seems to be an effect rather than a cause.