The myth of the peaceful savage

By Frederic Friedel

In pre-state societies — when humans lived in bands, tribes or chiefdoms — war was rare and highly ritualised, consisting mainly of non-lethal contests or competition. It is only when primitive people encountered the “civilised” world that violence was introduced, and homicide became part of their everyday life. With the advent of modern mega states and advanced techniques of destruction warfare and terror achieved its current terrifying levels of killing and slaughter. The 20th century was the most violent in the history of mankind, and the 21st continues in the same vein.

What is unusual about the above statements? The answer: they are all erroneous — in each case the opposite is true. Even though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given the horrors of world wars and mass genocides, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.

A 1996 book, “War before Civilisation” by Lawrence H. Keeley, exposes the myth of the peaceful savage.

Keeley describes in great detail how archaeologists have artificially “pacified the past” and, in spite of compelling evidence, denied the possibility of prehistoric warfare. They seem to have adopted the views of Jean-Jacque Rousseau, who believed that “nothing could be more gentle” than man in his natural state.

The truth of the matter is that since the advent of humanity violence has been commonplace and lethal, with a large percentage of all adult males of all bands and tribes being involved at some stage in their lifetime in homicidal incidents. The encounter with civilisation, far from introducing aggressive warfare to the peaceful primitives, generally served to pacify their murderous tendencies. The Kung San (or Bushmen) of the Kalahari Desert are generally depicted as being a very peaceful community. In reality, Keeley tells us, their homicide rate from 1920 to 1955 was four times that of the United States and twenty to eighty times that of major industrial nations during the 1950s and 1960s. The Kung were pacified by the Botswana police. Similarly the Copper Eskimo experienced very high levels of feuding and manslaughter before the Canadian Mounted Police suppressed this.

A very eloquent survey of the situation described above is presented by Harvard Professor Steven Pinker in the following lectures, which draw from Keeley and other archaeologists and ethnologist, deftly shattering the views (Pinker calls it “treacle”) which academia has propagated in spite of telling evidence to the contrary. What Pinker tells us puts things into a more accurateand pretty startling — perspective.

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.