Book Review: Constant Battles

by John J. Miller on August 10, 2010

in Articles,Culture

  • Sumo

May 20, 2003



By Steven A. LeBlanc with Katherine E. Register
(St. Martin’s, 271 pages, $25.95)

About 1,000 people die in local wars around the world each day. That’s two people every three minutes or so, in places like the Balkans, Central Africa and Timor. It may sound like a lot of killing, but in fact the planet has never been more peaceful. The past is much bloodier.

This truth dawned on Harvard University’s Steven A. LeBlanc sometime after he became a professional archaeologist. In the early 1970s, as he studied the ancient Anasazi in New Mexico’s El Morro Valley, Mr. LeBlanc discovered overwhelming evidence of warfare: a site that had been burned to the ground, indications that people had run off in a hurry and a replacement fortress built nearby.

The funny thing is that he wasn’t really looking for any of it. “We archaeologists thought warfare may have existed, but we considered it almost irrelevant — and certainly not central — to our understanding of past events and people,” he writes in “Constant Battles.” “We were simply not conditioned to see it.”

That’s because the academy’s prevailing view of the evolution of warfare is exactly backward, imagining a peaceful prehistory populated by noble savages living in edenic harmony with the environment. Such good-hearted simpletons only came to know violence, it was believed, when “warlike, modern imperialists” from Europe showed up and wrecked their idyllic utopias. Yet Mr. LeBlanc kept bumping into contrary evidence everywhere he dug. “Prehistoric warfare was common and deadly, and no time span or geographical region seems to have been immune,” he writes.

In “Constant Battles,” Mr. LeBlanc shows that the era of sticks-and-stones combat was more dangerous than our own age of machine guns, aircraft carriers and long-range bombers. In primitive societies, war was a much stronger demographic reality, with about one-quarter of all men losing their lives in battle. Even World War II’s death toll of about 50 million didn’t approach that level of proportional carnage.

The figure of 25% (give or take) appears again and again — in forensic studies of ancient grave sites to 20th-century investigations of tribes in the Amazon rainforests and New Guinea highlands. It seems to hold up among our extinct cousins the Neanderthals. Even primatologists studying chimpanzees have recorded it, because male chimps in the wild organize lethal attacks on males from rival groups.

And why all this killing? Mr. LeBlanc makes a few gestures toward sociobiology: “One has to consider the possibility that humans might be genetically predisposed to warfare.” He rejects this idea, but does accept a watered-down version of it: “genetic selection for more generalized aggressive behavior.”

But “Constant Battles” devotes far more time to Mr. LeBlanc’s own thesis, which is that population pressure and ecological stress are the root causes of warfare. “All humans grow, impact their environment, and, sooner or later, exceed the carrying capacity,” he writes. When people start competing for scarce resources, he says, they lose any compunction they might have had about clubbing each other over the head.

That’s life in a Hobbesian state of nature — a war of all against all. The paradox is that today, while people are safer from violence, they are more likely to starve. In the foraging societies of the past, hungry tribes would prey on their neighbors, seizing the resources they needed or dying in the attempt. No modern governments stood in their way, as they do now.

In the distant past, the threat of starvation contributed to warfare in other ways as well. Take infanticide, a distressingly common practice in human history and one of several sensitive topics (including cannibalism) that Mr. LeBlanc does not flinch from addressing. In many societies, he notes, food shortages led to parents killing their infant girls. Later on this kill-off would result in a shortage of women, which in turn would inspire men to brandish their spears in search of mates. What may appear on the surface to be an inherent disposition among men to do battle in a Darwinian struggle for reproductive fitness may actually have environmental causes.

Mr. LeBlanc is careful to remind us that prehistoric warfare didn’t involve grand battles between armies led by generals. These were mostly small-scale raids and ambushes — a constant, slow-motion total war rather than explosive bursts of violence interrupting long periods of peace.

A small weakness of “Constant Battles” is that Mr. LeBlanc doesn’t give many examples of how his colleagues have misunderstood the violent past or explain why they have done so. There is no pointing of fingers or naming of names — an odd bit of conflict avoidance that Mr. LeBlanc didn’t practice in his previous book, “Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest.” Even so, “Constant Battles” is a well-armed rebuttal to the notion that our ancient ancestors all just got along.

Mr. Miller is a writer for National Review.

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