Warfare Was Far More Deadly in Ancient Times
May 29, 2003
In "Constant Battles," author/archaeologist Steven A. 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.
Did warlike European imperialists wreck peaceful utopias? Far from it.
- The figure of 25 percent (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.
According to LeBlanc, 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.
Source: John J. Miller, "War of All Against All," Wall Street Journal, May 20, 2003; based on Steven A. LeBlanc and Katherine E. Register, "Constant Battles," St. Martin's Press, April 2003.
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