Two billion war deaths would have occurred in the 20th century if modern
societies suffered the same casualty rate as primitive peoples, according to
anthropologist Lawrence H Keeley, who calculates that two-thirds of them were
at war continuously, typically losing half of a percent of its population to
war each year. 
This and other noteworthy prehistoric factoids can be found in Nicholas Wade's Before
the Dawn, a survey of genetic, linguistic and archeological research on
early man.  Primitive peoples, it appears, were nasty, brutish, and short,
not at all the cuddly children of nature depicted by popular culture and
academic studies. The author writes on science for the New York
Times and too often wades in where angels fear to tread.  A complete
evaluation is beyond my capacity, but there is no gainsaying his representation
of prehistoric violence.
That raises the question: Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the
contrary, does popular culture portray primitives as peace-loving folk living
in harmony with nature, as opposed to rapacious and brutal civilization? Jared
Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, which attributes civilization to mere
geographical accident, made a best-seller out of a mendacious apology for the
failure of primitive society. Wade reports research that refutes Diamond on a
dozen counts, but his book never will reach the vast audience that takes
comfort in Diamond's pulp science.
Why is it that the modern public revels in a demonstrably false portrait of
primitive life? Hollywood grinds out stories of wise and worthy native
Americans, African tribesmen, Brazilian rainforest people and Australian
Aborigines, not because Hollywood studio executives hired the wrong sort of
anthropologist, but because the public pays for them, the same public whose
middle-brow contingent reads Jared Diamond.
Nonetheless the overwhelming consensus in popular culture holds that primitive
peoples enjoy a quality - call it authenticity - that moderns lack, and that by
rolling in their muck, some of this authenticity will stick to us. Colonial
guilt at the extermination of tribal societies does not go very far as an
explanation, for the Westerners who were close enough to primitives to
exterminate them rarely regretted having done so. The hunger for authenticity
surges up from a different spring.
European civilization arose by stamping out the kind of authenticity that
characterizes primitive peoples. It is a construct, not a "natural"
development. One of the great puzzles of prehistory is the proliferation of
languages. Linguists believe, for credible reasons too complex to review here,
 that present-day languages descend from a small number of early prototypes,
and splintered into many thousands of variants. Wade says (p 204):
variability is extremely puzzling given that a universal, unchanging language
would seem to be the most useful form of communication. That language has
evolved to be parochial, not universal, is surely no accident. Security would
have been far more important to early human societies than ease of
communication with outsiders. Given the incessant warfare between early human
groups, a highly variable language would have served to exclude outsiders and
to identify strangers the moment they opened their mouths.
brought about civilization, that is, large-scale communication and political
organization? Conquest is too simple an explanation. We have from Latin five
national languages and dozens of dialects, but no comparable development out of
the Greek of the earlier Alexandrian empire. Latin and its offshoots dominated
Europe because Latin was the language of the Church. The invaders who
replenished the depopulated territories of the ruined Roman Empire, Goths,
Vandals and Celts, learned in large measure dialects of Latin because
Christianity made them into Europeans.
Even in Christianity's darkest hours, when the Third Reich reduced the pope to
a prisoner in the Vatican and the European peoples turned the full terror of
Western technology upon one another, they managed to kill a small fraction of
the numbers that routinely and normally fell in primitive warfare.
Native Americans, Eskimos, New Guinea Highlanders as well as African tribes
slaughtered one another with skill and vigor, frequently winning their first
encounters with modern armed forces. "Even in the harshest possible
environments [such as northwestern Alaska] where it was struggle enough just to
keep alive, primitive societies still pursued the more overriding goal of
killing one another," Wade notes.
A quarter of the language groups in New Guinea, home to 1,200 of the world's
6,000 languages, were exterminated by warfare during every preceding century,
according to one estimate Wade cites. In primitive warfare "casualty rates were
enormous, not the least because they did not take prisoners. That policy was
compatible with their usual strategic goal: to exterminate the opponent's
society. Captured warriors were killed on the spot, except in the case of the
Iroquois, who took captives home to torture them before death, and certain
tribes in Colombia, who liked to fatten prisoners before eating them."
However badly civilized peoples may have behaved, the 100 million or so killed
by communism and the 50 million or so killed by National Socialism seem modest
compared with the 2 billion or so who would have died if the casualty rates of
primitive peoples had applied to the West. The verdict is not yet in, to be
sure. One is reminded of the exchange between Wednesday Addams (played by the
young Christina Ricci in the 1993 film Addams Family Values) and a girl
at summer camp, who asks, "Why are you dressed like someone died?" to which
Wednesday replies, "Wait!"
Guiding the warlike inclinations of primitive peoples is genetic kinship, and
the micro-cultures (such as dialect) that attend it. Christianity called out
individuals from the nations, and gave them a new birth through baptism in a
new people, whose earthly pilgrimage led to the Kingdom of God. Christians
began with contempt for the flesh of their own origins; post-Christians envy
the "authenticity" of the peoples who never were called out from the nations,
for they have left the pilgrimage in mid-passage and do not know where they are
or where they should go.
It is difficult to be a Christian, for the faith that points to the Kingdom of
God conflicts with the Gentile flesh whence Christians come; but it is
oppressive, indeed intolerable to be an ex-Christian, for it is all the harder
to trace one's way back. Europeans have less difficulty, for the Italians never
quite gave up their pagan gods whom the Church admitted as saints, and the
Germans never quite gave up their heathen religion, which lived on as a
substratum of myth and magic beneath the veneer of Christianity.
If the United States of America is the Christian nation par excellence -
as I have argued on numerous occasions - then the predicament of an American
ex-Christian is especially miserable. Americans do not have close at hand the
Saints Days of Italian villages incorporating heathen practice predating Rome,
or the Elf-ridden forest of the German north celebrated in Romantic poetry.
They have suburban housing developments and strip malls, urban forests of steel
and glass, Hollywood and Graceland, but nothing "authentic".
An overpowering nostalgia afflicts the American post-Christian, for whom the
American journey has neither goal nor purpose. He seeks authenticity in nature
and in the dead customs of peoples who were subject to nature, that is, peoples
who never learned from the Book of Genesis that the heavenly bodies were lamps
and clocks hung in the sky for the benefit of man. Even more: in their
mortality, the post-Christian senses his own mortality, for without the Kingdom
of God as a goal, American life offers only addictive diversions interrupted by
ever-sharper episodes of anxiety.
With 90% of the world's more than 6,000 languages likely to disappear during
the next hundred years, the search for authenticity will turn from an exercise
in frustration into a source of horror. For those upon whom mortality weighs
heavily, the object lessons in mortality from the disappearing peoples of the
world will be a terrifying form of instruction indeed.
1. Lawrence H Keeley, War Before Civilization, Oxford University Press,
2. Before the Dawn, by Nicholas Wade. Penguin: New York 2006.
3. Most irritating is Wade's repetititon of the standard academic
anthropologist's attempt to explain away religion as a natural phenomenon.
4. Wade's book contains a good summary and exhaustive notes on the state of