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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 post-colonial 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):
This 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.
What 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, 1996.
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 linguistic research.