WARFARE AND ECOLOGY:
MYTH AND REALITY
New Mexico's El Morro Valley, like the entire American Southwest, is one fantastic archaeology lab. The dry climate of Arizona, New Mexico, and the southern parts of Utah and Colorado leads to unusually good preservation, allowing archaeologists to trace the path of early humans in the region back thousands of years. H Morro, situated at an altitude of seven thousand feet along the Continental Divide, is a vast, semiarid series of sandy plains broken up by huge rocky outcrops, called mesas, that periodically erupt out of the landscape and dominate the horizon. Today, this is Zuni country, but in the ancient past it was home to the Anasazi ancestors of such present-day pueblo people as the Hopi, Zuni, and Acoma.
Some of the largest Anasazi archaeological sites in the Southwest are located on top of El Morro's mesas. Ponderosa pines now cover the slopes and sagebrush dots the valley bottoms but, as the archaeology shows, corn, beans, and squash once grew on the valley floor. Life as a farmer would have been possible in El Morro in the past, but precarious. Winters were (and are) cold; an early frost or a heavy summer hailstorm could destroy an entire year's crops. When the Anasazi lived in the valley, it may have been a bit more hospitable, but today no one could survive as a corn farmer there.
In the early 1970s, my colleagues and I began doing archaeological fieldwork in the El Morro Valley and discovered seven very large prehistoric pueblos, all dating from around A.D. 1275 to 1325 and housing upward of one thousand people each. Two of these communities were located on mesa tops that were not easy to reach. Surrounded by two-story-high unbroken outer walls, the villages were perched on steep-sided mesas. Both the way the villages were laid out and where they were located suggested that military defense most certainly was an aspect of their construction. This defensive posture was impossible to miss—they could have seen an enemy coming from miles away. Even a sneak attack would have been almost impossible on a village situated four hundred feet up on an isolated outcrop. Other communities we uncovered within the valley were fortresslike constructions with equally high outer walls.
That warfare, or some sort of intergroup conflict, was a possibility among the Anasazi that we mentioned in our National Science Foundation grant proposal, but it was neither of much interest to myself or my colleagues nor was it deemed important by academia at that time. NSF had given us funding to figure out what these seven-hundred-year-old communities farmed and hunted, the impact of climate change, and the nature of their social systems—not to look for warfare.
Within a few days of beginning our fieldwork, we discovered a site that was burned to the ground and from which the people had clearly fled for their lives. Pottery and valuables were left in place on the floors, and bushels of corn still lay in the storerooms. As our research progressed through that summer, we eventually determined that this site was burned and abandoned, and that immediately afterward a large, much more defensive site was built in its place nearby. The building stones had been removed from the earlier site and used rapidly to construct its replacement. The earlier site comprised individual, single-story houses somewhat spread out around the area. The replacement site consisted of apartmentlike rooms with adjoining walls that formed a solid rectangle one hundred yards across with unbroken outer walls two stories high—in other words, a fortress. The evidence indicated that something catastrophic had occurred at this ancient Anasazi settlement, and that the survivors had almost immediately, and at great speed, set about to prevent it from happening again.
As we continued our fieldwork, the role warfare played in the lives of El Morro's early inhabitants slowly percolated into our awareness. Several other villages we excavated also had abandoned their nondefensible houses and built "forts," including the ones on the mesa tops. We began to consider how the inhabitants of one village may have attacked another village. One group, which had built its community against a cliff for protection, had cut a hole through the cliff wall in order to see potential attackers coming. Our research team still continued to think along the traditional anthropological ideologies of the day: that the explanations for the really significant events in the valley would be found in the form of new social organizations, or in the effects of drought or other climate changes.
Thirty years ago, we archaeologists thought warfare may have existed, but we considered it n0 almost irrelevant—and certainly not central—to our understanding of past events and people. Today, scholars are coming to realize that the evidence my colleagues and I uncovered in the El Morro Valley was part of a process that led to warfare throughout the entire Southwest, with attendant massacres, population decline, and areal abandonments that forever changed the way of life in the region.
It took more than twenty-five years, and a great deal of additional fieldwork and library research, for me finally to change my initial naive view of the past and of humans in general. My take on warfare is now very different from what it was. Though these new ideas about conflict seem exceedingly obvious to me, I arrived at these conclusions not by means of abstract theory, but by being forced to look at warfare based on conclusive evidence I found in the ground. The central importance of warfare throughout human history came to me slowly, prompted by archaeological fieldwork in a number of different regions and reinforced as I tried to reconcile theoretical positions that became increasingly impossible to accept.
Why couldn't I—or any of my colleagues—see the magnitude and the implications of the warfare that was displayed before our eyes at El Morro? We were simply not conditioned to see it. The idea that all was peaceful long before writing in the ancient past was, and is, how most archaeologists and anthropologists see the world. The prevailing scholarly view is that warfare was of little social consequence in the past and is relatively unimportant in understanding the human condition. Though in the last three decades more archaeologists are prepared to see warfare for what it is, there continues to be an institutional reluctance within anthropology and archaeology to ignore or discount evidence for conflict among past societies. And that reluctance goes back to the eighteenth century.
Academics are not the only ones with these views. For a variety of reasons, almost everybody seems to be preoccupied with the idea that all was peaceful in the hundreds of millennia of the human past.
Why don't all archaeologists see the clear evidence for warfare? When I ask archaeologists if they think warfare occurred in the prehistoric past, they always say, Yes. When I ask if it was a major component of the lives of the people they are studying, they almost always say, No. The reluctance among archaeologists to see warfare occurs because they have an important human trait: empathy. If you spend years in the desert in a dig camp where, even with all our modern technology, keeping the camp functioning is a major effort, you cannot help being impressed with the ingenuity, skills, and determination of the ancient people you are studying. Hacking your way through the jungle to reach the remains of a great city with beautiful murals and inscribed stela leaves you with a sense of awe and amazement of the accomplishments of these long-gone people. They become your people. As the archaeologists begin to understand those ancients, they become attached to them. "My People" could not have had warfare. The reluctance to see warfare for what it is also derives being politically correctness. Archaeologists and ethnologists have an audience. The audience wants to hear about peace and not about warfare. When most archaeologists find evidence for warfare, "their people" must have been defending themselves against some nasty people from somewhere else. Defensive warfare yes, never offensive warfare. This natural and admirable human propensity to see the achievements of the peoples whose history archaeologists recover results in a false and incomplete history and a major misunderstanding of our past.
A very recent example of this reluctance to accept evidence of past conflict can be found with Ötzi, the Ice Man. In 1991, hikers in the Alps came across the frozen body of a man more than five thousand years old. Nicknamed Ötzi, this individual caught the fancy of the world, most especially Europeans, and his miraculously preserved tools and clothes—even the contents of his stomach—were subject to intense scrutiny by scientists. Ötzi carried a variety of items with him, including a bow, a quiver of arrows, a stone dagger or knife and, most unexpectedly, a hatchet with a copper blade. Prior to this find, scholars had thought such copper tools had not been used in this part of Europe until many hundreds of years later. Among anthropologists, much speculation was given to how Ötzi had died. The most popular explanation was that he was a shepherd and had fallen asleep and frozen to death in a snowstorm. Another possibility put forth was that Ötzi was a trader and was crossing the Alps "on business," so to speak. Either way, a sad but peaceful scenario for his death was assumed by scholars and was broadly accepted.
Little was made of such details as the fact that the hatchet Ötzi carried lacked wear marks, indicating that it had never been used to chop a tree, and that the copper from which it was fashioned was probably too soft for chopping. Everything changed in the summer of 2001, when new X rays revealed that Ö
af0 tzi had a fatal arrowhead still in his chest. According to the Ötzi Web site, the earlier explanations for the Ice Man's demise were wrong.
It seems obvious to me that Ötzi had been shot in the back and died from warfare, like many of his contemporaries in the late Neolithic period of Europe. His "hatchet" was most likely a battleaxe, and he was armed to the teeth. It needn't take an arrowhead embedded in bone to suggest the obvious. For one thing, anthropologists and historians know that the battleaxe was a preferred weapon for hand-to-hand combat in Europe from 6000 B.C. to A.D. 1000. In fact, many of Europe's social groups—the Franks, Saxons, and Lombards, for example—were named after the distinctive close-combat weapons they traditionally carried.
In spite of a growing willingness among many anthropologists in recent years to accept the idea that the past was not peaceful, a lingering desire to sanitize and ignore warfare still exists within the field. Naturally, the public absorbs this scholarly bias, and the myth of a peaceful past continues. If one analyzes popular culture, such views seem to dominate our outlook of the past. For example, it was the "cowboys" who decimated the Indians. (True, but the Indians fought fiercely among themselves long before the encroaching Euro-Americans arrived.) Or it was the "white man," including North African traders, who terrorized the native Africans. (This is also true, but the Africans, too, had previously warred for millennia.)The Chinese desire for exotic woods and spices from the tropics changed traditional relationships among the people of Southeast Asia, leading to intense conflict in places like the Philippines. (Yes, but the region was far from peaceful in earlier times.)
Just how pervasive is this idea that peace prevailed in the past, or that scholars ignore the warfare before their eyes? Think about some of the most cherished and popular "wonders" of the world. Such famous tourist attractions as China's magnificent Great Wall or Greece's beautiful Acropolis are actually evidence of warfare. China's wall was obviously constructed for defense, but consider the frequency and intensity of the warfare threatened by Mongol and Manchu horsemen to have compelled the Chinese to devote so much human labor and sacrifice to create a fifteen-hundred-mile-long wall of such massive proportions. The Acropolis was originally occupied as a walled Mycenaean fortress town. Only many hundreds of years later did it became a temple area. The view is certainly fine and the breezes delightfully cool at the top of that steep hill, but again, constructing a fortified town with walls built of massive multi-ton stone blocks at the top of such a promontory was no mean feat—nor was it an easy or convenient place to live. What tourist comes away from the Acropolis with the idea that in fact, the Mycenaeans (the pre-Classic Greek contemporaries of fabled Troy) fortified almost all their palace towns, and warfare was, in reality, as common-place and intense as the Iliad portrays?
Even more evidence of warfare is found among the paintings at Lascaux and other caves in France and Spain. These earliest known human artworks feature magnificent renditions of bison, mammoth, and deer but also include sticklike human figures with spears projecting into their bodies. Somehow, descriptions of these less-than-harmonious sides of the world's wonders don't often make it into the travel brochures. There is a failure to look for or see evidence of warfare because of a myth and the preoccupation with the idea that the past was peaceful.
In its simplest form, this misconception portrays humans as peaceful by nature and considers them to have been so for millions of years. This notion assumes that for much of human history people lived in nonviolent societies and maintained pleasant, helpful, symbiotic relationships with their neighbors. While there surely were bellicose periods, war was not the norm or a constant threat. Popular belief also holds that only after the development of "civilization," or highly complex societies, did things begin to change. The common assumption is that only when these increasingly more complex societies spread, and in particular when European civilization came to dominate much of the world through colonizing, was warfare introduced (and induced) to the far corners of Earth. This is the impression one comes away with when reading many books on how we became human and who wound up where on Earth. Such an impression misses the essence of human history.
Most people today would admit that, of course, there was some conflict in the past, but the presumption is that it was occasional. Many still believe that only if the impact of civilization is minimal or nonexistent can examples of the peaceful life way that had existed for millennia be found. Warfare in popular culture and much of academia is perceived as a plague spreading and infecting innocent, "primitive" peoples who had previously been spared the scourge of intergroup conflict.
Copyright © 2003 by Steven A. LeBlanc
Steven A. LeBlanc, an archaeologist at Harvard, is the director of collections at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. He is the author of Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. Katherine E. Register is a writer working in the Boston area.