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Warlike Indian Cultures

Indian Summer In Indians as Warriors, I addressed the stereotype of Indian individuals, characters, or representatives being warriors. Here I address the stereotype of Indians being warlike on a cultural level. In other words, the notion that Indian cultures engaged in warfare as often as European cultures did.

This posting began with a long series of arguments on Craigslist September 9-11, 2007. Since the debate involved multiple overlapping threads, it's impossible to reproduce the whole thing here. But the following are some key exchanges between Anonymous (represented as < — >) and me.

Note: In a few of these postings, I've removed some extraneous paragraphs that didn't address the core subject(s). In one case, I rewrote my answer so it would make more sense. I haven't edited anyone else's answers except for the aforementioned removal of paragraphs.

As usual on this site, other people's writings are indented. Mine are flush left.

Let the debate begin
For starters, Anonymous addressed someone else's posting. I chimed in with a brief reply and we were off:

You really need some education < — > 09/09 23:59:59

Not about NAs specifically, but the entire dynamics of human behavior and the evolution of civilization and culture.

First, no NAs were living peaceful lives. A few homogeneous cultures existed in some degree of isolation (such as on islands,) but this is an exception born of geographic isolation. And as many areas of the world have shown (Henderson Island, Easter Island, New Guinea, Japan) the primitive people on such islands are just as easily attacked by slightly more advanced barbarian raiders as they would be to highly advanced Eurasians.

On the mainland, no such people existed. The more marginal areas (the great plains, above the tree line in Canada, the forest of the northwest) were still replete with war and fighting. A smaller scale owing to much smaller populations, but fighting none the less. And with HGs, when food gets scarce, fighting always gets more intense. Unlike settled people who can more easily adjust for famine with rationing and grain storage, HGs quickly have to turn to raiding, killing their competitors, and even cannibalism when the game is scarce.

HGs are HGs simply because they inhabit an area that current agricultural technology and plant selection cannot accommodate. They live in these marginal areas because they have been forced out or are unable to carve out a piece of the agricultural lands. When tech or crops catch up, they stop being HGs. It has been the same everywhere.


No peaceful Natives? Wrong < robschmidt > 09/10/07 16:52

Actually, tons of Natives lived peaceful lives. West of the Plains, for instance, there was hardly any serious warfare among tribes. A few raids and skirmishes was about it.

Someone estimated that as many as 70% of Native cultures were peaceful. I don't know the corresponding percentage for European cultures, but I doubt it's as high.

Anonymous has problems
Next, Anonymous addressed me directly:

A few real problems there < — > 09/10 19:48:00

West of the plains was HG territory, as no domesticatable crops were found by the inhabitants. As HGs, they supported very small populations, were geographically isolated, and hence had little contact. That said, they did raid and attack their neighbors when hungry or needed slaves (the western Indians were slavers.)

When you have a tribe of 20 people, and your neighbors raid you and kill 2, and take another as a slave, that is only 3 right? Of course, scaled up to the Andean cultural region, with 20 million people, and that is the equivalent of 2 million dead and 1 million enslaved. Numbers were reduced in the west due to pop and geographic restrictions, but that did not change the intent.

As for your 70% claim, that is irrelevant. You could call 9 groups of 10 people living in a marginal environment different "cultures" and say they behave X. Then you take one group of 20 million people and call them a culture, and say they behave Y. Now you can say 9 out of 10 NA cultures behaved X. However, that is a ridiculous misnomer, as that 9 out of 10 cultures represents .009% of the total.

10-15 million people lived in western South America within the Inca zone. Another 10-20 million were outside that zone (but still in some degree of contact in the region.) They were all very warlike, with full time standing armies. 25-40 million people lived in Meso-America, comprising the Aztecs and their neighbors, all undeniably less than peaceful.

The Mississippi Valley area, the most complex and advanced civilization north of the Rio Grande, had anywhere from 1-3 million. The south and eastern US area had a million. The northeast and Great Lake Region had a smaller population, likely under a million. These people were all generally warlike and/or capable of hostility. The plains area was a marginal environment, with insignificant population numbers. The entire California coast up to the borders of Inuit territory was sparsely populated, probably under a million people in the entire region.

The people you think are peaceful (and I would argue they were not peaceful by choice, it was dictated by their marginal environment) represented maybe 1-2% of the population of the Americas. Probably equivalent to the marginal (and relatively peaceful) HGs of areas of Northern and Eastern Europe during the period.


A few real problems here, you mean < robschmidt > 09/11/07 03:03

Your hunter-gatherer thesis—that the only reason Indians may not have been as violent is because they were hunter-gatherers—is flawed for several reasons.

First of all, your presumption that most Natives were hunter-gatherers is probably wrong. Many Natives were primarily farmers, although they hunted and gathered to supplement their diets. I don't know if anyone has quantified it, but the ratio is probably closer to 50-50 than it is to 100-0 or 0-100.

Your population estimates are inflated, especialy for the Inca. Except for Teotihuacan and Cahokia, there were few if any cities or towns with more than 10,000 people. Though some Indians organized themselves into large "civilizations," most Indians lived in small, decentralized groups—settled villages or nomadic bands.

Your claims about "millions" of people refer to hundreds of cultures spread over thousands of miles (the Mississippi Valley, the Andes). Even in the Inca and Aztec empires, most Indians lived in small, decentralized groups. None lived in concentrations of "millions."

Because most Indian cultures were decentralized, I certainly can add up the cultures and determine what percentage of them were violent. It's a rough estimate, to be sure, but it's a hell of lot better than your unsubstantiated claim that Indian cultures were no different than European cultures. You've done nothing but list a handful of violent cultures and assert that they represented the whole. Do I really need to explain how my method, as unscientific as it is, is a lot more valid than yours is?

I'll discuss the Inca in more detail later, but an analogy proves the folly of your position. By your reasoning, the predominant world culture is communist, totalitarian, and atheistic. Why? Because China and the Soviet Union and their satellite states dominate the world both in population and land mass. (I refer to the Soviet Union because it dominated the modern world while its successor, Russia, hasn't.)

Most people would say capitalist, egalitarian, and religious cultures dominate the world because there's many more of them. Ten or 20 or 50 small, diverse cultures can easily outperform and outlast one or two large, monolithic ones. As the imperialistic cultures crumble, so does their relevance to this argument.

Even one culture can have an influence far beyond its limited resources. Look at Greece and England, as two of many examples. Or the US when it fought for its independence.

Hunting-gathering was a choice < robschmidt > 09/11/07 03:51

More to the point, the Indians who organized themselves into hunter-gatherer bands did so as a choice. They knew about farming, since they were in contact with many farming cultures. They knew about the concept of gathering into small villages or large cities, since there were many examples of the former and a few examples of the latter. Despite their knowledge of the alternative, they chose to live a nomadic lifestyle.

Why? You claim it's because the environment forced this lifestyle on them. That may be part of it, but it's a gross oversimplification if not an outright falsification of the situation. Let's look at the evidence:

At some point in the 1700s, the European and Indian populations on the Eastern seaboard were roughly equal. The Europeans chose to congregate in cities and practice farming while the Indians in the same environment chose to remain in small bands and practice hunting and gathering. How is that possible if the environment determined the lifestyle?

This point also applies to later settlements in the Midwest and West. Europeans chose to congregate and farm; Indians didn't. Europeans didn't have some magical technology—tractors or hybrid crops—that made farming easier. They chose a hardscrabble farming lifestyle while Indians chose a bountiful hunting lifestyle based on deer and buffalo.

Indians throughout the Southwest settled in harsh environments when they could've gone elsewhere. The Pueblo people picked one of the toughest places on the continent to live while their neighbors, the Navajo and Apache, continued to roam the region. Later Europeans did it both ways—establishing small towns as well as isolated ranches—proving it was a matter of choice, not necessity.

Why would some people choose to be hunter-gatherers? Some experts claim hunting was an easier lifestyle that required only 3-4 hours of work a day. Whatever the reason, some Indians opted to live in harmony with nature when they could've gone forth and multiplied instead. I'd say that reflects a profound difference in their cultural worldviews.

Slavery, warfare, and contrasting worldviews < robschmidt > 09/11/07 04:24

You talk about Indians owning slaves. Some Indian cultures permitted this; some didn't. Almost every European culture did. And the nature of slavery was different. Indian slaves had more rights and were treated better than European slaves.

You talk about Indians conducting warfare. Some Indian cultures engaged in warfare; some didn't. Almost every European culture did. And the nature of warfare was different. Only Europeans conquered in the name of God and exported their warfare to other continents (e.g., the Crusades). Only Europeans could conceive of a war lasting 30 or 100 years.

Are you seriously arguing that every culture around the world is identical—that there are no differences between them? That's funny since we probably could list dozens of differences between any pair of cultures. Yeah, Americans seek group consensus while the Japanese are rugged individualists...not.

Let's just note the biggest difference in our particular case. Europeans had a holy book, a central church, and a pope; Indians (and most other people) didn't. The European belief that they stood above and apart from nature was a fundamental aspect of their worldview. It drove their cultural decisions: whether to own slaves or go to war, to kill nonbelievers or conquer the world.

Huge Native wars?

Native Americans did have huge wars < — > 09/10 20:09:51

The Inca War of Succession can be recorded as one of the larger wars in pre-industrial history. Standing armies of several hundred thousand men were deployed by each side. The armies practiced total war against the economies and people, completely destroying several towns and sacking a number of cities and killing huge numbers of non-combatants and committing all those ugly bits of war like raping and pillaging.

I was pointing out that HGs did not have huge wars, because it is sort of hard to have a huge war when the entire population over a few thousand square miles is a few hundred people. Everywhere in the Americas where population levels were high, war was prevalent.

Stop trying to paint the Indians as some "different" kind of people. They were not tree dancing fairy folk with mystical connections to nature. They were just people then, just people now. Just as capable of all the good and all the bad of anyone else on the Earth. They were just a handful of Asians who wandered a bit farther east. That Mexican guy doing dishes at your local restaurant? Just a person. That Guatemalan fella working at the local electronics store? Just a person. That Brazilian model with the big fake boobs and plastic smile? Just a person. They are not magical mystical tree dancing fairy people that speak to the spirits. Just people.


One war doesn't make Indians warlike < robschmidt > 09/11/07 04:41

"The Inca War of Succession can be recorded as one of the larger wars in pre-industrial history."

Stop treating the Inca as if they were representative of all Indians. They weren't.

"I was pointing out that HGs did not have huge wars, because it is sort of hard to have a huge war when the entire population over a few thousand square miles is a few hundred people."

And I pointed out that hunting and gathering was often a cultural choice, not an environmental necessity.

Who's painting Indians unfairly? < robschmidt > 09/11/07 04:45

"Stop trying to paint the Indians as some 'different' kind of people."

Stop trying to paint them as savages, barbarians, and killers a la (your impression of) the Aztecs and Inca.

"They were not tree dancing fairy folk with mystical connections to nature."

They weren't world-conquerors a la the Europeans, either. Another quote should help make the point:

The Indian loved to worship. From birth to death, he revered his surroundings. He considered himself born in the luxurious lap of Mother Earth, and no place was to him humble. There was nothing between him and the Big Holy (Wakan Tanka). The contact was immediate and personal, and the blessings of Wakan Tanka flowed over the Indian like rain showered from the sky. Wakan Tanka was not aloof, apart, and ever seeking to quell evil forces. He did not punish the animals and the birds, and likewise, he did not punish man. He was not a punishing god. For there was never a question as to the supremacy of an evil power over and above the power of Good. There was but one ruling power, and that was Good.

—Luther Standing Bear (Oglala Sioux), 1868-1937

"They were just people then, just people now. Just as capable of all the good and all the bad of anyone else on the Earth."

Let me know when the first Indian (other than an Aztec or an Inca) declares himself a supreme power and seeks to bend whole nations to his will a la Alexander the Great, Augustus Caesar, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and multitudes of monarchs and popes.

Looking for peaceful cultures

The Inca....and the rest...cite just one for me < — > 09/10 20:22:05

At 25-30 million people, the Andean regions occupied by the Inca and their various vassals and adversaries represented about 40% of Native Americans. At 30 million, the Aztecs-Mayan-MesoAmerican peoples represented about 40% of Native Americans.

The Iroquois were actually relatively insignificant by comparison. Combined with all of their neighbors in the Northeast and Great Lakes region, they were probably under 5%. The Mississippian culture was another 5% or so. So there is about 90% of the Native American populations so far, and all were perfectly capable of war.

Of the remaining 10%, I can name a large number who also fought regularly. In fact, having studied my people my entire life, I can't name off the top of my head a single culture I would call "peaceful." Circumstances of geography and population density might have made some seem more peaceful, but that is no different that anywhere else in the world with low population densities. Laplanders were not known for their warfighting either, does that mean Europeans were generally peaceful?

So please, cite the peoples of the Americas that were these magical, happy, peaceful people. And I'm not considering some tiny, isolated group on an isolated island or in some out of reach locale. Heck, if you want to go with that kind of crap, the Native Americans had nothing on the egalitarian peacefulness of the people of the Chatham Islands (of course, Maori warriors took care of that little bit of peace with rather ruthless efficiency.)

Tell me about a group of Native Americans that had high population density and regular contact with neighbors and rivals that was completely peaceful. CITE JUST ONE. I can cite any number of tribes, nations, city-states and empires that were just typical humans, doing all the things typical humans did. I just want you to cite one.


Inca represent all Indians? < robschmidt > 09/10/07 17:01

Thanks for the report on two Indian cultures: the Inca and the Iroquois. That's two down, a thousand to go. Share your "education" on something other than the Aztecs, Inca, Lakota, and Iroquois—the same four cultures every naysayer uses to "prove" a thousand other Indian cultures were violent and warlike.

Let's learn about the Inca—population estimates < robschmidt > 09/11/07 06:21

First, your population numbers are way off:


In population, estimates range from maybe six to 12 million people; my own estimate would put it somewhere around 10 to 12 million.


Inca rule extended to nearly a hundred linguistic or ethnic communities, some 9 to 14 million people connected by a 25,000 kilometer road system.

Let's learn about the Inca—rulers vs. ruled < robschmidt > 09/11/07 06:38

Second, there's a profound distinction between the rulers and the ruled. You yourself said the Inca empire comprised dozens of cultures, or words to that effect. To say that because the Inca conquered, say, 100 cultures means those 100 cultures were violent and warlike is flat-out nonsense.

You'd have to study each of those 100 cultures separately to judge whether they were violent and warlike also. Until you do that, your assertion that 30-40 million (your made-up number) of Andean Indians were violent and warlike is worthless. It's nothing but prejudice against Indians, which is ironic since you're the one crying "racist."

Let's learn about the Inca—timespan < robschmidt > 09/11/07 06:40

Third, you've ignored the limited lifespan of the Inca empire. It lasted approximately 100 years, as did the Aztec empire. There's no evidence either empire would've continued rather than fallen apart as the Maya kingdoms did.

To put this in context, that's 100 years out of some 12,000-plus years of documented Native history in the Americas. So we have two warlike kingdoms in less than 1% of Native existence. How does that compare to the number of warlike kingdoms in European history, hm?

Can you prove the Americas were rife with warlike kingdoms before Columbus? Perhaps with your dozens of layers of cultures killing each other in one location? Or are you just impugning Indian cultures with no evidence worth mentioning?

Let's learn about the Inca—conclusion < robschmidt > 09/11/07 06:53

The Inca empire was only a quarter of the size you said. It was composed of vassal states that didn't choose to be conquered. It lasted only a century or so.

And this is your primary evidence that Indian cultures were as violent and warlike as European cultures? If this is the best you've got, I'd hate to see the rest of your argument. It's gotta be pretty weak.

The Inca empire showed what Indians could achieve. It was a "peak" in indigenous history in more ways than one. We (should) celebrate these achievements for what they tell us about Indian ingenuity.

But most Indians didn't develop roads, writing, or monumental architecture. They also didn't subjugate neighboring nations and establish a theocratic dictatorship. That's why the Inca empire is absolutely unrepresentative of Indian cultures as a whole.

Anonymous is horribly insulted

No, I am not trying to excuse anything < — > 09/10 20:42:10

I am horribly insulted that people like you think we're some sort of magic fairy people that commune with nature and carry little pouches full of herbs and speak to the wildlife.

Just people. Thats what we are. People. Our ancestors went wandering out of Asia over the course of a few thousand years, and ended up in an unpopulated land mass. They were just people, exactly like the people they left behind in Eurasia.

And they spread and filled in the two continents. They independently developed amazing architecture, road/bridge building, agricultural techn, animal domestication (though that was limited by available species,) writing, government, religion, and all the other things the Eurasians came up with.

And, as more waves arrived, and people migrated due to population pressures or food scarcity, they warred and fought. And as their cities and nations grew more complicated and the people coveted their neighbors wealth, they sought to conquer one another. Just like the rest of the world.

You- thinking them to be simpletons who danced in forest groves like innocent children until the evil Europeans arrived- are simply a racist. Anyone who thinks another people are different or incapable or inherently disadvantaged is a racist. You insult every great accomplishment of the Native Americans with your posts.

And you comparison of the Aztecs to the Nazis is completely insulting and shows an amazing lack of knowledge.

As for your statistically valid sample sets.....again, you're an idiot. Different packs of marginal hunter gatherers living on the fringes of habitable Earth do not represent the NAs. They were the last independent NAs for a reason. No one wanted to occupy the worthless habitat they occupied. Thus you think a few thousand nomads scratching out a barely sustainable existence is representative of the tens of millions of other people that were living in the Americas.

That you think these nomads had a diversity of cultures greater than the Aztecs also shows your ignorance. The Aztec Empire was a conglomerate of hundreds of cultures and peoples. As were the Inca. Tens of millions of people with separate traditions. The Inca Empire hosted over one hundred languages alone.

Your HGs were about 5% of the population, not exactly a valid statistical set.


I suggest you learn what "racist" means < robschmidt > 09/11/07 05:18

"I am horribly insulted that people like you think we're some sort of magic fairy people that commune with nature and carry little pouches full of herbs and speak to the wildlife."

I'm horribly insulted that you're so ignorant of what I think. Since I don't think that, you're wasting your time with these inane assertions.

"Just people. Thats what we are. People."

Wow, thanks for the news flash. If you're a Native, which tribe are you from?

"They independently developed amazing architecture, road/bridge building, agricultural tech, animal domestication (though that was limited by available species), writing, government, religion, and all the other things the Eurasians came up with."

Right, which is why it's a shame you keep emphasizing the Inca as if they were representative.

Here's another news flash: The subjects of a totalitarian state don't necessarily choose to live under that state. So your population numbers, which are phony to begin with, are largely irrelevant. The number of cultures is a better indicator of diversity than the number of people within particular cultures, especially if the people in those cultures can't choose to opt out.

"You- thinking them to be simpletons who danced in forest groves like innocent children until the evil Europeans arrived- are simply a racist."

You: ignorant of me and apparently ignorant of the term "racist." Look up the definitions of "race" and "culture" in the dictionary and tell us if you notice any difference.

Aztecs, Nazis both great? < robschmidt > 09/11/07 05:25

"And you comparison of the Aztecs to the Nazis is completely insulting and shows an amazing lack of knowledge."

Lack of knowledge of what? The Germans created "amazing" art, architecture, science, and technology. At one point they were arguably the most "civilized" people in the world.

"As for your statistically valid sample sets.....again, you're an idiot."

Yawn. I have a BA in mathematics, son. How about you?

"Different packs of marginal hunter gatherers living on the fringes of habitable Earth do not represent the NAs. They were the last independent NAs for a reason."

Yes. The reason was different cultural worldviews.

"The Aztec Empire was a conglomerate of hundreds of cultures and peoples. As were the Inca. Tens of millions of people with separate traditions."

Tell me something I don't know. Most of those cultures were vassal states—i.e., the conquered. That means they don't count as examples of violent, warlike people.

"Your HGs were about 5% of the population, not exactly a valid statistical set."

Again, spare me the made-up statistics. Cite a source for this or admit you can't.

Rob accepts Anonymous's challenge
Don't think I ignored Anonymous's challenge to name a peaceful Indian culture. Here we go:

>> So please, cite the peoples of the Americas that were these magical, happy, peaceful people. And I'm not considering some tiny, isolated group on an isolated island or in some out of reach locale. <<

As I said, most of the tribes west of the Plains were relatively peaceful. Here are a few dozen of them:

Pima, or Akimel O'odham
Quechan, or Yuma
Tohono O'odham, or Papago
Ohkay Owingeh
San Felipe
San Ildefonso
Santa Ana
Santa Clara
Santo Domingo
Tiwa people
Tohajiilee Indian Reservation
Zuni (tribe)

And no, occasional outbursts of violence such as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 don't make these tribes warlike. We're talking about war as a way of life, not as the exception that proves the rule.

It should go without saying that the tribes of the West and Southwest didn't live on isolated islands. Below are a couple more messages to Anonymous on California's tribes, for example. Despite their extensive interactions via trade routes, these tribes didn't feel the need to expand or conquer others.

Educate yourself about trade routes < robschmidt > 09/11/07 07:53

So much for your claim that California Indians were isolated:


Abalone ornaments found in Basket Makers' graves are an estimated 1,500 years old and are believed to have arrived from southern California, Baja California or both via ancient, established trade routes (Figure 24). These West Coast sea shell trade routes extended throughout the southwest and met with trails and routes from the Gulf of Mexico.

Two main routes, one originating in southern California near the site of present-day San Diego and the other in Sonora, Mexico, on the Gulf of California, carried most of the traffic. These two routes forked into secondary routes which in turn branched into minor trails. The shells carried eastward on the northern routes were mostly from abalones, some of which, according to Ives (1961), have been recovered in numerous sites east of the Mississippi. These trade routes are believed to have existed 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.

More on the complexity of California Indians < robschmidt > 09/11/07 07:56


Prosperous farmers, when the Spaniards encountered them, the Mojaves had established villages. They also had developed trade routes that stretched to the Pacific Ocean.


The Chumash Indians have lived for over 7,000 years along the central coast of California. Their unique and innovative boat, known as a "tomol," allowed the Chumash access to scattered villages up and down the coastline. Their culture also advanced with basketry, stone cookware and the ability to harvest and store food. At the peak of their civilization in the early 1700s, Chumash villages served as trading posts. Proof of trade routes and money systems have been found throughout Los Padres National Forest.


The Klamath Trail is representative of what was once a vast network of Indian trails throughout the landscape. These trails were used to travel to and from specific resources (such as obsidian pits or fishing areas), and for trade of goods and slaves as well as maintaining social relations among tribes. The first non-aboriginal people to arrive in Oregon — explorers, trappers, traders, and emigrants — used trail networks established by Indians. Some Indian trails were developed into wagon roads and remain today as rural roads and even highways. Other Indian trails continue to exist as recreational hiking trails.

The hard evidence
Now that we've bandied about our respective claims, let's look at some hard evidence:

Bones Reveal Some Truth in 'Noble Savage Myth'

By Jack Lucentini
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, April 15, 2002; Page A09

A romantic-sounding notion dating back more than 200 years has it that people in prehistory, such as Native Americans, lived in peace and harmony.

Then "civilization" showed up, sowing violence and discord. Some see this claim as naive. It even has a derisive nickname, the "noble savage myth."

But new research seems to suggest the "myth" contains at least some truth. Researchers examined thousands of Native American skeletons and found that those from after Christopher Columbus landed in the New World showed a rate of traumatic injuries more than 50 percent higher than those from before the Europeans arrived.

"Traumatic injuries do increase really significantly," said Philip L. Walker, an anthropology professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who conducted the study with Richard H. Steckel of Ohio State University.

The findings suggest "Native Americans were involved in more violence after the Europeans arrived than before," Walker said. But he emphasized there was also widespread violence before the Europeans came.

Nevertheless, he said, "probably we're just seeing the tip of the iceberg" as far as the difference between violence levels before and after. That's because as many as half of bullet wounds miss the skeleton. Thus, the study couldn't detect much firearm violence, though some tribes wiped each other out using European-supplied guns.

The findings shed light on a controversy that has stirred not only living room discussions, but also an intense, sometimes ugly debate among anthropologists.

It involves two opposing views of human nature: Are we hard-wired for violence, or pushed into it?

Anthropologists who believe the latter seized on the findings as evidence for their view. "What it all says to me is that humans aren't demonic. Human males don't have an ingrained propensity for war. . . . They can learn to be very peaceful, or terribly violent," said R. Brian Ferguson, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in Newark. Ferguson contends that before about 10,000 years ago, war was virtually nonexistent. But experts on the opposing side also said the findings fit their views.

"A 50 percent increase is the equivalent of moving from a suburb to the city, in terms of violence," said Charles Stanish, a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Los Angeles. "This shows the Native Americans were like us. Under stress, they fought more."

Both sides called the study, which was presented Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Buffalo, a valuable contribution. "Walker's one of the best. This guy's as solid as a rock," Stanish said.

Walker and colleagues examined the skeletons of 3,375 pre-Columbian and 1,165 post-Columbian Native Americans, from archaeological sites throughout North and Central America.

The North Americans came mostly from the coasts and the Great Lakes region, Walker said.

Pre-Columbian skeletons showed an 11 percent incidence of traumatic injuries, he said, compared with almost 17 percent for the post-Columbians.

Walker said his findings surprised him. "I wasn't really expecting it," he said. Yet it undeniably suggests violence, he added. Most of the increase consisted of head injuries in young males, "which conforms pretty closely to the pattern you see today in homicides."

The researchers defined "traumatic injury" as anything leaving a mark on the skeleton, such as a skull fracture, a healed broken arm, or an embedded arrow point or bullet.

Walker said that although part of the increased injury rate doubtless stems from violence by whites themselves, it probably reflects mostly native-on-native violence. "In a lot of cases, such as in California, there weren't that many Europeans around — just a few priests, and thousands of Indians," he said.

Walker said the higher injury rate could have many explanations. Increased violence is normally associated with more densely populated, settled life, which Native Americans experienced in modernity, he said. Disease could also touch off war, he said.

"Here in California, there was a lot of inter-village warfare associated with the introduction of European diseases. People would attribute the disease to evil shamanic activity in another village," he said.

Ferguson cited other factors. The Europeans often drew natives into their imperial wars, he said.

"Sometimes, the Europeans would enable someone to pursue a preexisting fight more aggressively, by backing one side," he added. Other times, he said, Europeans got natives to conduct slave raids on one another.

Natives also fought over control of areas around trading outposts, to become middlemen, he said. "Sometimes that was a life-or-death matter, since it meant the difference between who would get guns or not."

Stanish agreed. "Obviously, having an expanding imperial power coming at you is going to exacerbate tensions," he said. "They're pushing you. They're going to push you somewhere — into other groups."

"You're also going to get competition over access to the Europeans, who are a form of wealth," he added. Native Americans fought over areas rich in fur, which the whites would buy.

Yet Native American warfare was widespread long before that, Stanish said.

The natives' ancient practice of using human scalps as trophies is well documented.

Native Americans before Columbus were probably about as violent as Europeans then, Stanish contended.

Ferguson didn't dispute this; indeed, he said, there was a time of unusually heavy violence among Native Americans before Columbus, around 1325. "There was some of the worst evidence of warfare that we see anywhere in the world anytime," he said.

However, he added, "if you go back a couple of thousand years before that, it's questionable" whether Native Americans warred.

Keith F. Otterbein, an anthropology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, said the skeleton findings contribute to a balanced, middle-of-the-road view.

"The folks who are saying there was no early warfare — they're wrong, too. There is, in fact, a myth of the peaceful savage," he said.

Otterbein said the controversy won't end here; both sides are too ideologically entrenched.

"Underlying the 'noble savage' myth," Stanish said, "is a political agenda by both the far right and far left. The right tries to turn the 'savages' into our little brown brothers, who need to be pulled up. . . . On the left, they have another agenda, that the Western world is bad."

© 2002 The Washington Post Company

Note that the periods of warfare in the Inca, Aztec, Lakota, and Iroquois cultures all overlapped with the arrival of the Europeans. That would explain at least some of their violence.

The real question is why
Anonymous basically didn't touch my claim that 70% of Native cultures were peaceful. Unfortunately, I don't have a source for that claim, so it's no better than speculation.

True, Anonymous claimed that most Native cultures were warlike, but he didn't provide any evidence of it. Even if he were right about the Inca, Aztecs, Lakota, and Iroquois—and I disputed that—that would be four out of thousands of Indian cultures over thousands of years. If the ratio were 400/1000, the majority of Indian cultures would still be peaceful.

Ironically, the previous world power, the English, did live on an isolated island. Why did the English feel the need to leave their island, travel around the world, and establish a global enpire while the Aztec and Inca empires were limited to one geographic region? Why didn't these Native empires seek to conquer the Americas, for starters?

In other words, why were European cultures more warlike than Indian cultures? Why did Europeans rather than Indians conquer the world? Why did Europeans rather than Indians try to exterminate whole nations, races, and religions?

The answer to both questions is the Europeans' worldview, which was different than the Indians' worldview. I explore the first question in Guns, Germs, and Steel and the second question in Genocide by Any Other Name.... Visit these pages for more analyses.

Related links
Indians as warriors
Savage Indians
Louis L'Amour's Last of the Breed
America the warrior society
America's cultural mindset

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