Lately I’ve been enjoying Steven LeBlanc’s Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest. The anthropology of war is a topic that I believe has not received nearly as much study as it deserves. Interestingly, LeBlanc himself seems at the beginning of this book to be struggling against the idea that studying warfare is somehow dishonorable. He also seems to have some odd misconceptions: At one point he writes, “If the winners are automatically labeled ‘aggressors’ and therefore bad, then you are not studying the past, you are simply using ethnocentric values to interpret it.” This statement seems odd, given the examples of war we have seen in more recent times. Surely nobody would argue that the winners of World War II were the aggressors, much less that they were “bad” for having won.
LeBlanc lays out a threefold division of southwestern prehistory (which he designates, naturally enough, Early, Middle, and Late), and presents in some detail the evidence for warfare in each period. I haven’t quite finished the book yet, but so far I’ve been finding his arguments quite interesting, and to some degree compelling. Clearly, warfare is much more important in understanding the prehistory of the Southwest than many archaeologists have assumed. However, I’m not entirely convinced that LeBlanc is right to attribute the causes almost entirely to environmental factors and resource shortages. I don’t doubt that conflict over resources is important, but it is not the only reason people go to war. Ideology, for example, is often a factor as well. And I think as well that it’s important to try and identify who it is within a society that makes the decision to go to war. These are not questions that are easy to answer from the archaeological record, to be sure. But I believe that they are important ones, that should be investigated wherever possible.