Sunday, June 8, 2008

The Crow Creek Massacre

I just finished reading University of Illinois archaeologist Laurence Keeley's fantastic War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. I will write a full review soon, but I wanted to mention an incident Keeley discusses that rather surprised me: the Crow Creek Massacre. Keeley's main argument in the book is that archaeologists have artificially "pacified the past" by overlooking evidence of warfare, murder, cannibalism and genocide in prehistory. Despite my rather Hobbesian view of human nature - which makes it pretty easy for me to accept Keeley's conclusions - it surprised me that such clear evidence of Native American brutality existed. I suppose all those Hollywood films with eco-pacifist Indians had a subconscious effect on me after all.

The Crow Creek massacre occurred around 1325 AD (that is, long before Columbus) in South Dakota, along the Missouri River. The victims were from a group of agriculturalists known as the 'Initial Coalescent people' who are thought to have migrated from the plains due to drought. There is evidence that the victims were malnourished and that several individuals had previous war wounds (healed scalpings, arrows embedded in bone, etc.). Additionally, they clearly felt threatened: a defensive ditch was under construction when the massacre occurred. The total number of victims is estimated at 486 people, which included men, women and children:

Disturbingly, many of the victims were tortured (including "tongue removal, decapitation, and dismemberment"), at least 90% of the people were scalped and their village was burnt. The victims were left to rot where they fell, and were apparently only buried some months later.

This event is quite possibly due to ecological stress but nonetheless serves as a clear existence proof of genocide and abject cruelty among prehistoric societies. Native Americans had clearly tasted evil before Europeans arrived; which is obvious, of course, except that recent intellectual history and popular opinion has denied such a thing was possible. This evidence, though, is incontrovertible.


  1. Have I forwarded you the Bowles & Choi paper on parochial altruism? It bases some of its simulations on data similar to that proposed by Keeley if I remember correctly. I am also planning to read the book at some point, hopefully in the near future. There are other papers, namely one by Rowthorn I think which also uses some of his research as the basis for simulations. Very cool.

  2. No, I don't think you have sent them to me. Please do.

  3. some Indian Tribes acting like some African Tribes - tribal warfare, no surprise there