I am currently reading The Barbarous Years by the historian Bernard Bailyn. He paints a pretty grim picture of life in the seventeenth century North America. Although our historical sources are primarily concerned with massacres and atrocities involving Europeans, who played the role of victims as frequently as perpetrators, cruel and merciless ways of war were just as common in conflicts between the Native American societies.
Men were ambushed and killed when away on hunting trips, while women put themselves at risk when they left settlements to gather berries and nuts. Occasionally, large war parties overran entire villages, even those that were well-protected by defensive walls (as many were).
Native town in Florida showing a stockade and houses with thatched roofs. This is an engraving by Theodore de Bry made in 1591 based on paintings that Jacques le Moyne de Morgues had completed soon after his arrival in the New World in 1564 (From Lorant 1946:95). Source
The victors pillaged food stores, destroyed crops and burned houses, dispatched the wounded, and carried off the survivors. Although women and children were often adopted into the winning tribe, the defeated warriors were usually tortured to death.
the prisoners were often maimed—fingers chopped or bitten off to incapacitate them for further warfare, backs and shoulders slashed—then systematically tortured, by women gashing their bodies and tearing off strips of flesh, by children scorching the most sensitive parts of their immobilized bodies with red-hot coals. [In the end] they would most likely be burned to death after disembowelment, some parts of their bodies having being eaten, and their blood drunk in celebration by their captors.
Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. Scene of cannibalism. Source
Insecurity and war, with a constant threat of sudden (or, worse, painful and degrading) death, was the typical condition of human societies before ‘civilization’—before large-scale states with their government and bureaucrats, police forces, judges and courts, complex economies, and intricate division of labor.
Some anthropologists object to using the historically known societies of American Indians as a mirror of life in all small-scale, tribal societies before the rise of civilized states and empires. They argue that the arrival of Europeans in the Americas with their germs, metal tools, weapons, and an insatiable appetite for certain trading goods (such as furs) destabilized native societies and raised the intensity and lethality of inter-tribal warfare. There is much merit in this argument. More generally, war intensity has varied greatly between different regions and, within regions, over time. Nevertheless, life in small-scale tribal societies was much more precarious and violent than most people realize.
We know this is true because archaeology can tells us much more today, compared to a few decades ago, about the life in societies before history. Consider, for example, a village of Oneota Indians, who lived along the Illinois River 700 years ago (that’s 200 years before Columbus). The archaeologists located the village cemetery (the site is known as ‘the Norris Farms #36’) and studied the remains of 264 people who were buried there. At least 43 of them—16 percent—died a violent death. According to George Milner,
Many of them were struck on their fronts, sides, and backs with heavy weapons, such as celts [stone axes], or they were shot with arrows. Some people apparently were facing their attackers, whereas others were not. Presumably the latter were wounded when trying to flee. Victims were occasionally hit many more times than necessary to cause their deaths; perhaps several warriors struck blows to share in the kill. Bodies often were mutilated by the removal of scalps, heads, and limbs. Scavenging animals then fed on many corpses, which were left exposed where they fell until the remaining parts were found and buried in the village cemetery.
The pattern of deaths suggests a state of constant warfare, with men and women being ambushed singly or in small groups as they went about hunting and gathering. In other words, this Oneota village was quite similar to many later Indian villages observed by Europeans, although, as I said earlier, the general level of violence increased quite noticeably in the post-Columbus era.
The estimated proportion that died a violent death, 16 percent, lies in the middle range of such estimates for prehistoric populations. This is not to say that their life was uniformly grim. At times people living in small-scale societies enjoyed periods of peace and prosperity. But at other times, warfare was even worse than what the Oneota villagers had to endure. Roughly at the same time but several hundred miles to the northwest of the Oneota settlement, on Crow Creek, South Dakota, there was once a village of the Caddoan speakers. Crow Creek is one of the most famous prehistoric massacre sites. It was a very substantial village protected by a defensive moat, but it was nevertheless overrun and completely destroyed by enemies.
Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. Attack on an Indian Village with Flaming Arrows. Source
Skeletons from around 500 bodies, piled in a common grave, show evidence of violent death followed by extensive mutilation. Essentially all bodies were scalped, and many were beheaded or had their limbs cut off. Some had their tongues cut out.
Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues. How the Indians Treated the Corpses of their Enemy. Source
Note added 1.XI.2013: The title of this blog, of course, follows the title of the pioneering book by Lawrence Keeley.