In American Antiquity 01-JAN-05
Warfare in prehistoric North America has attracted considerable attention over the past 15 years or so, much like it has elsewhere in the Americas (Haas 1999; Haas and Creamer 1993, 1997; Keeley 1996, 1997, 2001; LeBlanc 1999; Lambert 1997, 2002; Milner 1999; Milner et al. 1991; Rice and LeBlanc 2001; Webster 1993, 2000). This keen interest contrasts strongly with the situation in the preceding several decades when conflicts prior to the unrest that accompanied European expansion into what are now the United States and Canada were rarely acknowledged, let alone systematically studied. Thus, not very long ago it could be said that"[t]here is no very good proof that precontact societies engaged in warfare that was either common or particularly fierce, and the weight of evidence suggests that they were for the most part pacific" (Sale 1990:318). Such statements can no longer be made. It is now widely recognized that conflicts took place among small-scale societies of the distant past, and that there was considerable temporal and spatial variation in the likelihood that fighting would break out. Yet there is still no consensus over what archaeological findings mean in terms of the intensity of conflicts and their effect on local communities. The number of skeletons with conflict-related trauma--an important part of Sale's (1990:318) "weight of evidence"--serves as a fine example of the divergence in how archaeological facts are interpreted. It has been said recently that when signs of conflict-related injuries, including projectile wounds and mutilations such as scalping, are present in no more than a few percent of skeletons from a cemetery, then fighting among groups rarely broke out (Smith 2003). As Keeley (2001) notes, this view is not at all uncommon among archaeologists. If low-mortality warfare occurred only sporadically, one might conclude that conflicts were generally inconsequential and had little, if any, effect on life in the vast majority of local communities. This position is based largely on negative evidence: little or no skeletal evidence means correspondingly negligible conflict. Perhaps that is why prehistoric warfare, particularly its social, economic, and demographic aspects, has not received the attention that some scholars feel it deserves (e.g., Haas 1999; Keeley 1996, 1997, 2001; LeBlanc 1999; Milner 1999; Webster 1993, 2000). Considering the nature of the archaeological record, the opposite position could also be argued. Even a small proportion of skeletons showing signs of trauma such as projectile wounds, fractures attributable to stone axes, and mutilations involving the removal of body parts are a sure sign that fighting was pervasive and quite conceivably had a noticeable impact on participating communities. Any tendency to underestimate the significance of available evidence would be aggravated by an inclination to hold overly romantic views of life in prehistory, as has been argued by Keeley (1996, 1997, 2001). The critical point is that if a handful of skeletons showing distinctive injuries indicate conflicts were common, then it follows that this aspect of human behavior should be an integral part of studies of ancient ways of life, much more so than is currently done. A better understanding of how closely skeletons with evidence of wounds mirror the number of people who were actually wounded and killed is essential for evaluating these opposing points of view. There can be no doubt that various weapons produced distinctive marks on archaeological skeletons (e.g., Ingelmark 1939; Lambert 2002: Larsen 1997; Milner et al. 1991 : Novak 2000; White 1992). Penetrating spear and arrow injuries, slicing and chopping wounds from sharp metal weapons, fractures from blunt objects such as clubs, and shallow incisions from mutilations including scalping are among the signs of trauma noted in skeletal samples from around the world. The mere identification of injuries, however, does not tell us much about what was happening in past communities unless we also have some idea about the chances that bone might be damaged when an individual was struck and the proportion of victims that might survive. The first issue is related to the recognition of injuries when all we have are skeletons; that is, the sensitivity of what is measured. The second has to do with whether the wounded would immediately enter the mortality sample, some fraction of whom would show skeletal evidence of unhealed injuries. To begin investigating such issues it is useful to focus on specific kinds of trauma. Arrow wounds, in particular, are amenable to such work. The injuries are distinctive, particularly when stone, antler, or metal points remain embedded in bones. Perimortem fractures, in contrast, can be difficult to distinguish from breaks that took place long after burial. Furthermore, considerable information on arrow wounds can be drawn from records of nineteenth-century casualties during the Indian Wars in the American West. These historical data are not without their faults, but they serve to put interpretations of archaeological skeletons on firmer footing.
Sample Information on Indian Wars arrow wounds came from several sources, most notably Otis's (1871) lengthy compilation of cases (also Bill 1862; Coues 1866; Jackson 1943; Parker 1883; Pope 1864; Wilson 1901). For the most part, the injuries were described by army surgeons, so it is no surprise that soldiers dominate the sample. Just as explicably, the patients were usually of low rank. Civilians and Indian scouts, however, also came under their care. Most cases dated to the 1860s and 1870s, and they usually originated in the Plains and Southwest. The arrows typically had iron heads, although some were tipped with chipped stone and even sharpened wood. The Indian Wars sample consists of 248 injuries and 191 victims, although information is not complete for all people. Arrow wounds with recorded locations on the body represent the great majority of the injuries these people experienced. Patient names, ranks, army units and posts, dates of injury, and attending surgeons were compared to prevent duplication of cases since individual patients were sometimes listed in more than one published source. While more cases are always desirable to identify general trends, what is more worrisome is the possibility that the sample is biased in some manner. Not all injuries would likely come to an Army surgeon's notice, and not all of them would be regarded as worth reporting. From the distance of over a century, it is impossible to evaluate the representativeness of the sample as a whole. Yet it is reassuring that the cases include individuals who died when attacked, long before a surgeon saw the bodies, and others who received only superficial "flesh wounds" that needed little, if any, medical attention. So whatever its deficiencies, the sample includes injuries ranging from those that were immediately lethal to ones that were little more than scratches. Moreover, many cases came from a surgeon's report that covered all patients who came tinder his care (Bill 1862), and Otis's (1871) lengthy coverage described a wide variety of wounds, especially the common ones.
Injuries Roughly three-quarters (70 percent) of the 191 people in the Indian Wars sample survived their wounds. Of 128 individuals for whom information on the number of wounds is available, 81 percent were hit by one arrow: 12 percent and 7 percent of them were struck by either two to four or at least five arrows, respectively. The time of death was reported for 35 people: one-half (49 percent) of them died when injured or soon thereafter, and the remainder (51 percent) survived for as little as six hours to just over seven weeks. Arrows struck many parts of the body, although there was an uneven distribution of wounds (Table 1). Here the body is divided into the head and neck, the flee portions of the upper and lower limbs, the thorax, and the abdomen and buttocks. All but four of the Indian Wars injuries with some location information could be assigned to one of the anatomical units. The four exceptions were either in the thoracic or abdominal regions, so the injuries were divided equally between those two parts of the body. The classification of wound location conforms to that of VanGurp and colleagues (1990) who summarized records for 90 arrow-wound patients admitted to two hospitals in Papua New Guinea in 1987. (1) The New Guinea and Indian Wars samples differ because the former do not include deaths that took place immediately or minor wounds that did not require hospital attention. Nevertheless, the modern information highlights the variation in wounds that might occur in different cultural settings. The most remarkable discrepancy between the Indian Wars and Papua New Guinea samples is the relative proportions of injured upper and lower limbs. The Papua New Guinea wound distribution appears to be fairly representative of those receiving attention in hospitals, to judge from an earlier study of arrow wounds where the legs were also several more times as likely to be injured than arms (Sharp 1981). (2) It is difficult to say why a difference in arm and leg injuries might exist--assuming the samples...
NOTE: All illustrations and photos have been removed from this article.