Thanksgiving Guilt Trip: How Warlike Were Native Americans Before Europeans Arrived?

John Horgan in Scientific American:

The approach of Thanksgiving, that quintessential American holiday, has me brooding over recent scientific portrayals of Native Americans as bellicose brutes. When I was in grade school, my classmates and I wore paper Indian headdresses and Pilgrim hats and reenacted the “first Thanksgiving,” in which supposedly friendly Native Americans joined Pilgrims for a fall feast of turkey, venison, squash and corn. This episode seemed to support the view—often (apparently erroneously) attributed to the 18th-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau—of Native Americans and other pre-state people as peaceful “noble savages.”

Many prominent scientists now deride depictions of pre-state people as peaceful. In his 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature (which I reviewed last fall), Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker mocked the idea that “war is a recent invention, and that fighting among native peoples was ritualistic and harmless until they encountered European colonialists.” According to Pinker, pre-state societies were on average far more violent than even the most brutal modern states. Native Americans definitely waged war long before Europeans showed up. The evidence is especially strong in the American Southwest, where archaeologists have found numerous skeletons with projectile points embedded in them and other marks of violence; war seems to have surged during periods of drought. But scientists such as Pinker, Keeley and LeBlanc have replaced the myth of the noble savage with the myth of the savage savage.

More here.