Forests and Warfare in World History
J.R. McNeillGeorgetown University
For better and for worse, both woods and warfare are fundamental factors inhuman life, and have been for a very long time. Humankind evolved in park likesavannas of East Africa, from hominid ancestors who had lived in forests. We, and they,have used woodlands, and to some extent have been shaped by woodland environments,for millions of years. Warfare, at least on small scales, also extends very far into thehuman past, and, to judge by the behavior of modern chimpanzees, probably occupied theenergies and shortened the lives of our hominid ancestors too. So, in all likelihood, weand our forebears have been making war amid woodlands for at least a million years.
War and warfare is one of the favorite historical topics and has attracted some of the best historians, from Thucydides onward. Forests, forestry, and deforestation alsohave a distinguished historiography, if rather smaller. Here I propose to explore some of the links and intersections between these two historical subjects.Before I proceed, it may be helpful to explain some of the things that I am
trying to do. I will not argue that warfare has been of crucial importance in the history of forests generally, nor will I contend that forests have been a major influence uponmilitary history generally. My goal is more modest: I will try to show that at certain
For chimpanzee and hominid organized violence, see Franz De Waal,
Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998); for prehistoric warfare, Lawrence H.Keeley,
War Before Civilization
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).