War, what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, if you’re a hunter-gatherer

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War has ‘not existed for the majority of human history,’ say anthropologists

New research based on the few remaining hunter-gatherer societies examines how humans have lived for at least 90% of their existence, until agriculture was invented around 10,000 years ago. The findings conclude that these societies are largely peaceful, implying that war is a relatively recent concept and not, as some academics had previously suggested, an integral part of the human condition that has driven human evolution since pre-history. Douglas Fry and Patrik Söderberg at Åbo Akademi University in Vasa, Finland, argue in the 19 July issue of the journal Science that people living in hunter-gatherer societies today rarely engage in war. Their definition of war covered group acts of aggression against other societies over resources or political disputes, and not incidents sparked by personal motives.

“These societies are largely peaceful, implying that war is a relatively recent concept and not an integral part of the human condition that has driven human evolution since pre-history.”

They studied a record of 148 incidents of lethal aggression across 21 such societies, including the Semang of the Malay Peninsula and the !Kung of southern Africa. The researchers found that 85% of cases were between people of the same society and 55% of incidents involved a sole perpetrator and lone victim. Almost two-thirds of the total killings resulted from accidents, interfamilial disputes, same-group executions, or interpersonal motives such as fighting over a wife. Most of the cases that could be defined as acts of war involved just one of the groups in the study, the Tiwi society of Australia, which seemed to be more inclined towards violent incidents. “These findings imply that warfare was probably not very common before the advent of agriculture, when most if not all humans lived as nomadic foragers,” cultural anthropologist Kirk Endicott of Dartmouth College, who was not part of the study, told Science magazine. Professor Fry said that the foraging societies studied are too small to wage wars and groups seldom fight each other as membership of groups is flexible and blurred by intermarriage. “In my view the default for nomadic foragers is non-warring,” he said. Rival academics have criticised the scope and interpretation of the research and its definition of war, arguing that there is evidence of hunter-gatherer societies frequently being involved in deadly clashes with outsiders. But Polly Wiessner, an anthropologist at the University of Utah, told Science that the academics should stop battling among themselves and shift the focus of their research to investigate what promotes and inhibits warfare.

Photo title: A rainbow peace flag

Photo credit: © Flickr member torbakhopper

  • Joe R

    Maybe they don’t need war now because they’ve carved out their niche now?

  • Cathy Clare Rogers

    Disappointed with this article! Such a narrow defintion of war leads to a shallow conclusion. Do they really believe that no one ever went to or goes to war for personal or family reasons? And the academics are described as ‘battling’. Using the vocabulary of aggression and dispute really weakens to anti-war argument. I’m very sad at this shoddy piece because I would like some good news on this front. Cheated!

  • David Henry James

    Unless it moves on to examine actual archaeological evidence, it’s just a theory. It all rests on the very large and unsupported assumption that today’s nomadic societies behave in the same way as the whole world did until 10,000 years ago.
    Furthermore studies such as this have no blind control group to compare with, and so leave the results open to possibly dubious claims such as those made recently by Jared Diamond that violence has decreased since ‘first contact’.
    Perhaps the observed modern nomad behaves differently to the non-observed ‘uncontacted’ modern nomad, but in this day and age it seems impossible to know.
    Like the commentator above, I’m very disappointed with what this study really says compared to the way it has been written up.
    All it really says is that modern nomadic societies are quite peaceful to other societies they are in contact with. But there’s no comparison with statistics from other forms of society around the world, permanent or temporary, so just how peaceful, we don’t know.
    So in other words, the statistics about aggression etc we know from exposure to ‘CSI’ also apply to nomadic societies: Aggression is more likely to occur against someone the aggressor knows, and thus will probably be against a family member. I would take Polly Wiessner’s stance further, and suggest academics shift the focus of their research to investigate what promotes inter-societal co-operation and other forms of LOVE. :)

  • torbakhopper

    no doubt we are really skirting around the issue of PRIVATE PROPERTY

    crops and agriculture, because it is cultivated, enabled the human spirit consciousness to acquire myriad new ideas about protection against loss.

    an entire pantheon of god powers of both genders was created to back up this sense of ownership and connection and worthwhileness.

    all manner of natural forces defy agriculture as do human and other forces of the moving world we call flora and fauna.

    but the backbone to all of this is that humans have managed to come to great understandings about abundance.

    i do so hope, especially in reading the great comments about this article, that ALL the worthy thoughts of this concept will move into the consciousness of others.

    thank you for using my photography for peaceful and positive measures,

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