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

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.

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