War is not part and parcel of human nature

IssueAugust 2014
Feature by Douglas P Fry
Wauja chief from Upper Xingu, Amazonia. Photo: Ian Star via Wikimedia CC-BY-SA-3.0

Anthropology holds some treasures for peace activists and scholars including documentation that non-warring peace systems exist, descriptions of how peaceful societies successfully keep the peace, and solid evidence – despite recurring claims to the contrary – that war is not part-and-parcel of human nature.

At the same time, there have been some recent attempts to hijack anthropological data in support of bellicose views of humanity.

In his memoirs, for example, US anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon trumpets again the repudiated claim that Yanomamö men who have killed have more children, with the implication that violence reigns among tribal peoples and that killing may have had evolutionary pay-offs.

Similarly, US psychologist Steven Pinker very selectively presents anthropological studies to support his thesis that the deep human past was extremely violent.

British primatologist Richard Wrangham continues to propose that chimpanzee aggression in some way supports the proposal that humans have psychological tendencies to attack their neighbours. In response, the dean of Kalahari San (Bushman) studies, Richard Lee, has recently dubbed such views as representative of the ‘Bellicose School’.

Whether undertaken to selectively grab anthropological information to bolster a Hobbesian take on humanity, or to attack anthropological findings that contradict the bellicose models, such looting and sacking of anthropology has become commonplace. However, the preponderance of anthropological findings shows that Thomas Hobbes and now the Bellicose School are way off the mark. Anthropology actually supports a more peaceful view of the world.

Peace systems

One anthropological gem involves ‘peace systems’ – clusters of neighbouring societies that do not make war with each other, and sometimes not at all. Peace systems exist in various parts of the world such as in Malaysia, Australia, India, Brazil, and Canada. I have suggested that the European Union is also a peace system, for it was formed out of the ashes of war with the explicit goal of preventing future wars on the continent. In that main purpose, the European Union has been highly successful; a mere 69 years after the end of the Second World War, war within the EU peace system has become unthinkable. That is no small achievement for peace.

Peninsular Malaysia provides an anthropological example of a peace system consisting of the neighbouring Chewong, Semai, Jahai, Btsisi, Batek and other Semang groups. In values and behaviour, these Malaysian societies are nonviolent and seek to avoid overt conflict. Norwegian anthropologist Signe Howell, who has worked with the Chewong, emphasises than none of these neighbouring Malaysian societies make war. This Malaysian peace system is long-standing, as reflected in early descriptions of these peoples’ daily life as nonviolent and lack of violent resistance to encroachment by outsiders. The mere existence of peace systems also answers sceptics who assert that living in peace is simply not possible.

As the late Kenneth Boulding once quipped: ‘Anything that exists is possible.’

Better angels

Over recent centuries, non-Western peoples have been portrayed as ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’ and such views have facilitated the atrocities of enslavement, displacement and annihilation directed against indigenous peoples during colonialism and subsequently. The existence of peaceful peoples and peace systems might not be anticipated as they contradict the familiar stereotypes of uncivilised and warlike savages. Additionally, in my experience of teaching and lecturing, many people doubt the very existence of peace systems and peaceful societies due to ingrained Hobbesian beliefs in Western society that humans are warlike by nature or naturally inclined to kill.

A recent example of this perspective is Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature in which he asserts that the evolutionary past as well as more recent tribal periods of prehistory were plagued by ‘chronic raiding and feuding that characterised life in a state of nature’.

Such statements slander those indigenous peoples that are peaceful and are contradicted by the existence of peace systems.

To consider another example, in the Upper Xingu River basin area of Brazil, 10 neighbouring tribes representing four language groups live without making war on each other. The cultures still hold dear their particular tribal identities but also have added an overarching level of social identification of themselves as one people who assemble to feast, trade, inaugurate new chiefs, and mourn the passing of former chiefs.

Such collective ceremonial gatherings also provide an occasion for wrestling, a sport upon with these peoples thrive. Instead of holding rigidly to ‘us versus them’ mentalities, the 10 Upper Xingu tribes have expanded the ‘us’ identity to also include the ‘them’, as members of a larger, peaceful social system.

A critical question about the Xingu people and other peace systems is: how do they keep the peace? Research by different anthropologists such as Thomas Gregor (who applies the term peace system), Buell Quain, Emilienne Ireland and Robert Carneiro suggest that a combination of social mechanisms is important.

Creating an overarching social identity has just been mentioned. We humans use identity to divide, but less acknowledged is our ability to evoke identity for solidarity. Through profiting from inter-village trade, practicing intermarriage, and participating in common ceremonies and rituals, the Upper Xingu peoples put a common identity into the service of peace.

“Why should killing by one relative species, chimpanzees, be considered so relevant for explaining human actions, while the peaceful practices of another cousin, the bonobos, be dismissed as irrelevant?”

Reinforcing antiwar values also come into play. The Xingu tribes in the past have taken up the spear to defend themselves from tribes outside their peace system who have attacked them, so they are not total pacifists but, at the same time, their social values are distinctly antiwar. Emilienne Ireland points out how they view aggression as a pathetic mark of failed leadership and self-control. Blood itself is viewed as vile and disgusting. They draw contrasts between themselves as civilised, because they do not condone war, and the violent tribes that reside outside the peace systems. For the Upper Xingu tribes, peace is moral and war is immoral. Thomas Gregor expresses it thus: ‘The good citizen is therefore peaceful in response to both the moral imperative of peace and the aesthetics of behaviour.’

In some quarters, the term ‘values’ has become a dirty word. As an anthropologist concerned with peace, I have come to realise that values – as principles that guide one’s life – are critically important. Values can promote peace or to the contrary support militarism. There is no shortage of ethnographically-described warlike cultures that instil in each new generation the martial values of fortitude, courage and violence, such as among the equestrian plains cultures of North America.

At the same time ethnographic cases are bountiful – from the Paliyan of India or the Hopi and Saulteaux of North America to the La Paz Zapotec of Mexico, with whom I’ve worked – that promote in central place values of respect, humility, and nonviolence. From a cross-cultural perspective, about half of the societies in a large worldwide comparative sample allow and value revenge in response to violence, whereas the other half of societies do not condone the ‘eye for an eye’ mentality.

In short, values matter: the value system can be employed in the interest of peace.

A recent invention

Another anthropological jewel for peace activists is the amassed evidence that there has not always been war, and by extension that there need not always be war.

A large number of people see war as just part-and-parcel of human nature. However, in addition to the existence of non-warring societies and peace systems, other kinds of anthropological and archaeological evidence contradict such a view.

How old is warfare? Does it extend back over many, many millennia? Or is war a rather recent chapter in humanity’s biography?

We can answer questions about the antiquity of war via archaeology directly and, by analogy, by looking at the oldest form of human society, nomadic forager bands.

Worldwide, the oldest unambiguous archaeological evidence for warfare falls within the last 10,000 years, with one site called Jebel Sahaba in Nubia and its less-than-clear indications of warfare being slightly older.

The chronicle of world prehistory shows that warfare originated in different places at different times, but always recently – after, as archaeologist Jonathan Haas points out, the global population had increased to the point where groups started settling down to live in one place.

The archaeological sequences show transitions from conditions of warlessness to war at different locations at different times and also how war became more common and destructive with the origin of the state 4,000 to 6,000 years ago.

For instance, on the northwest coast of North America, in the Valley of Oaxaca in Mexico, in the Anasazi region of the southwestern US, and in the southern Levant in the Near East, prehistoric time sequences show shifts regarding war and peace at the same locations over time.

Aside from the archaeological evidence showing multiple origins of warfare after the agricultural revolution began, and the proliferation of warfare with the rise of archaic states, nomadic forager studies support the veracity of the warless evolutionary history of humanity.

Prior to about 12,500 years ago, the nomadic forager lifeway was ubiquitous.

If the purpose is to gain insights through analogy about the peacefulness or warlikeness of human societies over the course of human evolution, then the most appropriate type of extant society to consider is nomadic forager social organisation. Researchers who have worked with nomadic foragers usually report that warfare is absent or rudimentarily developed in nomadic forager societies.

In 2009, there was a data raid on anthropology by a member of the Bellicose School. US economist Samuel Bowles self-selected eight societies to estimate war mortality in the long expanse of human prehistory called the Pleistocene, which extends backward in time until about two million years ago.

There are many problems with the Bowles study, but one obvious and serious one is that an accurate estimate of war deaths in the deep past of the Pleistocene cannot be obtained by self-selecting eight atypical societies – this is by data ‘cherry picking’.

A 19th century Ute family. A council of Ute chiefs presented a woman with a special antelope shinbone insignia in recognition of her interventionary peacemaking between Comanches and Ute. Photo: Library of Congress via Wikimedia


Recently, in an article published in Science, Patrik Södeberg and I took another look at nomadic foragers and our systematically sampled findings contradict those of Bowles’ self-selected ones.

We note various features of nomadic forager social organisation that all work against the practice of war at this archaic level of social organisation.

Nomadic forager group size tends to be too small to support warfare. Additionally, the actual group membership changes regularly, and given therefore that a person will have relatives and friends spread out across various bands, this discourages war. Furthermore, nomadic forager societies tend not to be segmented into subgroups such as patrilineages that would form natural units for fighting.

Nomadic forager societies are egalitarian and consequently, with a lack of social hierarchy and leadership positions, nobody has the authority to command others to fight a war. Material possessions or caches of food are lacking, so there is nothing to plunder and the nomadic lifestyle makes the capture and containment of individuals against their will (for example, slaves or brides) impractical and, in fact, extremely rarely reported in reality.

Based on such observations, Söderberg and I predicted that most cases of lethal violence in such societies would derive from interpersonal, not intergroup, disputes. This prediction goes against Bowles’ assertions that there was a great deal of war in the deep past as well as the highly popularised chimpanzee model proposed by primatologist Richard Wrangham, who has suggested that chimpanzees and humans share an evolved tendency to attack members of neighbouring groups if the risks are low to the attackers.

As a side note, one major difficulty with the chimpanzee model is the existence of bonobos, another species of apes just as closely related to humans as are chimpanzees, but who never have been observed to raid neighbouring groups or to kill members of their own species under any circumstances.

The key question sidestepped by the chimpanzee model is: why should killing by one relative species, chimpanzees, be considered so relevant for explaining human actions, while the other cousins’ peaceful practices be dismissed as irrelevant?

We decided to take a look nearer to home, at humans that is, and consider what nomadic forager behaviour suggests about war and peace.

We therefore investigated all instances of killing for a systematically derived sample of 21 nomadic forager band societies. To avoid the potential problem of sampling bias (cherry picking), rather than self-selecting the societies, we instead derived the research sample based on ratings of previous researchers.

For all the cases of lethal aggression in this sample of societies, over half of the killings were committed by individuals acting alone, rather than by the type of coalitions of males hypothesised under the chimpanzee model.

Furthermore, in almost two-thirds of the cases, the reasons for lethal aggression had nothing to do with attacking members of other groups, but were interfamilial disputes, within-group executions, accidents, and various interpersonal situations as when two men fought over a particular woman. A third of the killings (36%) occurred close to home and involved, as perpetrators and victims, father and son, brothers, mother and child, in-laws, husbands and wives, companions, and neighbours.

Such killings are not warfare by any stretch of the definition.

Overall, in contradiction to the chimpanzee model, we concluded that, in nomadic forager societies, most cases of lethal aggression fit the definition of homicide; a few other cases could be classified as feud; and only a minority are war.

The proposal that ‘foragers have a tendency to attack neighbouring groups when the risks are low’ was simply not supported by these findings.

Peaceful societies

Another point to make explicit is the cross-cultural variation in aggression apparent even in a sample of 21 societies.

At the violent extreme, one society, the Tiwi of Australia, accounted for almost half of the lethal incidences. At the other extreme, three societies lacked any such incidences. The other societies had variable amounts of lethal violence.

Roughly half of the societies, 10 out of 21, had no cases wherein more-than-one-killer acted to commit a crime together.

So even though homicides occur in most of these societies, they take place more regularly in some cultures than in others.

The Semang of Malaysia were one of the three societies with no reported killings, and a subgroup of the Semang called the Batek have been extensively studied by the anthropological team of Karin and Kirk Endicott.

The Batek illustrate how it is possible to raise children, generation after generation, to become nonviolent adults. The Batek use blow guns to fire poisoned darts at prey animals. These weapons could also kill human beings. The absolute strength of the Batek prohibition against using violence is illustrated by the shocked response of a Batek man to Kirk Endicott’s question: ‘Why didn’t Batek in the past use their blow pipes and poison darts against slave raiders?’ He answered: ‘Because it would kill them!’

Another interesting feature of Batek society is gender egalitarianism. The Endicotts catch this idea in the title of their very readable 2008 book, The Headman was a Woman.

Intervening for peace

Anthropology provides fascinating insights into the myriad ways that people keep the peace and, in those cases where the peace has been broken, into the paths that people take to reconcile and restore their damaged relationships. Third parties often intervene, sometimes in dramatic ways.

In their fields near the Nile, two Nubian brothers argued regularly about how to share the irrigation water. Anthropologist Robert Fernea relates how one day their uncle overheard the shouting. He found a flat stone and placed it in the middle of the irrigation ditch, where offshoots of water went to each man’s land, thus dividing the irrigation flow equally. This was the end of the argument.

Robert Carneiro relates another tale of successful third party intervention, this time at the intergroup level, which took place in the 1600s in South America. The Yao people were on friendly terms with the Caribs and Aricoures and feared a bloodbath might take place between them, so they intervened and convinced both groups to cease hostilities.

In a dramatic display, the Caribs threw their weapons of war to the ground and ran to embrace the war-party of the Aricoures. The peacemaking Yao then hosted both groups of reconciled enemies in their village for over a week to cement the peace agreement by providing both food and a venue for amicable social interaction.

The importance of the third party as peacemaker is reflected once again in an account by E Adamson Hoebel involving the Comanches and Utes of the North American plains.

A Ute woman who some years before had been captured by the Comanches, and had borne a son, was now a member of the group that was engaged in battle with the Utes. The mother feared for the life of her son, one of the Comanche braves.

She mounted a horse and rode between the two groups of combatants, holding up her hand and insisting that they stop fighting. Delivering a speech, the woman explained that she was on both sides of this conflict for she was a Ute and her son was Comanche. She told all present that the fighting should cease, and after some discussion the two sides made peace.

In recognition of her brave act of peacemaking, a council of Ute chiefs later presented the woman with a special antelope shinbone insignia affixed to her tipi.

Good news

A cross-cultural perspective shows that humans in fact deal with nearly all their conflicts without using any physical aggression, both between individuals and between groups.

Obviously human beings have the potential to make war and to act with violence towards others, but humans also have a strong potential for getting along and solving disputes without violence.

From one culture to the next, people may argue and discuss, or simply ignore and tolerate a conflict. They may also appeal to third parties as mediators, arbitrators or judges, or the third parties themselves may take it upon themselves to act as peacemakers as in the Nubian, Yao, and Ute examples.

In conclusion, anthropology provides good news to peace scholars and activists.

It is possible to create societies with very low levels of violence. It is also possible to construct and nurture peace systems. Both archaeological and nomadic forager studies support the view that war is a rather recent invention, arising under particular circumstances. Humans deal with most of their conflicts without the use of violence.

As a species facing many common threats to our survival, we can draw upon these abilities to work together to achieve peace and security in the twenty-first century and beyond.

Topics: War and peace