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Our foraging ancestors weren’t particularly war-like

Few subjects more predictably animate furious disagreement and cross-purposes discussion than the origins of human warfare. Are people “naturally” belligerent? And what does that even mean?

The question taps a deep old well of ideological intuition. Were the lives of our ancestors, as Thomas Hobbes' infamously put it in the 17th century, “nasty, brutish and short”? Or, were our ancestors more like the “noble savages” of romantic primitivism? Our beliefs about these issues colour whether we feel our lives are generally better or worse than those of our ancestors.

This dichotomy, in more nuanced forms, has haunted and at times paralysed anthropology since at least the 19th Century. And it reared its head again recently with the divisive reception granted to books such as Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, and Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday, as well as a flurry of renewed interest in controversial anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon.

Steven Pinker outlines his case that violence has steadily declined throughout history

From my reading, the evidence stacks pretty solidly in favour of Pinker’s thesis that violence has decreased dramatically throughout human history. As John Armstrong put it in his review of Pinker’s book, The World Has Never Been as Safe and Peaceful as it is Now. But Pinker continues to attract considerable static, particularly from those quarters where pessimism about modern life and paranoia about Western imperialism run hottest.

But the overall battle over the decline of violence is but one theme in the history of violence, a history replete with intriguing sub-plots. The prevalence of warfare among mobile forager band societies occupies a place of particular controversy among anthropologists who actually work in the field.

Until 10,000 years ago, the ancestors of everybody alive today lived in small nomadic bands and foraged what food they could catch or gather. Most of our species' recent past - hundreds of thousands of years - was spent hunting, gathering and moving about in this way. As a result, accounts of human adaptation often consider in some depth this period, given its importance in determining which genes and traits our ancestors bequeathed to us.

A small number of “mobile forager band” (MFB) societies still exist - or persisted long enough for anthropologists to study them systematically. It is from these peoples that we draw almost everything we know about the way our ancestors lived until the seismic changes wrought by agriculture.

From modern accounts of MFB societies we can infer that our ancestors were certainly violent. Ethnographies document homicidal personal disputes, spousal killings, fights among men over women, executions of outsiders and inter-group killings.

But were our MFB ancestors war-faring? War, here, is a subset of lethal violence that involves members of a group working together to overcome members of other groups. It’s one of those appalling human traits that romantics would like to pretend doesn’t happen elsewhere in the animal world. But ants, by this definition, certainly wage war among colonies. And Jane Goodall’s discovery in the early 1970s that chimpanzees from one group occasionally work together to kill members of other groups suggests our closest living relatives look pretty war-like too.

Harvard Anthropologists Richard Wrangham and Luke Glowacki argued in a recent paper that our ancestors waged chimp-like warfare, launching coordinated surprise attacks on other groups. Raids of this sort, in order to weaken other groups, or capture livestock, property or women, are a feature of every society that has domesticated livestock, horses or agricultural crops. But these societies tend to involve bigger, more complex groups, and forms of wealth more worth fighting over than MFB societies.

Mobile forager bands have more characteristically egalitarian political structures, less coalition-forming behaviour, and few resources or possessions worth defending. These properties don’t make good ingredients for war-mongering. So it’s really worth knowing just how much of MFB violence can be considered warfare. As my post-doc advisor was occasionally heard to say:

Just get the data!

Last week’s edition of Science contained an exhaustive analysis by Douglas P. Fry and Patrik Söderberg, who scrutinised the existing accounts of all lethal violence in 21 MFB societies. They tabulated the causes of 148 cases of lethal aggression, and found that two thirds originated from within-group conflicts. The majority of these deaths were caused by a lone perpetrator.

Only one third of events could possibly be construed as acts of warfare. And most of these events occurred in one society - the Tiwi of northern Australia in which ethnographers documented several intergroup disputes and revenge-seeking cycles. In the other 20 MFB societies only around 15% of deaths by lethal aggression could possibly fit the definition of war.

The authors concluded that:

most incidents of lethal aggression among MFBS may be classified as homicides, a few others as feuds, and a minority as war.

Refreshing as it is to see a calm, data-driven approach to answering a tightly-proscribed research question, the prevailing discussion over the last week has fallen into old ruts.

“War arose recently” proclaimed ScienceNews. Fair enough. I don’t think Fry and Söderberg would contest the argument that agriculture and the rise of complex societies made war a worthwhile - in the economic sense rational - option. And that stoked the body count.

But the Socialist Worker led, as it does, the charge against scientific accounts of human nature. War Not Due to Human Nature it proclaimed, reeling off a link-fest of SW diatribes against scientific accounts of human behaviour, and then linking to a somewhat more considered piece from Slate.

I’m happy to grant that these data show that MFB societies don’t make as much war as agriculturalists and pastoralists, not to mention contemporary weapon-rich societies. But I’m intrigued about the Tiwi, who don’t fit the mould. I’m not familiar with the data, but according to ScienceNews, Samuel Bowles reckons the Tiwi were among the more peaceful hunter-gatherer societies he studied in an earlier Science paper that reached more bleak conclusions about the history of war.

And I’m equally intrigued by how societies can tip so quickly into belligerence as soon as they settle down and accumulate some wealth. The capacity to form coalitions and deploy them for ill may have been there all along.

Where did that come from?

Join the conversation

27 Comments sorted by

  1. James Hill

    Industrial Designer

    Did the author ever consult Robert Ardrey's The Territorial Imperative?
    A threat to food supplies, from competition for "territory", would set off aggression, even in our pre-human ancestors, one might surmise.
    One possible answer to where "It" may come from.
    If you don't eat you die, and to avoid dying you might even kill.
    Konrad Lorenz showed that some of his bird study subjects pecked at competitors to urge their departure.
    One species of bird, finding that their victim did not fly away…

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  2. Dale Bloom


    Wars have been the crucible of most modern societies.

    If another nation was conquered, it opened up more trade and travel routes, and allowed the exchange of skills and different technologies between societies.

    But with a world now heavily in economic debt and facing huge environmental problems, there is absolutely no need for another war.

  3. David Thompson

    Marketing Research

    "Few subjects more predictably animate furious disagreement and cross-purposes discussion than the origins of human warfare. Are people “naturally” belligerent? And what does that even mean?"
    Even as somebody who has a history degree, I don't claim any peculiarly special insight, but it has given me a good pozzie from which to observe "furious disagreement and cross-purposes discussion". From that pozzie, compared to the origins of human warfare, etc, I could name without notes, about 23,598,783 subjects, which incite far more furious disagreement, and so on. Oh, and on the violence issue, I think we are all pretty clear that the neolithic agricultural revolution was as big a game-changer as can be. Comparisons with pre-historic foragers are irrelevant.

  4. David Thompson

    Marketing Research

    "And I’m equally intrigued by how societies can tip so quickly into belligerence as soon as they settle down and accumulate some wealth."
    I'd say folks are prepared to pay a high price for security and stability of food supply. Not to mention first dibs on chicks!

  5. David Thompson

    Marketing Research

    Do any of the links talk about the levels of violence in cycles of sorcery and 'payback' in traditional Aboriginal groups? Still goes on today. In the past, with no agriculture or civilisation for distraction, they would have had an awful lot of free time.

  6. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Personally I don't think the answer is that hard to come by.

    History is an eloquent reminder.

    The "good times" are easy to live with and we can all,be nice when it's milk and honey. But hello to "hard times" and the knives are out and we all descend into nasty little creatures.

    We are all tribal under the skin I imagine.

  7. Anthony Nolan

    logged in via email

    Thanks for an interesting article Rob. Maybe you could incorporate some of the insights of Norbert Elias's 'The Civilizing Process' (1939) in which he shows that:

    " European standards regarding violence, sexual behaviour, bodily functions, table manners and forms of speech were gradually transformed by increasing thresholds of shame and repugnance, working outward from a nucleus in court etiquette. The internalized "self-restraint" imposed by increasingly complex networks of social…

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  8. Andy Ruddock

    Senior Lecturer, Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University

    Great piece. Isn't there research somewhere about huge percentages of soldiers during World War II who wouldn't fire their weapons, although they were willing to risk their lives saving their friends and the like? I seem to recall reading that somewhere.

    1. Russell Walton


      In reply to Andy Ruddock

      Yes, there's a reference in C. W Mill's book " The Power Elite".

      From memory, the text is "40 per cent of US soldiers did not always fire on the enemy when they were in a position to do so".
      My interpretation is that it was not always the same individuals. There are many examples of "gentleman's agreements" in WW1, ie informal truces between front line troops.

  9. Pat Moore


    Hi Rob, gee you're a busy man, cum 'media tart'...I see you popping up all over the place lately, Catalyst's smelly t-shirt competition, Insight etc...the popularity of your speciality no doubt.

    This is a necessary topic for mankind, one to enable some insight into his unconscious behaviour hopefully. Though I did think there was the slight problem of an unmentioned bull elephant in the room, that being the matter of a particular gender and its relationship to war/violence behaviours...but…

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    1. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Pat Moore

      'for the term of our natural lives' (as a species) 'blooded'?

      Nearly every species attempts to extend the boundaries of its territory, which may lead to conflicts with other species.

      Some species now migrate vast distances each year.


      Humans have done and still do similar.


      Interesting how evolutionary biologists missed this basic trait of nearly every species.

    2. Laurie Strachan


      In reply to Pat Moore

      Pat, I would have thought that "first dibs on chicks" was not just a human trait but a fundamental part of animal behaviour - the biggest bull gets all the females. Perhaps you should stop and think quietly before recommending "a reconstructuring workshop" for someone who disagrees with you.

    3. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Laurie Strachan

      "I would have thought that "first dibs on chicks" was not just a human trait but a fundamental part of animal behaviour"

      Go tell that to hyenas and many other species - particularly arachnids...

    4. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Laurie Strachan

      Not always - Marilyn Monroe married two "non-bull" like men, albiet one a sporting hero (and the other a nerdy playwright).

      Sophia Loren married a much older man - and not exactly a romeo.

      Cows don't have much choice in the paddock, but women seem to be more eclectic in the choices.

    5. Pat Moore


      In reply to Dale Bloom

      But Dale, migration isn't extending territory is it? North & south of the seasonal globe IS the territory of wonderous migrating birds? Dry plains, watered plains of African wilderbeast? Antarctic summer feeding grounds/ tropical birthing & mating waters of humpback whales in the winter? In 6 weeks the cuckoos will be coming down.

      As far as Aussies going to London I thought that was part of the cultural cringe & genetically, nostalgically returning to source for English-descendant Australians?

    6. Pat Moore


      In reply to Mitch Dillon

      No Mitch, no links to such 'unequivocal' research as you suspected, but you notice that whole paragraph was a series of questions, not exclusively rhetorical but indeed challenging, directed to Rob?

      Thanks for the Nature link which had a rather misleading headline wouldn't you say..."Neanderthals may have interbred with humans"? Extrapolating backwards through the human history of war, rape, theft & pillage it is a matter of historical fact that the victorious tribe/race or species in this case…

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    7. Pat Moore


      In reply to Laurie Strachan

      Well in my paddock Laurie just a few weeks ago I watched two 'big' Charbray bulls fighting it out (or more properly 'displaying' it out) with all their bawling, down-on-their-knees hole digging, defecating in said hole and then tossing that mixture all over themselves. Meanwhile back at the ovulating cow there was the little red, uninterrupted Brahman bull.

      I normally do think quietly thanks Laurie....'reconstructuring workshop' was a joke...this is now anachronistic terminology from the olden…

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    8. Pat Moore


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Yes Stephen, the touchy issue here seems to be who is doing the choosing as Dianna alluded to. But in the case of cows choice is not really relevant.. impregnation requires just one brief day together every 18 months/2 years, unlike human partnering and the challenges of parenting in this increasingly hostile society...the bond between that mother & her beautiful calf is the basis of the herd's integrity.

      No, there was an overwhelming majority of citizens in Western 'democracies' who objected strongly to the Iraqi invasion. (links???) which proves we don't have the choice, which proves in turn that we don't actually live in 'democracies' but are subject states/provincial countries in a capitalist market-based, war-mongering empire. (Seneca..."democracies can't run empires").

    9. Dale Bloom


      In reply to Pat Moore

      Various species learnt to migrate after extending their territory.

      Interesting there is an article on Cane Toads on The Conversation, and the cane toads are extending their territory.

      They are also at war with many other species, and use chemical warfare against other species.

  10. Dianna Arthur


    Another interesting article Rob.

    I view war as physical politics enacted by the powerful few as a means to an end.

    The majority of humans surely, just want to get on with life. Another poster mentioned WW1 soldiers refusing to fire - I also recall a story of German troops and Allied Troops putting down their guns at Christmas.

    While I don't believe that the above mentioned mass style violence is an innate trait of humans (more a trait of the alphas), I do believe that for reasons of survival, some people became more aggressive than others.

    On balance, most of us would rather live in peace. And, on balance, that is what we actually have throughout most of the world. Of course if one is to take MSM as a guide, then all humans are at each others throats all of the time.

    1. Stephen Ralph

      carer at n/a

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      I'd agree Miz A that most of us would rather live in peace (than war), but it would seem we are lead by the nose by our politicians and advisors.

      I wonder when it is announced by a leader that such and such country is going to "invade" another country, what is the balance of opinion among the populace.

      When the US went into Iraq, was the opinions of citizens for or against - or evenly divided.

      Similarly with "our" invovlement in the same arena, how did the Aussie citizens divide in terms of favourable and non?

      Do we we have any choice or do we just go along with the flow of decisons made in our name?

      In the past history has seen people like Napoleon, Alexander, Hitler etc make decisions about war and invasion that cost dearly in terms of lives and devastation.

      The term cannon fodder springs to mind. Even WW1 from what I can gather was a manufactured war giving the Kings and generals a real-life chess game.

    2. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Stephen Ralph

      Morning Mr R

      I recall being one of many thousands who marched in protest against Howard's war of the willing invasion of Iraq. And the fact the our protests were completely ignored.

      Does this mean we are primarily war-like, or that leaders tend to be more war-like? We have had leaders of peace, such as Mahatma Gandhi or Nelson Mandela nor have all nations been at each other's throats all of the time. I take this to mean the majority prefer peace. If there is a way to weed out the power hungry from positions of leadership, I believe we would be well on our way to world peace - however, I don't see this happening any time soon.

      Doesn't mean we should just give up.

  11. Peter Ormonde
    Peter Ormonde is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Surely Dr Rob, settling down, putting aside your wanderings and meanderings and growing radishes does something more than giving folks material possessions... it bolts them to the same place. Suddenly you can't just up and wander away, head off to the next stage on the travels, find somewhere safer, find somewhere unclaimed or less well defended.

    So instead of light skirmishing with passing hordes, always moving, even in a circuit, one now has deep simmering disputes with neighbours. One has…

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    1. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Peter Ormonde

      "Was it just curiosity that drove the great human expansion across the globe - or was it asylum seeking? "

      To which I'd add the seeking of riches (power) - just ask the Conquistadors, better still ask the Mayans.

      Probably a combination of all three Mr O. Which would explain the visceral reaction of some people to a handful of hapless refugees; perceiving them as invasive/mistaking them for Cortés.

  12. Yoron Hamber


    I agree that we're going toward more peaceful solutions. I would deem it a result of us getting a better education, allowing for more thoughts on what we are, and what we want to be. I think ideals and education are what form our behavior, society's ideals, as well as our own. So don't get miserly when it comes to education :)