Exceptions that Prove the Rule, #4: The Inuit

by Jason Godesky

The latest group to become native to North America came too late to cross the Bering Land Bridge, sailing instead in small boats from east Asia, and forming what anthropologists call the Thule culture in western Alaska around 1000 CE. Their legends preserved memory of the Dorset culture they displaced as giants called Tuniit. By 1300, they had reached Greenland, where Norse colonists called them, the Tuniit and the Beothuks skrælingar—”wretches” in their language. They called themselves “Inuit,” or “the people” in their own Inuktitut language. English speakers came to call them by a name of Algonquian origin of ambiguous meaning (often presumed to be “eaters of raw meat,” though this seems incorrect): “Eskimo.”

The Inuit have not lived long in the arctic reaches of North America, but their adaptations to such a harsh environment are impressive, nonetheless. The Arctic is actually a desert, due to its low precipitation. It is not just the biting cold or the driving winds that make the Arctic such an incredibly difficult environment, but the low precipitation and sudden storms one finds in a desert, as well. Little can grow there but small grasses, mosses and lichens, but these form the basis of an Arctic ecosystem nonetheless. Caribou dig through the snow to find those lichens and grasses that spring up in the short summer growing season, and these constitute a major source of food for the region’s predators—primarily polar bears, and the Inuit themselves. The Inuit are unique in many ways; one of them being that their diet is nearly 100% meat. Inuit will scrape the stomachs of caribou for undigested greens, which can make up the main source of vegetable matter in Inuit diet. Many Inuit, however, have relied more heavily on seal hunting than caribou, and some have even occasionally hunted polar bears—some of the most powerful, most dangerous animals in the world.

Nanook of the North is one of the most famous ethnographic films ever made and the first feature-length documentary, following the life of “Nanook” for one year. “Nanook” was in fact named Allakariallak, and Flaherty was later forced to admit that much of the film had been staged, to recreate what Flaherty imagined to be a more “authentic,” pre-European condition. The scenes at the end, with “Nanook” and his family starving to death, is a complete farce—if nothing else, there were several nearby French-Canadian and Inuit settlements.

The Inuit innovated incredibly elegant and ingenious technologies to deal with the harsh environment. Kayaks were invented by the Inuit for water transport and hunting. The igloo is a marvel of architecture, built from the one material the Inuit had in abundance—snow. It is a structure that effectively maintains heat, can be built in a few hours by a skilled Inuit, and can last for weeks or even months if that is needed.

The principle behind an igloo is hidden in the material it’s constructed out of. Igloos are normally built from compressed snow, which is sawn into blocks, and then these blocks are stacked around a hole, which is dug out after the blocks have been set. Solid ice is a poor insulator, when compared to compressed snow. The snow has many many more air pockets per cubic foot, and is also lighter. Also, igloos do not have flat bottoms. The inside of the igloo is tiered, or terraced, the uppermost level being where the people sleep, the middle is where the fire is and the work takes place, and the bottom level actually is a “cold sump”. The principle is that all the coldest air from inside the igloo runs downward off the terraces and collects in the bottom, thus allowing the upper portions to stay warmer.

The entrance for the igloo is usually at the bottom, and includes at least one right angle, which keeps the high winds from blowing straight into the igloo and chilling the residents or blowing out the fire. They also all have a small hole on the top that keeps the smoke from building up inside the igloo. All of these factors take advantage of underlying physics, and the temperature inside an igloo is likely to be 20 degrees or so, while the outside temperature in northern regions can drop down to -50 degree Fahrenheit during the daytime. 20 degrees may not be what some consider to be comfortable, but a 70 degree difference is certainly welcome somewhere so cold.1

Yet even their ingeniously elegant technology could not completely cope with the harsh ecology of the Arctic all on its own. With so few material resources, the greatest resources available to the Inuit were one another. The division of labor in Inuit society helped deal with the problems of Arctic life.

Life on these precarious margins meant that every member of an Inuit band played an essential role. While her husband hunted, an Inuit wife spent much of her time making clothes-scraping hides, chewing the leather to soften it, and sewing the pieces with sinew. Every seam had to be windproof and watertight; a leaky boot could lead to crippling frostbite. Children and grandparents helped as they could-preparing food, packing sleds, harnessing dogs, setting up tents.2

Inuit beliefs adapted to their ecology, and helped also to support their society on such a difficult environment.

Inuit religion was closely tied to a system of rituals that were integrated into the daily life of the people. These rituals were not terribly complicated, but they were held to be absolutely necessary. According to a customary Inuit saying, “The great peril of our existence lies in the fact that our diet consists entirely of souls.” By believing that all things—including animals—have souls like those of humans, any hunt that fails to show appropriate respect and customary supplication would only give the liberated spirits cause to avenge themselves.

The harshness and randomness of life in the Arctic ensured that Inuit lived constantly in fear of the uncontrollable, where a streak of bad luck could destroy an entire community. To offend a spirit was to run the risk of having them interfere with an already marginal existence. The Inuit plead with supernatural powers to provide them with the necessities of day-to-day survival. As Knud Rasmussen’s Inuit guide told him when asked about Inuit religious beliefs, “We don’t believe. We fear!”3

Western anthropologists have tried to shoe-horn the Inuit into a model of hierarchy, though the umialik or “rich man” is a head of his family, whose attained power comes through personal skill and charisma, and the wealth of a large family.

Highly successful umiliaks could further expand their families, and therefore wealth, by obtaining one or more additional spouses. Thus, the only factor limiting the expansion of family size other than capability of its members, was the availability of local resources. Over several generations, some families were able to command far more goods and resources, while others, smaller in size, had less. Small families resulted from various factors such as accidental death, poor health, weak management, and limited hunting skills. But whatever the cause, fewer relatives meant less people to count on in time of need. In the larger settlements, such as the whaling communities of Point Hope and Barrow, this differentation culminated in a recognizable system of stratification whereby a small number of families were able to attain more wealth and power than those less well endowed. Such power was not hereditary, however. As climatic or other natural events brought about a significant reduction in the available food supply, or as less competent umialiks assumed leadership, the mantle would pass on to more fortunate or more capable families. … For the Inupiat prior to their encounter with the West, people rather than things were the crucial resource.4

This is a heart-warming sentiment, but we must remember that the Inuit lived in an ecology so marginal that they are unique among hunter-gatherers in that their existence was genuinely difficult. Protecting that resource—one’s family—led to tactics as violent as any modern civilization employs to protect material assets.

In War Before Civilization, Keeley relies almost exclusively on horticultural peoples, so while he might provide a strong critique of the “Noble Savage,” he nonetheless helps to underline th connection between war and food production. The major exception are the Inuit. Keeley readily admits that with the Inuit, we are dealing primarily with homicide, rather than anything we would appreciate as “warfare,” but he also points to the lower population of the Inuit, and argues that as a percentage of population, the Inuit lost more people to escalating blood feuds than most industrialized states lost in the wars of the 20th century. Rachel Attituq Qitsualik, an Igloolik Inuit who has worked in Inuit sociopolitical issues for the last 25 years, writes about Inuit culture often for Nunatsiaq News. She details how a blood feud develops:

Where warfare occurred among Inuit, it represents an escalation of murderous reprisals, an alternating series of vendetta killings, each side displaying more savagery and ferocity in response to the latest attack by the other.

The murder—even accidental killing—of a loved one was thought by many Inuit peoples to be a just reason to demand vengeance. It was the avenger’s right and duty.5

In the same series, she underscores the point with how conflict can arise not just from out-and-out killing, but even from wounded egos, and how this leads to a humility eerily reminiscent of the San, and the tradition of “cursing the meat” that Richard Lee discussed in “Eating Christmas in the Kalahari.”

The most common cause for revenge was being made to feel insignificant. Personal ego was of extreme importance to traditional Inuit, which in part explains the strong respect dynamic in Inuit culture. The recognition of one’s isuma—personal and untouchable thoughts and opinions—was of paramount importance.

Additionally, Inuit worthiness was always relative to personal competence, with one’s worth directly measured by one’s ability to survive, and the ability to survive measured by one’s skills.

With these facts in mind, it becomes easier to understand why even the slightest attack upon one’s ego was considered tantamount to physical maiming, and cause for bloody retribution. The most common slight occurred not in the form of verbal abuse, but instead in the form of actions that diminished another’s significance. A hunter, for example, might flaunt his superior knowledge, a bold attack upon other hunters’ egos.

Even in Inuit culture today, there remains a tradition of playing down one’s own skills in public, saying for example, “Ah, I’m no good.” This derives not from true humility, but rather from a tradition of preserving oneself from the retribution of others.6

Qitsualik goes on to describe how anthropologists would often unwittingly set off feuds by focusing on one given contact and naturally praising his skill—leading to the sorts of inequality that stoke Inuit cycles of revenge. To some extent, we might conclude from this that Keeley’s numbers for Inuit violence may be inflated by the very same processes that recorded them, but there is also little doubt that blood feuds and revenge were major elements of Inuit life long before anthropologists came onto the scene.

We can see in these two forms a common thread beginning to emerge, suggesting what we might inuit as the underlying reason why the Inuit would be so exceptional among foragers in their propensity for violence: the Arctic is a very harsh place to live. Resources are few and far between; the most important resource for survival is one’s community, one’s family. If a member of your family is killed, reprisal is usually necessary—in order to maintain balance between competing families, but most of all, in order to establish that destruction of one’s most important resource is a dangerous and costly thing. Failing to avenge a fallen family member sends a signal that a competitor can be eliminated without fear of reprisal: it invites further destruction of one’s most essential resource—one’s family. This point is further underscored by the importance placed on self-worth and ego. Confidence in one’s self, and trust in one’s family, were the bonds that made this approach possible. If people and relationships are the most important resources of Inuit life, then confidence and trust are as vital to that economy as banking, interest and loans are to a monetary economy. This view is supported by the fact that Inuit violence was seasonal.

With the coming of spring, a general truce again went into effect. Inupiat men living in the Kotzebue area north of the Seward Peninsula put away their weapons and moved onto the ice for seal hunting, interspersed a little later on with the pursuit of schools of sheefish. Women took overall responsibility for processing these harvests. Farther north at Point Hope, Wainwright and Barrow, coastal Inupiat hunters spent a large part of April and May in search of the bowhead whale, enroute to summer feeding grounds in the Beaufort Sea. At this same time, hunters would occasionally search for caribou along the upper Utukok and Colville Rivers.7

In that case, the Inuit fight for the same reason anyone else fights—to protect and to expand their resources. The Inuit represent a unique case in that the resource they protect and try to expand is the family. As such, blood feuds and revenge are not allowed to escalate out of control. The Inuit have developed ways of ending the loss of so many precious resources, and concluding escalating blood feuds.

Song-duels seem to have been especially popular among Eastern Arctic peoples, who used them as a way to resolve interpersonal conflict in a non-violent (at least, non-physically violent) fashion. The tradition was encouraged, not only because of its non-violent nature, but because it was great entertainment for the listeners.

The idea was very simple: each contestant would have a turn at inventing a song (sort of the Inuit equivalent of an evening at the improv) with lyrics that would humble, belittle, satirize, denigrate, revile, and generally humiliate the opponent.

The song was made up off the top of the singer’s head, its dual purpose to poke fun at the subject while also amusing listeners. The subject himself could do nothing but sit and stew while the gibes were sung out, and listeners laughed aloud. And laughter was the critical factor in the contest, since it would determine the winner. The rule was “anything goes”—as long as it was funny.

In a song-duel, laughter on the part of listeners indicates approval of the lyrics. Conversely, silence indicates disapproval. The loser is essentially laughed out of the contest.

Song-duelling is an ancient tradition that has dwindled in the face of modernity. Even in the 1950s, I never personally witnessed a song-duel, not even among the Netsilingmiut (among whom it is said to have been popular) with whom my family settled.

The written accounts we have of song-duels seem to indicate that it was primarily a male tradition, perhaps due to the fact that contestants typically liked to drum along with their respective songs. Drumming traditionally lies in the masculine sphere. But this is not to say that women were not participants. In fact, some peoples used a variation in which each contestant would secretly teach his song to his wife, who would sing it for him at the contest.

One way or another, song-duelling was a formal event, carried out in a common area, with allies of either contestant present. Neither contestant enjoyed a “home court” advantage. It was presided over by some neutral authority, generally an elder.8

Violence and war are functions of scarcty (though, as Kelly demonstrates,9 the relationship is not as simple as “scarcity causes warfare”—rather, scarcity provides the impetus, and following abundance the means, for warfare). Foragers are typically not bound by scarcity,10 but the Inuit live in an exceptionally difficult ecology. For them, scarcity is a genuine part of life; we should not be surprised that conflict and violence are thus also part of Inuit life.

The Inuit propensity to violence is almost certainly a direct result of the fact that the Inuit make their living in the most harsh, unforgiving, and marginal ecology in the world—an ecology where agriculture has absolutely no chance of survival. In such an environment, the Inuit have necessarily created one of the most unique foraging cultures, an outlier on the foraging spectrum in many regards, including the prevalence of violence. Though some Inuit have spent nearly half their total time in North America in contact with European cultures, for others, European ways of life are relatively new, and for the elders, the “old ways” are still in living memory. Though often dismissed as nostalgic by the younger generation, the elders insist that even living on the edge of the world, their quality of life has suffered greatly with the introduction of European technologies, culture, and patterns of thought and speech. Perhaps they are simply being nostalgic, or perhaps we should take them at their word—that even the poorest, most marginal foragers have it better than the most “advanced” civilizations of the First World.

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  1. Jason - I enjoy reading your work.

    Thank you for the stimulation


    current resource issues expressed in this statement


    I am forwarding a DECLINE OF MARINE RESOURCES map created by the Alaska Oceans Program
    for 2005.

    Do we get to mark this up as a success (?) for Sen Stevens /North Pacific
    Management? program??

    I protest, deny and object to this destruction of Eskimo, Indian and Aleut resources
    we have depended on since time immemorial.

    The Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts are not a party to the State constitution document.
    We never consented to OR never were we ALLOWED to vote
    for the Constitution.
    (The Statehood Act Sec. 4 - the price for “statehood”: thanks for the disclaimer
    clause, but we are still not a party to the document.)

    According to the UN Charter of 1945 (a treaty document) specifically Sec. 76(b)
    regarding the Non Self-governing territories of which Alaska is on the list,
    the Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts were supposed to
    vote for independence, or self-government .

    Eskimos, Indians and Aleuts were NOT allowed to vote
    (The State of Alaska constitution document
    Article V Section 1: Suffrage: stated we had to speak and write
    English, take a test). Some tried and were escorted away.
    Why wasn’t there a Rappatour WATCHING and demanding
    that we be voting for independence or self-governance???
    That Constitution was voted on by the non-natives RESIDING in Alaska.
    And the military personnel based up here were approved to vote by the US Pres. that
    the military personnel could vote and still get paid OVERSEAS
    pay AND keep their “homebase/point of entry” into the military so the feds pay
    for their return to their “homebase” when they’re finished with their
    “duty”. PLUS the military personnel got paid for voting for statehood.

    I protest, deny and object.
    All rights reserved/preserved.
    Delice Calcote (non-treaty Alutiiq of Afognak Island/Sugpiaq Nation)
    Cook Inlet Marine Mammal Council Secretary
    c/o USPO Box 4491

    Comment by Rich Haard — 19 October 2006 @ 12:35 AM

  2. I hadn’t heard they were so violent. I wonder why? I knew they didn’t get along with the indians living below them.

    Do you think all the wife swapping might have reduced violence? Kind of like bonobos?

    Comment by Ted Heistman — 19 October 2006 @ 1:11 AM

  3. The Inuit are consistently thrown back at me as a counter-example: foragers who are violent, foragers that use euthanasia, etc. Why that is, and why they’re not exactly representative of the “forager experience,” is the whole point of this article, but it mostly comes down to one essential fact—they live in the fruggin’ Arctic!

    That’s an interesting hypothesis about the wife-swapping. Might be; I’d love to see if anyone’s ever looked into that.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 19 October 2006 @ 9:21 AM

  4. I know inuit dogs are more violent than other breeds of dog, not with humans but with dogs. I know some people who have these type of sled dogs. They are still just like what you saw in the movie “Nanook of the North”

    maybe the inuit are violent for the same reason their dogs are. Because they are not domesticated.

    Dog mushers that race in the iditarod of bred out most of the dog agression genes. If they have a dog that is a fighter they cull it from the gene pool. You could say the dog musher has a monopoly on violence in an iditarod team.

    So you have these heavily armed men in inuit socety, used to killing their food everyday, there is no State to bring order and monopolize all the violence, so they sort things out for themselves.

    Makes sense to me.

    Comment by Ted Heistman — 19 October 2006 @ 1:36 PM

  5. I wouldn’t call the Pygmies or the Bushmen domesticated, either, but they’re also not very violent. So it can’t just be a question of being undomesticated.

    That explanation also suggests that violence is in our nature, and I don’t think it is. When you make that argument, though, you also justify civilization: if we’re by nature violent, then it is good for us to be domesticated, and civilization is justified in suppressing our nature because our nature is a bad thing.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 19 October 2006 @ 1:44 PM

  6. uh… careful there (deja vu?)

    Violence Is in our nature… but it is in our nature in a way quite different from how our culture defines it.

    Let’s say we have the capacity for violence but culture and circumstance makes ALL the difference as to when, how, how much it is expressed…


    Comment by janene — 19 October 2006 @ 2:09 PM

  7. Therein lies the crucial difference between having a capacity for violence and being violent. We all have a capacity for violence, just as Bushmen or Pygmies are perfectly capable of fighting or killing, but I wouldn’t call them violent, and while the capacity for violence is very much part of human nature, I would argue very strongly against the notion that human nature is violent. That difference is all the difference.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 19 October 2006 @ 2:16 PM

  8. Gotcha. I can agree to that :-)


    Comment by janene — 19 October 2006 @ 2:29 PM

  9. First of all human nature is very hard to define. Some people think it is a totally empty concept. Like Fredy Perlman for example.

    We can observe violent chimps and peaceful bonobos, and draw conclusions based on their behavior but for humans our perceptions are collored by lofty moral ideals.

    From what I have read of the San bushmen, they have a murder rate similar to other societies.

    Why is not the case that muder is typical of human and animal behavior? Why must we always hearken back to a peaceful golden age that may never have existed?

    I mean if we share common ancestors with chimps and chimps commit muder, why is it not the case that murder is part of human nature?

    Comment by Ted Heistman — 19 October 2006 @ 4:15 PM

  10. Human nature is very easy to define—just like elephant nature, wolf nature, bee nature or shark nature. It’s certainly not an empty notion; it’s just that as humans, we have something invested in it, and often we are very intent that it must not be what it actually is.

    I’ve actually already written a bit on chimps, bonobos, and human nature elsewhere. I couldn’t have picked a better example myself that our ignorance of our own nature is quite willful.

    I’d be very interested in what you’ve read about the San, though, because from what I’ve read, murder is virtually unknown.

    As for why murder’s not the case, it hasn’t a thing to do with a golden age—I’d accept it if that’s what the evidence pointed to. I just see no evidence for it. It also makes no evolutionary sense.

    But since the capacity for violence is part of human nature, and since any healthy society has some expression for violence, I’d say that it’s quite obvious that humans are capable of murder. The question is, is murder common? Are humans inherently violent, as opposed to simply being capable of violence? That’s a big difference.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 19 October 2006 @ 4:21 PM

  11. Well, what it comes down to me is wether or not a person wants to create a utopian society where there is no violence.

    The way most societies have achieved an approximation of this is to have the state monopolize violence and to supress the freedom of its citizens.

    Words like “rare” “capable” and so forth are pretty vague and relative.

    People kill each other that is a fact. Is this a part of human nature that needs to be changed through eugenics programs or sociological experiments or is it somthing to be accepted?

    I tend to put a higher premium on freedom and personal autonomy that in security and order.

    I also don’t want to overly romanticize hunter gatherers. I think its obvious they fight and make war and commit murder. They come up with cultural ways to control it but its there.

    Primitive people carry around weapons, the men are warriors they have neighbors that they consider enemies, and within their society they are more close knit and affectionate and intimate.

    I think in civilized society we have balanced things out. Less violence and less intimacy.

    Comment by Ted Heistman — 19 October 2006 @ 6:30 PM

  12. Hey Ted –

    less violence? Are you kidding me?


    Comment by janene — 20 October 2006 @ 12:06 PM

  13. A society without violence cannot be utopian. Humans will always have violent tendencies. We get mad, and we want to hit things. For males especially, violence can be a very primal and effective way of connecting with something real—see Fight Club. A society without violence is a society that relies on repression of a natural instinct—and thus, cannot be utopian.

    But when you let the violent impulse play itself out, does it really go all the way to murder? Not usually, I don’t think.

    All adult male Bushmen have a bow and poisoned arrows. The poison is deadly and agonizing, but is slow acting and so allows its victim time for retaliation. The Bushmen then have very good reason to contain violence, since it can easily escalate to deadly levels. As noted above, Bushmen children are socialized to fear and avoid violence. War is unknown. However, impulsive violence and even murder does occur among the Bushmen. When temper flare between adults, their friends and relatives will often find and hide the poisoned arrows. People will actively intervene to break up fights. If violence occurs or tensions remain high, one or both groups will be asked to move away. Separating the parties allows tempers to cool, and social norms to reassert control. Ury recounts the extreme case of a serial killer. “In the 1940s a man named Twi who had killed two people and was possibly psychotic was ambushed by his community and was fatally wounded. After he was dead, all the men and women stabbed him with spears, thus symbolically sharing the responsibility for what had amounted to a collective execution.”1

    I think when violence is allowed to run its course, you end up with less violence than when you try to repress it. I think our society’s idea that violence is qualitatively “bad” has led to our society becoming hyper-violent. We’re never given a healthy outlet for violent emotion or impulse, and so it simply builds and becomes pathological. It eventually finds in release, but when it does, it’s compounded by the failed attempt to stop that. Primitive societies have a much healthier attitude towards violence, and so experience much less actual violence than civilizations. Civilizations try to repress violence, and by deeming violence always and everywhere illegitimate, create the conditions for far more violence to take place.

    The first evidence for war, archaeological, in cave paintings, or anything else, only goes back to 12,000 BCE—not long before the Neolithic, or in it by some estimates. Questioning the relationship of war and violence to “human nature” and hunter-gatherers is not anything vague, or even romanticizing “Noble Savages”—it’s refusing to accept a Hobbesian view of ourselves without question. There’s very good reason to question the notion that violence, war and murder are aything but aberrations, and it’s high time we did so, rather than passively accepting such things as necessary evils.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 20 October 2006 @ 3:26 PM

  14. Well, it looks to me like your premise is to counter the argument that we need civilization to keep humanity’s violent impulses in check.

    My argument is that it doesn’t need to be countered. It is better to have freedom even if it brings more violence with it.

    I think it would though. I think all men would need to know how to fight and use weapons. I think people would need to be armed when they travel around.

    I think a lot of people would prefer to live in a more secure enviroment than that however.

    In the midst of a civilized society people have that. Sure much of the foundations of the society are based on conquest abroad and opression at home, but still things are safer on an interpersonal level; a local level.

    I do think it is part of human otogeny to fight. I agree it is better not to repress that.

    I don’t think this is the view of most anti-civ anarchsits coming from a left perspective. The argument there is that all violence is bad and that the main reason civilization is bad is because its violent.

    I think its just better at violence making it more sophisticated and impersonal. Its better at exploitation and domination through threats of violence.

    But to live in a primitive society means killing for food, very likely killing other people in battle close up and face to face and carrying a weopon when traveling.

    I want to acknowledge that. Not rationalize it away.

    That relationship with violence does not exist for the average middle class member of a first world country.

    Comment by Ted Heistman — 20 October 2006 @ 6:06 PM

  15. Even if what your acknowledging is nothing more than a Hobbesian mirage? Even if it’s all just for fear of being called an idealistic, Rousseauian Romantic? I agree that part of our problem with violence is our distance from it—we hire soldiers and slaughterhouse workers to do our violence for us, we try to remove ourselves from the essential violence of all animal life, and part of rewilding is learning to do our own violence, to kill an animal and eat it, and be prepared to defend ourselves against other humans, should it come to that. But does it often come to that? Is it human nature to kill each other? Is it commonplace, or is it exceptional? Is it to be expected, or is it a freak thing that happens only every so often? I’ve studied enough about war to know a few things. I know that for millions of years, there’s no evidence of it whatsoever—not one spearhead lodged in a rib cage, not one broken skull, not one cave painting of a glorious victory in battle. Then, about 12,000 BCE, the cave paintings appear. With bows and the Neolithic, you start to see arrowheads in people’s rib cages. War and murder are recent inventions in human history, as recent as agriculture itself. I’m not interested in acknowledging anything that isn’t true, even if someone wants to call me a Romantic for it.

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 20 October 2006 @ 11:56 PM

  16. The interplay between violence and egalitarianism in the Bushman and similar groups contrasts sharply with the various monopolies of violence in our own societies. Basically, as all Bushmen are armed, and all know how to kill, and there is no state restraint, everyone comes to understand a very simple rule: Be nice. Don’t hang sh*t on anyone else or you’ll get killed.

    With us, violence is complicated by the (often strictly theoretical) prospect of state intervention and a great uncertainty regarding outcomes. Perhaps the parties will just stand around screaming ‘F*ck you!’ at each other. Perhaps they will indulge in what is effectively ritualistic punching, but battery nonetheless. Or someone might end up on the ground with a boot in the head. Or the knives or guns come out. Or the law and the courts get involved, and even minding your own business can look guilty under forensic investigation. Many people will endure low-level violence in possibly ambiguous circumstances rather than endure the complications of the law. And so far I have not even considered the reality that social position enables violence in our societies, and that some people can literally get away with murder.

    The net result, then, is a much greater prevalence of what we might call ‘ego violence’ - mouthing off and lower-level assaults, with this behaviour spread ‘undemocratically’ (for want of a better term). Some people get to indulge in practically costless violence against others.

    Personally I think the simple clarity of the Bushmen way has a lot more going for it. Violence of any form against other people is understood by all to have very serious consequences, in virtually all cases. And that is as it should be.

    Comment by Eric — 25 October 2006 @ 11:28 PM

  17. Is there any evidence that other people around the arctic were similarly violent like the Sami of northern scandinavia or the Samoyedic people in Russia? Or is it a case of those people adopted reindeer herding and thus live lives of less scarcity?

    Comment by Andy — 26 October 2006 @ 4:13 PM

  18. That’s an excellent question. I don’t know. But I’ll bet that Piers Vitebsky’s The Reindeer People: Living with Animals and Spirits in Siberia would be a great place to start looking….

    Comment by Jason Godesky — 26 October 2006 @ 4:16 PM

  19. I bet many young people would be interested to know that the Inuit invented hip hop-style “battling” hundreds of years before rappers.

    Comment by limukala — 27 November 2006 @ 2:54 AM

  20. Reading through this post again, I suddenly remembered an article I read years ago about the Icelandic notion of [i]frith[/i].

    Here it is:

    I think it can provide some additional insight to a lot of the things Anthropik has been talking about lately.

    A short excerpt regarding violence:
    [quote]This absolute, uncompromising character of kindred-oriented frith actually contributed significantly to the pursuit of feuds and strife within the larger community, at the same time that it reduced strife within the kindred, inside the pale of frith. Frith was nothing if not partisan: focused on security and stability of the kindred, it had no appl ication to those individuals and groups who lay outside the boundaries when it came to a conflict of interest between the two. Nor could any notion of absolute, unbiased justice make a dent in it: defending one’s kindred was always right, no matter how wrong their actions were.[/quote]

    And another one about [i]frithguilds[/i], which grew up as a way to replace the traditional bonds of kinship, fealty and worship that broke down as northern European society grew larger and more complex:
    [quote]The general provisions of the frithguilds were as follows:
    Members of a guild were not to engage in strife with each other; but if they did do so, they were not allowed to bring it before any court for litigation, excepting the court of the Guild itself.

    If anyone killed a man who was not a member of the Guild, the Guild must help their fellow escape with such provision as they could manage for his well-being. Anyone who failed to help when they were able to do so was cast out as a niðing.

    Every brother of the Guild was obliged to help every other one in lawsuits (by being an oath-helper, by guarding him in court and out, and so forth).

    If a Guild-brother was killed, other Guild members must refrain from eating, drinking, or having any social connections with his slayer, and must aid the dead man s heirs in seeking vengeance or restitution. (See Groenbech, Vol. I, Ch. 1)

    By these descriptions, we can gain a better understanding of our forebears’ expectations of frith, of its value to them and their dependence on it for support and safety. [/quote]

    Comment by jhereg — 30 November 2006 @ 12:57 PM

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