Hunter-gatherers live in relative peace.

While some hunter-gatherers do fight and kill, most live with far less violence than the modern world. Wars only make sense (and only appear in the archaeological record) when your survival depends on controlling a specific piece of land, like a garden or a field. Without that, hunter-gatherers usually prefer avoiding conflict to risking their lives in battle.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem In Memoriam A.H.H. describes humanity, “Who trusted God was love indeed / And love Creation’s final law / Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw / With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.” That famous verse reflects on the theological crisis that the theory of evolution presented. Darwin’s theory seemed predicated on the supposition of a violent natural world where only the strongest could survive.

Since the days of Darwin and Lord Tennyson, though, researchers have composed an extensive body of literature on animal threat displays. Fighting brings with it enormous costs and risks for any animal, so an animal that proves too eager to fight will very quickly pick the wrong one and lose. Rather than making nature “red in tooth and claw,” evolution has more often selected for significant conflict aversion. Unless an animal has a sure indication that they will win without injury, or the resources mean so much that risking injury or death makes sense, animals try to avoid fighting. Threat displays play a key role in this, allowing animals to resolve conflicts without resorting to actual violence. It doesn’t always work, of course. Sometimes fights still happen. Evolution doesn’t favor “the strong,” though, nearly so much as it favors those wise enough to pick their battles and avoid a fight whenever they can.

This persistent idea of the inherent violence of the natural world combines easily with the European myth of the “savage” so often projected onto traditional people (Jahoda, 1998) to make it seem so obvious that without civilization humans must exist in a state of constant violence, warfare, and strife, that it hardly requires any research, data, or validation. In the twentieth century, though, anthropologists caused quite a stir by actually examining traditional societies and finding many of them far less violent than expected — going so far as to even call some of them “warless.”

Generally, anthropologists found that hunter-gatherers seemed very conflict-averse. When threatened by a neighboring group, hunter-gatherers would simply move to a different part of their territory. When the threat went away, they would return. They had little reason to fight, and so did not generally fight very often. By contrast, societies that rely on cultivation live in fixed settlements. Those societies go to war far more often, because they have to defend fixed points like villages, cities, and fields, and cannot simply walk away from them as hunter-gatherers can (Kelly, 2000).

Archaeological evidence seems to support this idea, showing no evidence for violent conflict until 10,000 years ago, well into the Neolithic, when horticultural and agricultural societies first began to emerge (Ferguson, 2013). The oldest cave art depicting a battle comes from Arnhem Land, dating to 10,000 years ago (Taçon & Chippindale, 1994). We also find some of the earliest skeletal evidence for humans killed violently by other humans from the same time (Haas & Piscitelli, 2013).

After a few decades of mounting evidence, a backlash began to develop. While later writers like Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond have garnered more attention, they have all leaned heavily on the work of Lawrence Keeley. Keeley pointed out that while conflicts observed among what he called “primitive” societies may involve few casualties, these societies have very small populations, so we must consider them not as absolute numbers but as percentages. From that point of view, Keeley argued, even a few casualties can mean a higher percentage of the population slain in war than the people of WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) countries killed in World War II. (Keeley, 1996)

Keeley’s argument calls our attention to a tricky question: how do we distinguish between a war and a homicide? Margaret Mead distinguished between individual and group violence among the Inuit in Greenland. She noted that one could hardly consider them a “mild and meek people,” for they engaged in “fights, theft of wives, murder, cannibalism,” and other violent acts, often provoked by fear of starvation. She noted that the Inuit have “[t]he personality necessary for war, the circumstances necessary to goad men to desperation are present, but there is no war.” (1990) Similarly, Raymond Kelly considered war to include a vital social component. In war, individuals kill to harm another group as a group, rather than the individuals in that group, and they act as an agent of their own group. Individual people must, of course, commit the individual acts of violence that make up a war, but without that sense of acting on behalf of a group and against a different group, that violence lacks the social context of a war (Kelly, 2000).

Kelly and Keeley both point to the Gebusi as an example to prove their point. According to Keeley, “the United States military would have had to kill nearly the whole population of South Vietnam during its nine-year involvement there, in addition to its internal homicide rate, to equal the homicide rate of the Gebusi.” (Keeley, 1996) Kelly, however, points out that in most of the cases of Gebusi homicide that Keeley references, Gebusi slew a purported sorcerer, blurring the lines not only between homicide and war, but homicide and what would in a state’s context fall under the heading of capital punishment. Kelly argues that we can’t fairly call a situation like this “war.” While the killer or killers may see themselves as agents of a group, they act against an individual as an individual (Kelly, 2000).

Keeley and his successors return again and again to the same small handful of societies. On the surface, the data seems undeniable, but if we take the time to examine these societies individually, a different story emerges.

The Yanomami

Some 35,000 Yanomami live today in 200-250 villages in the Amazon rainforest, straddling the border between Venezuela and Brazil. They rely on slash-and-burn horticulture to grow bananas, but they also hunt, fish, and gather fruit from the forest. They live in communal villages of 50-400 individuals called shabonos.

The Yanomami have became the subject of much ethnographic research and discussion largely because of Napoleon Chagnon’s fieldwork in the mid-1960s and late 1990s. Chagnon said that the Yanomami existed “in a state of chronic warfare” (Chagnon, 1968). His argument that the most warlike and violent Yanomami men had more children became influential in sociobiology, leading some people like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker to laud him as a brilliant and fearless scientist.

Chagnon’s work relied on gathering genealogies, but the Yanomami do not use the sort of fixed identities necessary for such a Western model. They employ many different names in different contexts, and can easily shed old names and gain new ones. In his memoir, Chagnon admits to undertaking “the delicate task of identifying everyone by name and numbering them with indelible ink to make sure that everyone had only one name and identity.”

Even worse, the Yanomami consider saying someone’s name in their presence a grave insult. They also consider it paramount to exclude the dead from society altogether. This, of course, made it extremely difficult for Chagnon to compile his genealogies. Yanomami shout each others’ names when they line up for battle precisely to provoke their enemies, so to compile genealogies for a village he would visit its enemies. He would confirm these names by returning to the village to begin reciting them. If this enraged his hosts, he knew he had the right names.

Chagnon also coaxed and bribed Yanomami for names by turning villagers against each other or cornering them alone. He relied heavily on passing out small fortunes in steel tools, including axes and machetes, to pay informants (Sahlins, 2000). Ultimately, Chagnon collected 10,000 names, including the names of 7,000 deceased Yanomami.

Chagnon understood that his bribes created animosity. “The distribution of trade goods would always anger people who did not receive something they wanted, and it was useless to try and work any longer in the village.” (Chagnon, 1968) Beyond this simple envy, however, Chagnon’s approach provoked enormous hostility and anger. The Yanomami despised him so much that many would go to war with any village that would take him in. (Sahlins, 2000) Chagnon’s bribes poured gasoline on that fire, making sure that Yanomami in the area had plenty of steel axes and machetes to arm themselves with. In short, everything that Chagnon did encouraged and incited warfare, raising the question: should we consider the conflict Chagnon observed evidence of a “state of chronic warfare,” or the unsurprising result of Chagnon’s own actions?

Chagnon’s claims provoked a great deal of interest in the Yanomami, both among those who saw them as evidence of humanity’s dark, violent nature, and those who took issue with Chagnon’s methods and conclusions. Not surprisingly, other anthropologists, relying on more ethical and effective methods, have had difficulty duplicating Chagnon’s results.

Brian Ferguson wrote that “[a]ll Yanomami warfare that we know about occurs within what Neil Whitehead and I call a ‘tribal zone,’ an extensive area beyond state administrative control, inhabited by nonstate people who must react to the far-flung effects of the state presence.” (1995) Where Chagnon considered the Yanomami an example of a group unaffected by Westerners, Ferguson traced the root causes of Yanomami conflict to Western expansion. This didn’t always involve conflict with colonial powers directly. In fact, it more often involved conflict with other tribal groups displaced, ultimately, by Westerners, creating a domino effect of warfare and conflict throughout the region that extended far beyond the areas actually seized by settlers.

The Waorani

Like the Yanomami, the Waorani rely on a combination of horticulture and hunting and gathering to make a living in the Amazon rainforest. Keeley and those who followed after him cited a study of Waorani family histories that estimated that prior to European contact, as many as 54% of all male deaths occurred by homicide (Beckerman et al, 2009).

The Waorani themselves understand this as an exceptionally dark period in their history, though, tracing it to a breakdown in clan relationships ten generations before. Before that, they say that large gatherings brought distant clans together from time to time. When that broke down, so did the means for communication between clans. Conflicts grew and eventually reached a truly terrible state. The Waorani do not consider this a normal state of affairs, but closer to what someone from a WEIRD country would consider a post-apocalyptic scenario.

The Waorani also provide a quantitative counter-example to Chagnon’s claim that violence provides an evolutionary advantage. Researchers found among the Waorani that the most violent men did not have the most children; instead, the men who took a more moderate approach to revenge and violence had a better chance of reproductive success (Beckerman et al, 2009). The authors suggested that the time lapse between acts and revenge might explain the difference. On the other hand, Chagnon failed to appreciate that the Yanomami “accord the ritual status of man-slayer to sorcerers who do death magic and warriors who shoot arrows into already wounded or dead enemies.” He also failed to take into consideration the ambiguities of who really fathered who “in a society that practices wife-sharing and adultery as much as the Yanomami do.” (Sahlins, 2000) In short, Chagnon’s sloppy calculation of “killers” may well have included many of the less violent individuals that Beckerman’s study of the Waorani found to experience greater reproductive success. Certainly the results from the Waorani confirm what we see among other-than-human animals: while it doesn’t pay to commit yourself to pacifism exactly, acting too aggressively will just put you in an early grave.

The Shuar

Like the Yanomami and the Waorani, the Shuar rely on a combination of horticulture and hunting and gathering to make a living in the Amazon rainforest. They live near the headwaters of the Marañon River and its tributaries in northern Peru and eastern Ecuador. Those who point to the Shuar as examples of violence among “primitive” societies often use the term “Jívaro,” which has become a pejorative in Ecuador, meaning “savage.” Though “Shuar” also means one Jívaroan group in particular, most of them use some variation of the term for themselves.

In 1527, the Shuar resisted an Inca invasion, but they fell under Spanish domination shortly thereafter. In 1599, they rebelled against Spanish rule. The Spanish wrote of their violence and ferocity, sowing the seeds of their reputation as a warlike people.

After their experience with the Spanish, the Shuar resisted any further contact with the Western world until the nineteenth century. Euro-Americans then discovered their practice of creating tsantsa, or shrunken heads. The Shuar consider this a means of containing that person’s muisak, an avenging spirit that would otherwise escape and continuously seek revenge against the killer. Euro-Americans found this practice exotic and fascinating, and offered a great deal of money to struggling Shuar for them, so the Shuar attacked their traditional enemies, like the Achuar, to collect more tsantsa to sell. Those killings naturally led to acts of vengeance, and ultimately created cycles of warfare (Steel, 1999).

More recently, Stephen Corry wrote about his experience with another Jívaroan group in the 1970s, the Aguaruna. He noted that missionaries and petroleum companies had pushed the Aguaruna into smaller and smaller territories along the river. The enforced proximity exacerbated old enmities, which flared into conflicts and deadly raids (2013).

The Enga

The Enga live in New Guinea as horticulturalists relying heavily on pigs and sweet potatoes, a crop introduced to their island by the Portuguese 350 years ago. The introduction of the sweet potato set off fierce competitions for status, wealth, and land, eventually giving rise to one of the most extensive systems of ritual, warfare, and ceremonial exchange known in a pre-state society, involving over 40,000 people (Dressler, 2010).

The Enga recognize many proximate causes for feuds, wars, and other conflicts, including rape and theft, but the ultimate cause usually comes down to competition for land to grow sweet potatoes. “The Enga themselves recognize that wars are caused by competition over agricultural land, especially the limited amount of prime land used for the permanent, intensive cultivation of sweet potatoes. Over half of all Enga wars are explicitly acknowledged to be over land.” (Johnson, 2000)

Between 1990 and 2005, the Enga experienced a major outbreak of violence, with over 250 tribal wars fought in fifteen years. Western influence led to the breakdown of the traditional age-based hierarchy, while also providing angry youths with weapons powerful enough to allow them to seize control. Starting in 2004, however, “the Enga drew on their customary cultural techniques for conflict resolution manned by elders, solving problems through mediation and restorative justice rather than by armed conflict engaging machine gun toting mercenaries, or ‘rambos.’ As the population tired of war and turned to customary authority, the violence eased off.” (Gordon, 2012)

The Dani

The Dani form one of the most populous tribes in the central highlands of western New Guinea. Like the Enga, they live as horticulturalists, relying on pigs and sweet potatoes. Their political life revolves around “big men,” individuals who garner social capital by trading favors and throwing big parties. Among the Dani, the status of a big man usually relies on the number of pigs he can slaughter at a feast, which generally requires cashing in a number of favors at once, as no one person could raise the number of pigs required. Big man societies generally have a reputation for instability, as competitors constantly try to take the current big man’s place by throwing a bigger party or collecting more social capital.

The Dani practice a form of ritual, small-scale warfare that emphasizes insulting or wounding enemies rather than capturing territory that some ethnographers have compared to “football hooliganism.” Critics like Keeley have a point that though the numbers seem low, as a percentage of the total Dani population, the occasional casualties suffered in these wars amount to a severe toll.

However, as Stephen Corry has pointed out, the Dani live in West Papua, an area invaded and brutally suppressed by Indonesia since the 1960s. Since then, far more Dani have died as a result of Indonesian oppression than have in tribal wars (Corry, 2013).

The Gebusi

The Gebusi of Papua New Guinea rely on both horticulture and hunting and gathering, much like their aggressive and populous neighbors to the east, the Bedamini. The two groups have a long history of conflict. Keeley cites Bruce Knauft, an ethnographer who has worked with the Gebusi extensively, who said, “Only the most extreme instances of modern mass slaughter would equal or surpass the Gebusi homicide rate over a period of several decades.”

Of course, Knauft did not mean any “period of several decades” at random, but a very specific period of massive cultural change. Those changes prompted greater raiding between the Gebusi and the Bedamini, but the ecological and social changes also created the sort of incidents that they traditionally attributed to sorcery. Much of the Gebusi homicide rate came from the slaying of sorcerers. Unlike many other New Guinea cultures, the Gebusi formalized the process for accusing a sorcerer and held an inquest to investigate the accusation, once again raising the question of how we should distinguish between war, homicide, and capital punishment in such a society.

After Keeley wrote his book, Knauft published another study of the Gebusi, noting how the violence in their society has subsided significantly, not because of state intervention, but by actively creating a blend of modernity and their own traditions.

“These developments have been initiated as well as mediated by the intentions and decisions of Gebusi themselves; not through intrusions of coercion and constraint but rather by Gebusi’s own willful volition. It may indeed be the relative absence of outside pressure — the ability of Gebusi to determine their fate and their local future in their own terms — that has allowed them to avoid patterns of increasing violence that are common if not overdetermined in many underdeveloped and so-called impoverished countries where such intrusion is more evident.” (Knauft, 2011)

The Yolngu

Of the societies most often cited by Keeley and those who have come after him, only the Yolngu — for whom they often use the older term, “Murngin” — live primarily by hunting and gathering. The Yolngu live in Arnhem Land in Australia. According to some estimates, up to 25% of young men died violently among the Yolngu before contact with European settlers (Dyer, 2010). Most of these, however, took the form of revenge killings (Kelsen, 2009), again raising the question of how to separate homicide, war, and capital punishment in the context of a traditional society. The movie Ten Canoes features many Yolngu actors telling a traditional Yolngu story, where just such a cycle of revenge plays out.

For the Yolngu, the concept of reciprocity, so crucial to so many hunter-gatherers around the world, extends to revenge. Failing to kill a killer could mean a violation of the principle of reciprocity, the central organizing principle of Yolngu life (Kelsen, 2009). According to Nancy Williams, many Yolngu expressed gratitude that the state managed to suppress the cycle of revenge killings, but they also expressed ambivalence about what to do instead.

“As one clan leader put it, Yolngu had two ways to deal with people who committed serious offenses: to talk to them, and to kill them. The old men had been talking and talking, the leader said, but they had to face up to the problem of how to punish people who committed offenses for which they should have been killed. It was better not to kill, he said but what punishment would take its place?” (Williams, 1987)

You may have already noticed certain themes that emerge from these examples. We have only one group that relies on hunting and gathering; the rest all rely to one extent or another on fixed places, making it impossible for them to simply avoid conflict the way that hunter-gatherers would. Three come from New Guinea, and three from the Amazon; in both cases, what the writers consider a “natural” and “primitive” context in fact has a long and very relevant history. New archaeological evidence suggests that the modern Amazon rainforest may exist as the remains of a complex society that we have only begun to uncover (Heckenberger, 2009), which would put Amazonian groups like the Yanomami, the Waorani, and the Shuar in a new light, not as “living fossils” of our “primitive” past, but as the successors of a civilization wiped out by European diseases. Likewise, you may note that the three groups from New Guinea — the Enga, the Dani, and the Gebusi — all have societies built around the cultivation of sweet potatoes, a crop introduced by the Portuguese just a few centuries ago. Much of their conflict revolves around the ways that European contact specifically changed their way of life.

These groups also highlight the cherry-picking that Keeley and those who have come after him rely upon to make their case. The examples they cite again and again stand out as some of the most extreme cases of violence in the ethnographic record. The selection goes even deeper, though, because even in these societies, we see the evidence selected coming from moments of strife and upheaval. These groups often consider these periods among the darkest and most violent chapters in their history. It does highlight that most societies become vulnerable to cycles of violence when the traditions they normally rely upon to cooperate, work together, and resolve disputes break down and collapse, but that does not support the kind of general claim that Keeley and others try to make. They could choose to examine much more peaceful societies, sometimes living right next to the ones chosen. They could even examine the very same societies, but look at other periods in their history. They choose not to.

So, if these represent the most violent examples in the ethnographic record, what do we find among some of the hunter-gatherers more often cited and studied by anthropologists? Douglas Fry and Patrick Söderberg compared ethnographic data from 21 mobile forager band societies, and found that “most incidents of lethal aggression among [mobile forager band societies] may be classified as homicides, a few others as feuds, and a minority as war.” (2013) Elizabeth Thomas (2006) cites Richard Lee’s work with the Nyae Nyae Ju/’hoansi in the Kalahari. He found 22 homicides over a 50 year period, yielding an overall homicide rate of 29.3 per million. By comparison, the United States homicide rate stands at 42.01 per million, meaning that the Ju/’hoansi experience 30.3% fewer murders than the modern U.S. citizen. The homicide rate among the Hadza increases from 0.66 per million to 4.0 per million if we include three Hadza murdered by neighboring Datoga. The recorded homicide rates for the Aché of Paraguay and the Hiwi of Colombia stand out at 50.0 and 101.8 per million respectively, but these numbers may require a bit of consideration. For the Hiwi, this number includes all violent deaths, including murders by Venezuelans, suicide, and infanticide. Murders committed by Hiwi account for only 7% of their homicide rate; considering that alone, the Hiwi homicide rate would drop to 7.126 per million. Similarly, the Aché numbers include suicide, infanticide, and Aché murdered by outsiders. Robert Kelly concludes that “[t]hese lower rates are similar to that of the Agta, Ju/’hoansi, and Hazda, where violence, not including infanticide, suicide, or external murders, accounts for 3-7 percent of deaths.” (2013)

These relatively low homicide rates do not follow from a strain of gentleness or non-violence in human nature any more than any of the groups we have considered represent a “living fossil” of humanity’s “unspoiled” past. Every group has its own history; claiming that they give us a glimpse of human nature denies their remarkable achievement. The relative peace that they enjoy does not show us humanity’s natural state, but rather, what humanity can achieve. Robert Kelly cites Colin Turnbull, who “recorded a noteworthy dispute every three to four days among the Mbuti,” as well as Jean Briggs’ work among the Inuit (2013). In both cases, people had to deal with personal conflicts, but in both cases, the societies placed an emphasis on personal relationship and maintaining the peace. Elizabeth Thomas emphasizes the same point among the bushmen in the Kalahari:

“Yes, they had violence in them. But for as long as possible, they curbed it. No matter how provoked, they rarely acted out their discomfort, nor did they vent it on one another as long as their ancient culture served them. Not for nothing did they call themselves the Harmless People, the Pure People, when the harm and impurities were jealousy, violence, and anger.” (2013)

To speak of relative peace, however, we must also consider the point of comparison: the violence in WEIRD countries. While the United States has a murder rate higher than nearly any hunter-gatherer group, other WEIRD countries have much lower homicide rates. Germany, for example, stands at 8.44 per million, much lower than Lee’s number for the Nyae Nyae Ju/’hoansi, though still more than the adjusted numbers suggested above for the Hiwi. Several other WEIRD countries, including France (10.54 per million), the United Kingdom (11.68 per million), and Canada (16.23 per million) hold a similar relative position.

Of course, for WEIRD countries, this number refers almost exclusively to members of that society murdered by other members of that society as individuals. The majority of the homicide rate among hunter-gatherers often comes not from hunter-gatherers killing each other, but from their pastoralist, horticultural, and agricultural neighbors raiding them for slaves and hunting them for sport. The homicide rates in WEIRD countries, of course, do not include anything like that. They do not include suicide, war deaths, or the victims of state-sanctioned executions. WEIRD countries have not suffered very many war deaths in recent decades, and even the United States, known among WEIRD countries for its willingness to execute criminals, only executed 1,394 people in 38 years (1976 to 2014), or about 41 people per year. Keeley’s observation works in reverse here: just as the small scale of hunter-gatherer societies means that even a single death has an enormous impact, the enormous scale of WEIRD societies means that an individual life becomes meaningless. Executing an average of just 41 people per year in the United States has far less impact than whether or not the neighboring Datoga murder three Hadza.

Civilized societies have a unique relationship with violence that we cannot compare to other societies quantitatively, though. Max Weber considered a “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force” part of the definition of a state. In theory this reduces violence, though as we’ve seen, the evidence for that seems complicated at best. In return, it demands a new relationship with violence. Most of us do not have to commit or prepare for violence personally, as hunter-gatherers might; instead, we can rely on a class of professional killers who commit violence on our behalf. In ancient times, this meant an army, but in more recent centuries, it has expanded to include the police. Does such an arrangement require a steady occurrence of conflict to occupy it? In the past 3,400 years of recorded history, only 268 — 8% of that time — have passed without war (Hedges, 2003).

We cannot quantify the effect of this situation. As previously discussed, war has a vital social component, pitting one society against another, so this state of all-but-constant war has an effect not just on the small part of society actively engaged in it, but on the entire society.

How do we quantify the effect of violence that the state’s monopoly embeds into every interaction? Paying taxes, following the speed limit, and obeying the law all occur under the threat of violence. We don’t often think of it consciously in those terms, but it remains there in the background, unacknowledged. Even the intermediate punishments — the fines, tickets, summons, and subpoenas — carry their force because of the threat backing them that if you do not comply, a class of professional killers will escalate to hunt you down, kidnap you, and imprison you, or even kill you if you resist. How do we quantify the relationship between violence and the imprisoned population of WEIRD countries, such as the United States with the world’s highest documented incarceration rate at 754 per 100,000?

Hunter-gatherers have no class of professional killers to whom they can hand over their violence. If they want violence committed, they must commit it themselves. This immediacy helps keep them mindful of the importance of avoiding violence. In civilized societies, a monopoly on violence helps define the state, transforming violence from something that happens into something that pervades every facet of life.

Authors like Lawrence Keeley, Jared Diamond, and Steven Pinker would like us to believe that this transformation has made the world a less violent place — essentially, that it has had the promised effect. They rely on quantitative evidence that seems very clear-cut and persuasive at first glance, but when we look deeper, we can see how they cherry-picked data, glossed over important caveats, and ultimately obscured more than they revealed. The complexities make a direct comparison difficult, and even though every measure we use serves to hide violence in civilized societies and emphasize it among hunter-gatherers, we still find that the quantifiable measures of violence among hunter-gatherers compare favorably with the safest WEIRD countries today.

The things that prove harder to measure, though, overshadow every moment of life in a civilized society. Hunter-gatherers live in relative peace because they have created societies that emphasize the importance of relationship and non-violent resolution, not because human nature makes us essentially gentle or warlike. As Margaret Mead put it, we invented warfare. No society has ever freed itself from violence altogether, but very few have turned it into a way of life as civilized societies have.


Contributors: Jason Godesky

Last updated on Monday, May 2, 2016