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A recent article at the Scientific American website discusses a study which sheds light on the assumption that warfare is inherently human - going back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors.

A study published today in Science, ”Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War,” provides more counter-evidence


[The researchers] focus on mobile forager bands, also called nomadic hunter-gatherers, because their behavior is thought to provide a window into human evolution.

They used information about 21 forager societies - from five continents (Australia, North America, South America, Africa and South Asia).  So, the results are not a peculiarity of a particular society, region or continent.  They analyzed cases of violence between members of different groups in which there was more than one attacker - group vs. group violence.
Of the 21 societies... three had no observed killings of any kind, and 10 had no killings carried out by more than one perpetrator. In only six societies did ethnographers record killings that involved two or more perpetrators and two or more victims. However, a single society, the Tiwi of Australia, accounted for almost all of these group killings.
only two out of 148 killings stemmed from a fight over “resources,” such as a hunting ground, water hole or fruit tree.
The study shows us it is possible for hunter-gatherer societies to engage in war-like activities, but it is not an inseparable part of being human or humans having a society.  It shows us that societies that are closer to bare subsistence were unlikely to war over resources.  Can we say the same of hierarchical societies?  Even industrialized nations fight over resources - with those decisions to start wars not made by the poorest, hungriest members of those societies, but by those in the privileged layers of comparatively affluent societies.  

[I think it worth making one note.  Our ancestors of tens of thousands of years ago may have been capable of war-like acts (although it was not inherent for them to do so) as is true of some of these modern foragers.  But it is wiser not to simply assume that.  A lack of war-like acts by some societies is good evidence that humans and human societies do not "need" to engage in war.  But this article does not clarify whether warring societies such as the Tiwi learned warfare before making contact with post-hunter-gatherer societies or whether they learned it from hierarchical societies which may be more inclined to warfare.]

   -   -   -   -   -   -  

Why might war and aggression be more common once a hierarchical elite is making the decisions?  One factor may be related to an earlier diary I posted.  The diary does not discuss war between societies, but is about the running of companies and economies by those who lack healthy human emotion and behavior: "Forbes: 'Why (Some) Psychopaths Make Great CEOs'"

Originally posted to workingwords on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 01:00 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and Group W: Resisting War.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (20+ / 0-)

    "We all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free capitalism for the poor." - Martin Luther King Jr.

    by workingwords on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 01:00:15 PM PDT

  •  To beat your swords into plowshares, (5+ / 0-)

    apparently you have to have plowshares to begin with.

    Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree. -Martin Luther

    by the fan man on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 01:18:46 PM PDT

  •  This is a staggeringly complex topic (14+ / 0-)

    you've gotten yourself into.  And good on you for diving into it.

    I'm an anthropologist, so I really kinda do know a lot about the topic.

    There is much right about what you are writing, and some problems to.

    Perhaps the biggest issue is you assumption (a common one, mind you), that HGs are "societies that are closer to bare subsistence were unlikely to war over resources."  This is actually not true.  On average, HGs get more calories, more diverse calories, are healthier and live longer than agriculturalists did until the advent of modern medicine sometime in the 19th century.  There is a lot of discussion out there, but you might start by looking at Jared Diamond's Agriculture: The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.  Its got problems (as does most of his work), but it gets things going in the right direction.

    The basic gist here is that since resources were not scarce, HGs would be very unlikely to fight over them.  So yes, warfare is not the natural state of humans, certainly not warfare over resources.  But, violence is a different question.  People do kill each other in HG societies, but not typically over resources. violence normal? Perhaps.  Is organized warfare over resources normal? No.  That required the concept of private ownership of resources, and that likely only emerged with the beginning of agriculture (or a bit earlier).

    So, keep reading, its a damn cool subject.  But be wary of two common errors.  The first is the idea of the Noble Savage--that HGs are these wonderfully ecologically noble people who lived in harmony with nature and lived happy peaceful lives.  It ain't anywhere near that simple.  

    Also be wary of pacifying the past...treating past people as more peavefull.  Lets put it this way.  What would you think of a war that killed 3 million Americans?  Pretty fucking awfull, right? Well, given our population of 300 million, that would only be 1% of the population.

    If you live in a village of 30 people (common in HGs), the death of only one person would be about 3% of the population...three times worse than 3 million American dead.

    So, good diary, and keep reading...its very interesting stuff.

    "Empty vessels make the loudest sound, they have the least wit and are the greatest blabbers" Plato

    by Empty Vessel on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 01:20:15 PM PDT

    •  The diary quotes the article (4+ / 0-)

      they were studying group vs. group violence, not violence in general.  The SA article does refer to non-war-like killings.  While the impact of 1 death in a small group is greater, it apparently does not preclude individual killing inside a group.  So that may not be a major factor in inhibiting war-like killing.

      You're right my wording was poor about the living conditions of HG's.  My intention was to contrast the privileged layers of post-HG societies starting war over resources while that was a minority of the motives in the HGs in the study.  Whether or not they were healthier or happier, I assume the privileged layers controlled more resources before they begin the next war.  Should I change that assumption?

      "We all too often have socialism for the rich and rugged free capitalism for the poor." - Martin Luther King Jr.

      by workingwords on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 03:02:22 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Cooperation in the forest? (5+ / 0-)

      Empty Vessel, thanks for contributing your experience to this. Thanks, also, for suggesting Diamond's rather obscure "worst mistake" paper.

      I have reservations about Diamond's later writing, but I also have a fondness for that paper and its theme. I've been known to link it a time or two.

      I'm trying to recall another paper that I've suggested in the past for folks who are interested in this aspect of anthropology. Something like, "Altruism in the Forest" or "Cooperation in the Forest", possibly by an author named Chris or Christopher...?

      Google isn't finding it for me, so I must be misremembering the title key words.

      Thanks, and cheers

      Most models are wrong, but some are useful.

      by etbnc on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 03:34:54 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  How does 1 study "show war not inherently human?" (3+ / 0-)

    I'll accept that it is an opinion, even a well-supported professional opinion, but my money is on the opposing more well-supported professional opinions. Such as this one:

    From "Global Problems of Population Growth" 2009 Yale course taught by professor Robert Wyman :

    During that time we lived in small tribal groups and they're multi-male groups, (again we talked about most mammal's solitary males) with strong male bonding, competition for status, lots of inter-group conflict, competition for females and violence against females. Everything that we know says that humans have lived in communities with those characteristics since as far back as we can -- know, and that is the same description you would apply to chimpanzees…

    You can draw many similarities between the chimp organization of this lethal raiding and human warfare. How does one think about this? Well there are two possibilities. Either whatever you think of the chimp warfare and the causes of it you have to think that a lot of that is still causing human warfare, or you can say as many utopians do, that they're different. That human--human warfare has nothing to do with chimp warfare.

    One of the ways to prove or disprove that would be to look in history, as far as we can tell, and if it has different causes, what you have to assume is, we know for sure that this is what chimps do, and we presume that their ancestors some millions of years ago before we split--did that, but we don't really know that, but we presume it's true that chimps did that and then sometime in human history we have to find a period where we stopped doing it. Then at a later period we started doing it again but now for a totally different set of reasons than for the chimp reasons. The strategy of trying to figure out this question is then to go back in history and gather the archaeological and the anthropological--whatever data we can gather, and try to find out: has there been a period in human history where we were not--did not have this inter-communal violence.

    The people who believe that war has different causes -- they think agriculture started it because land becomes valuable or private property of some sort, people wanted to get each other's private property, or governments, modern state governments, or very commonly you'll hear that it has something to do with modernity, that civilization has somehow corrupted the pure nature of early humans who were wonderful human beings and didn't go to war.

    What was the situation for prehistoric humans? We can go back to the Neanderthals, which are a sister subspecies, and these guys as you know--heavy musculature, robust bones--they were obviously strong characters. When you take--study their graveyards, 40% of Neanderthal skeletons have head injuries. How does one attribute that? Either they were very clumsy and accident prone and always somehow managed to fall on their head--so far as we know they didn't climb trees very much and hang upside down and fall, or there was a lot of club wielding and head bashing going on.

    Homo sapiens, not Neanderthals, the earliest human burials that haven't just decayed away are about 20,000 to 35,000 years ago and when you dig them up what do you find? Spear points embedded in the bones, cranial fractures, scalping marks, and so forth. These burial grounds are found wherever archeologists look. Some of the most prominent ones are Italy, France, Egypt, Czechoslovakia because that's where archeologists have had access to dig.

    At a 13,000 year old cemetery in Sudan, over 40% of the skeletons had spear or arrow points embedded in them. The wounds--there were children buried there--the wounds found from the children in the cemetery were all execution shots in the head or the neck. They were just bashed to death in the head or the neck. This was not like one burial from one horrific incident, it was used over several generations. It was a continuing cemetery, and many of the adults showed not only the wounds that caused their death but many prior wounds, bone cracks and skull cracks that had healed, so you can see both a wound from some prior conflict which had healed and the new wound which caused the death at this moment. Individuals had gotten into a lot of conflict: one skeleton had 20 different wounds. That means bone cracks that you could still see 13,000 years later, and soft tissue injury we just don't have any way of knowing about.

    muddy water can best be cleared by leaving it alone

    by veritas curat on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 01:39:57 PM PDT

  •  Looking forward to (3+ / 0-)

    more studies on this subject.  What a great start!

  •  Republished to Group W. Thanks for posting (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cotterperson, worldlotus

    this, it needs wider exposure than it will get at SciAm with no outside promoting.

    That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

    by enhydra lutris on Tue Jul 23, 2013 at 04:19:48 PM PDT

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