In the current issue of Cliodynamics: The Journal of Quantitative History and Cultural Evolution the anthropologist Sarah Mathew reviews War, Peace, and Human Nature, edited by Douglas Fry. Fry is one of the large group of anthropologists and other social scientists who have been critical of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature.
Sarah makes the following important point about War, Peace, and Human Nature:
Note that the book is not just about warfare, but about conflict in general, which can include a variety of inter-personal conflict, including physical aggression between same-sex individuals, domestic violence, conflict within social relationships, verbal aggression, and alcohol-induced fights. Some readers may find this problematic. The evolutionary forces that shape warfare differ from the evolutionary forces that shape inter-personal violence because warfare can occur only if the problem of collective action is solved. Thus, the evolution of warfare is tightly linked to the mechanisms underpinning the evolution of cooperation. This fact alone accounts for the rarity of warfare in most of the animal kingdom despite the prevalence of myriad other forms of conflict. So, for readers interested in the evolution of warfare, the book may seem like a grab bag of too many unrelated phenomena.
There is a reason why many authors of the book conflate warfare and violence. To see this, I recommend taking a look at a recent article by Azar Gat, Proving Communal Warfare among Hunter-Gatherers: The Quasi-Rousseauan Error.
The target of Gat’s critique is “Rousseauism,” the idea that humans were basically nonviolent before the transition to agriculture and the rise of complex societies—civilization. At the peak of the Rousseauism in the 1960s, anthropologists celebrated Kalahari Bushmen as “harmless people” and wrote books about the Inuits of polar Canada with titles like “Never in Anger.”
These descriptions of peaceful hunter-gatherer groups were revealed by subsequent research to be complete fantasies. The seminal publication that turned the tide against Rousseauism in modern anthropology was the 1996 book by Lawrence Keeley, War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage.
Meanwhile, another strand developed in the anthropological study of warfare. These researchers did not deny that small-scale societies studied by anthropologists had very high levels of homicide due to warfare, but argued that it was due to the contact of these previously peaceful societies with the intrusive states. According to such anthropologists as Brian Ferguson, expanding states, both modern European colonial powers and ancient empires, create “tribal zones” on their frontiers, in which warfare is frequent and intense. Professional anthropologists who, of course, come from civilized state-level societies study the tribal zone and are fooled to believe that all small-scale societies, even those before exposure to the corrupting influence of the states, are very violent.
Empirical evidence supports the idea that the arrival of centralized states in a region increases the intensity of warfare. But that doesn’t mean that before such intrusion small-scale societies were peaceful.
Gat reviews several lines of evidence, including archaeological, but probably the most convincing is his extended review of what we know about the pre-contact Australia.
Australia was an entire continent inhabited by hunter-gatherers, with no agriculturalists, pastoralists, or states. The first non-foraging society that arrived in Australia was the British, who established the penal colony at the Botany Bay in 1788, and for a while Australia was a dumping ground for the undesirables from the British Isles. It was not until the 1820s when the free settlers started to arrive, and massive immigration began during the Gold rush era, starting in 1851.
Source: Gat 2015
Much before that, in 1803, the 23-year old Englishman William Buckley escaped from a penalty settlement and lived with an Aboriginal tribe for 32 years. His account gives us an invaluable glimpse into the life of a hunter-gathering society before it was changed by the intruding state-level civilization. Buckley was not a trained anthropologist, but that doesn’t disqualify him from reporting on such basic issues as war and peace.
Buckley recounts some dozen battle scenes, as well as many lethal feuds, raids, and ambushes, comprising a central element of the natives’ traditional way of life. He describes their weapons of war in great detail: clubs, spears, “war boomerangs,” throwing sticks, and shields. Tribes typically consisted of 20–60 families each and were egalitarian, without chiefs. There was fighting at all levels: individual, familial, and tribal. Some of the intertribal encounters that Buckley recorded involved large numbers: five different tribes collected for battle; a battle and raid against an intruding enemy tribe, 300 strong; several full-scale intertribal encounters, the last one a raid with many dead; two other encounters, the second against a war party of 60 men. Ceremonial cannibalism of the vanquished was customary. Buckley reported that the large-scale raid was the deadliest form of violence and often involved indiscriminate massacre: “The contests between the Watouronga, of Geelong, and the Warrorongs, of the Yarra, were fierce and bloody. I have accompanied the former in their attacks on the latter. When coming suddenly upon them in the night, they have destroyed without mercy men, women and children.” (Gat 2015)
The Australian evidence is particularly important because it comes from eyewitnesses to the crime, so to speak. Archaeological evidence tells us that violent death was very frequent in prehistoric societies. But it is difficult to distinguish death in war from death resulting from within-group violence. This uncertainty allows Douglas Fry to write, “whereas homicide has occurred periodically over the enduring stretches of Pleistocene millennia, warfare is young, that is, arising within the timeframe of the agricultural revolution.” But the Australian evidence decisively demonstrates that war precedes the agricultural revolution.
Note added 22.VII.2015: As Scott Atran points out in the comments, the last sentence is too strong. But read the article by Azar Gat, which brings together numerous lines of evidence, making the case for war before civilization very convincing to me.