How Peaceful Was Life in the Past?

Peter Turchin

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What was the quality of life for people living in historical and prehistoric societies? One particularly important dimension of quality of life is freedom from violent death. How high was the probability of being murdered by another person? Modern statistics that express violent death rates per 100,000 people per year don’t extend very far back in time. Obtaining good numbers for even well-known historical societies, such as Medieval European ones, or Classical Rome and Athens, is very hard. Once we get into prehistory, it becomes even more difficult.

Social scientists of various kinds have very different opinions about whether life in the past was more violent or more peaceful than today. My favorite example of what the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley calls the “pacification of the past” is early Mayan archaeology. The first archaeologists who studied the Maya imagined them as peaceful and wise farmers practicing low-intensity agriculture in the “jungle”, ruled by priestly elites. At particular seasons, early scholars thought, these people would congregate around the temples and perform solemn rites to express their awe of the mysterious universe.

The reality is shockingly different. Maya lowlands were densely settled (only now are we learning just how densely, thanks to new technologies employed by archaeologists). They were ruled by a warlike and rather bloodthirsty elite who fought incessant wars against each other (and were often killed or captured and then sacrificed by the victors). The peaceful Maya of the Classic Period are a fantasy.

A reconstruction of a Maya painted mural from the late 8th-century CE Temple of the Murals at Bonampak, Mexico (Room 2). Detail showing a battle scene. © Heather Hurst, Bonampak Documentation Project, Yale University / Bridgeman Images.

Lawrence Keeley’s book War Before Civilization was very important in turning the tide. Suddenly archaeologists started to see evidence of violence where previously their eyes slid over it (or at least, they didn’t deem it worthwhile to publish such data). An arrowhead embedded in a rib here, a massacre site there—the evidence piles up.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker popularized this new willingness among scholars to study violence in the past. He proposed that the past was extremely violent, but that as civilization evolved (most importantly, as the ideas associated with the Enlightenment emerged), violence declined.

Unlike Keeley’s book, which was “broadly known in narrow circles,” Pinker’s message resonated with the general public, but also triggered a violent reaction from many anthropologists. I’ve written about this before (see The War over War).

So who is right? Now, thanks to a new project that the Seshat Databank has begun with the Institute for Economics and Peace (see here), we will be able to answer questions like this.

Archaeologists and historians have collected a lot of information about violence in past societies, but it is very patchy. These bits of data are small islands of light floating in a dark ocean. The general idea of the approach we use is to collect as many different kinds of knowledge as possible and use them in statistical analyses that utilize what data are available, without being hampered by the gaps.

The variables that we are interested in coding come in two clusters. First, there are direct measures (e.g., battle casualty statistics) and indirect proxies (e.g., skeletal trauma) for death rates. Second, there are predictor variables that may have explanatory power to indicate which societies are more violent and which are less. One hypothesis with a good chance of yielding reasonable predictive power is that various aspects of social complexity affect rates of violence. For example, larger societies (with large populations and territories) may have a lower death rate due to interstate warfare simply because they remove most of such conflicts to the frontiers. Or better governed societies (higher on the Seshat governance sophistication scale) may have lower violence rates because they more effectively maintain internal peace and order.

British soldier on the Western Front, France, during the First World War, surrounded by mountains of empty shell cases. Taken by Tom Aitken in 1917. © National Library of Scotland.

Because different kinds of violence—due to interpersonal conflict, political violence and internal warfare, or interstate warfare—have different drivers, our approach will investigate them separately.

Ideally we aim to estimate the overall violent death rate resulting from all the different kinds of violence. This includes many types and causes of violence: from inter-polity warfare to the homicide rate from interpersonal conflict. Following the usual approach to quantifying homicide rate, we define the main variable of interest as the number of people killed by other people per year per 100,000 population. It is understood that because our knowledge about past societies has many gaps, any estimates we obtain will have much uncertainty associated with them. Thus, the secondary goal of the analysis is to quantify this uncertainty so that we can answer the question: how well do we know what we think we know?

We already started data collection last fall and plan to analyze the results in late spring–summer. So we should have interesting results to report by this fall.

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Gene Anderson

Here’s an important source that may be outside your search scope–
Falk, Dean, and Charles Hildebolt. 2017. “Annual War Deaths in Small-Scale Versus State Societies Scale with Population Size Rather than Violence.” Current Anthropology 58:805-813.

Augusto Dalla Ragione

I’ve read the book by Keeley, it is very interesting. By the way, not only prehistorical societies had high violent death rates, but also European societies before the institution of the State became strong during the modern era. This paper shows incredibly high levels of homicide violence in European cities during the Middle Ages. https://academic.oup.com/bjc/article-abstract/41/4/618/468305

al loomis

publishing data on violent death in contemporary societies, private and state directed, has more pressing interest.presumably too difficult, and dangerous, as well.

steven t johnson

Not quite sure how the wars of the Maya, who were definitely a civilized society, in the minimal sense they lived in cities, relates to primitive warfare. I don’t even see how nomad wars on city dwellers count. (I gather James C. Scott sees it the other way round, civilization as attacking the more natural pastoralists, and hunter-gatherer/horticulturalist bands in the hills too. But in the unlikely event he has a point, it still doesn’t)

It does seem to me very likely primitive warfare alters population, directly or indirectly, so that it moves toward matching the carrying capacity of the local environment given the current technology. And it seems to me one of the most striking features of most modern warfare is that it is doesn’t do that at all. It’s just beneficial to ruling class (or elite, if you prefer) interests. Costs to targets and the lower ranks may be intense, and financial costs to society as a whole a net negative, yet this doesn’t make any difference, whereas it would in a technologically primitive society.

It does seem to me to be questionable to assume that warfare, primitive or modern, is caused by psychology, or culture viewed as a set of mental phenomena like attitudes,value and ideas rather than a way of life, psychology collectivized so to speak. This tacit assumption also seems to me fundamental to Pinker in particular. But if you hold with Pinker I think you would be regarded as mistaken in investigating separately violence from different types of causes as categorically mistaken. I think your approach sketched above is correct, but I doubt any data that disagrees with the Pinker thesis will be deemed intrinsically flawed. Pinker isn’t the author but the salesman, and his views is extremely common, if not predominant, as near as I can tell.

Ross Hartshorn

I don’t think anyone was saying the Mayans were “primitive”. However, it is a good example of modern western academia’s tendency to underestimate the violence of past civilizations, especially ones for which we don’t have written records. In the case of the Mayans, we didn’t have written records, until we understood how to read them, and then once we did it became apparent that a lot of what was written was about conflict. I think Dr. Turchin is citing it as an example of “pacification of the past”, i.e. that example is really about us, nowadays, rather than just about the past. Our estimates of past civilizations’ levels of violence tend to be too low more often than too high.

Of course, that’s only one example, and hopefully Seshat will help us see how typical an example it is or is not.

Forecaster

“It’s just beneficial to ruling class (or elite, if you prefer) interests. Costs to targets and the lower ranks may be intense, and financial costs to society as a whole a net negative, yet this doesn’t make any difference, whereas it would in a technologically primitive society.” I partially agree here, as long as “technologically primitive” is taken to be synonymous with “pre-nuclear.” The atomic bomb rendered large-scale warfare between major powers obsolescent, and therefore by default the only wars they could fight became extremely mismatched ones against small, usually low-income countries. It is almost impossible for such wars to have a demographically significant impact on the larger country, but they can have an important effect on the smaller one.

Ross Hartshorn

I have a prediction to make: either Stephen Pinker, or else Nassim Nicholas Taleb, or perhaps both of them, will disagree with the results this fall.

Forecaster

My guess, for what it is worth, is that levels of violence in the past were heavily dependent on the specific situation of an individual society and therefore varied widely between time and place. The structural-demographic model lends some support to this view in my estimation by emphasizing the dynamic nature of the empires for which considerable information exists over their lifespans.

“Thus, the secondary goal of the analysis is to quantify this uncertainty so that we can answer the question: how well do we know what we think we know?” Personally, I think this goal is at least as important as the first. There is always a temptation, whenever information about a subject is fragmentary or incomplete, to take bits and pieces of what is known and try to draw systematic conclusions from what is essentially a large body of anecdotes. However, if it indeed turns out that after careful investigation the answer is still basically a question mark, it is a very good idea for us to acknowledge this, however frustrating the conclusion may be.

On a separate note, I wonder if computer simulations utilizing artificial intelligence could someday be of use in filling in blank spots, should they become sophisticated enough to simulate multiple individuals in a virtual environment.

Peter van den Engel

Fighting over resources and a combination of a further developed group compared to a lower neighbouring one. Or the reversal, the latter catching up.

Material conditions have always had a big impact. I guess resource distribution had gotten a lot better in the age of enlightment, so it was not just the enlightment. When higher intelligence is a result of better conditions/ they did not cause them. Well, it’s a spiral evolution.

New found weaponry like because of the steel and coal industry in the 19th century, also on its own led to new warfare projected on old conflicts, like between the French empire and the old Austrian; a left and a right branche of the old Roman empire, always involved in war, and a third party with its own trade interests: England, led to the First Worldwar. So in the end it’s a mix of three factors.

I am not sure if culture by itself has an overwhelming impact, when it comes to basic conditions emerging on their own.
It’s an adaption process anyway.
The paradox is Pinker worries a lot about nuclear weapons/ while they probably are the main reason why there has not been a third worldwar so far.
When the drive for destruction lands in a vacuum.
Or there is no reason for it in the first place. Or more intelligent cultures found better alternatives, like cooperation.
Cultures getting more even over time plays a big role as well. Hence traditional class inequality in India still plays a big role in agression today.

John Strate

This seems like a very interesting and important project. I’d think it would be important for the data collection effort to distinguish between deaths due to warfare (inter-polity conflict) and deaths due to violence within political communities (feuds, homicides). Perhaps the two are positively correlated. Warfare is a distinctively expressed social behavior in humans (albeit not universal) and is certainly an important proximate cause of political evolution.

Radoje Cerović

I am quite interested in this topic! The general trend of declining violence seems quite stable (although very small oscillations seem to be dependent on certain ecological conditions (such as the type of hierarchy and power inequality). Despite some controversies among archeologists and anthropologists there seem to be some (rare) examples of peaceful societies in human history such as the Minoic civilization present in today’s Cycladic islands (Akrothyri site). Rather than contradicting the trend it seems an interesting historical experiment on hierarchies, wealth and sexuality (more details on my Blog:
a. https://medium.com/@radoje.cerovic/the-history-of-violence-beyond-pinker-the-better-archangels-of-our-nature-50786fe627f2 and
b. https://medium.com/@radoje.cerovic/the-history-of-violence-ii-half-naked-goddesses-and-margaret-thatcher-affb8b3aa53d

KD

The interesting question is the long-term geopolitical and political possibilities created by the Hydrogen Bomb, which is the ultimate defensive weapon, as far as I can tell, as well as incredibly dangerous.

Political centralization is generally the result of offensive superiority relative to defensive capacity. Nukes suggest that the long-term trend may be political de-centralization, as you are going to think twice before you invade even a City-State armed with a nuclear deterrent. I don’t know that this reduces trade, but it may make standardization increasingly difficult.

Second, so much of the modern state is devoted to fighting modern states, which is increasingly useless in a nuclear age. Conscript armies are on the way out, and defense forces as they are increasingly are becoming more like the Hoplites of Old. I suspect meaningful democracy is also drawing to a close (with the disappearance of conscripts and the need for the masses to invest in the state), and politics will become a battle between oligarchs and strongmen.

These are a couple of ideas, but in terms of “futurists”, I don’t see anyone exploring the way technological changes are affecting the composition of the armed forces, and the downstream impacts.

Loren Petrich

I think that you meant “offensive weapon”, because that’s what nuclear bombs are.

Joshua Morris

Only once in actual practice. Otherwise nuclear weapons are restricted to a no first use policy for fear of nuclear escalation. IOW, nations with nuclear weapons don’t get invaded.

Peter van den Engel

Yes, that’s a deep question.
Economy is used as a new weapon. Since the old one has become useless and very apparent destructive. Anti human dignity.
Much of it is related to the explosion of media, now registering everything that happens anywhere. That’s the real “H bom”, stopping classic warfare. Not because it’s not used/ but because it is used constantly.

However economic pressure goes by unseen. Or might even have possitive effects locally.
Mostly highly productive states are never aimed at for sanctions/ or they get more agressive because of relative poverty, to close the circel.
So getting them more productive would be a much better “sanction”/ but is too far fetched uptill now for politicians suffering from tunnel vision and short term memory capacity in general.
Or lifting the strangulation of their oligarchy class is too impossible to do. Although this could also be visualized by information of course.

Using robot warfare falls under the first category: it would always be visible and therefore always rejected by a democracy.
The alternative is internel hacking, and that could also hurt any military deployment.

The issue is anything possible remains a possibillity. It fully depends on what you or others want and how reality is perceived in general.

All wars where based on misconceptions. But how do you stop a stampeding bull?/ or learn people how to use their energy surplus positively.

Therefore I believe technological evolution will be most powerful in human communication. Which will make the real difference.

Pieter

Hi Peter, somewhat off topic, but are you familiar with the work of Ingo Piepers? https://global4cast.org/

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