The War over War, Part II



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In the first installment I argued against extreme positions about the prevalence of warfare in the Pleistocene.

One problem underlying the controversy over warfare in the early human history is that different people use different definitions of war. So let me be clear and say what definition I use. It comes from the questions and methods of my research program. My primary interest is in cultural group selection, and thus I define warfare as lethal group-on-group violence, no matter what forms it takes (battles, raids, ambush of stray individuals, etc.).

By this definition, both chimpanzees and wolves fight wars. Lethal conflict between chimpanzee troops is now well known, but many people don’t realize that wolves also go to war.

Take Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995, after being hunted down to extinction earlier in the twentieth century. Once the wolf population increased to the point where all territory was divided up among the packs, between-pack violence became the primary cause of mortality. Wolves raid enemy packs and kill cubs there. They also ambush individuals belonging to other packs and try to kill them.



Packs are exterminated not in one glorious battle, but by a “death of thousand cuts,” picking one individual here, another there. When a pack weakens to the point where it cannot anymore defend its territory, the remaining individuals often disperse. The winning pack then expands its territory and splits into two packs. This is not very different from warfare among Mae Enga clans, as described by Mervyn Meggitt.

Read more about wolf warfare here and here.

When one pack of wolves exterminates another, I call it warfare, because it is between-group competition carried out by violent means. Other scholars use different definitions. Some insist that conflict should be “organized” to be counted as war. Others only consider large-scale conflict and exclude ‘primitive war.’ Such alternative definitions may be as valid as mine, when they fit the kinds of questions and conceptual approaches that investigators use.

We run into additional difficulties when we are trying to assess the prevalence of war in prehistory. Clearly we need to distinguish between interpersonal violence and group-level war. This can be difficult. A skull bashed in by a blunt object may indicate a death in battle, or murder resulting from a domestic dispute. For this reason many anthropologists want to see additional indicators of group-level conflict, before they agree that it was warfare. Such archaeological signs could be fortifications or weapons specialized for man-on-man fighting (war clubs, swords). Bows and arrows, however, are equally useful in hunting and war. As a result, much of warfare between small-scale societies, who tend to use ranged weapons and rely on raids and ambushes, will be invisible to archaeologists.

Certainly when we want to assess how prevalent was group-on-group violence in the Pleistocene, we cannot require the presence of fortifications as a definitive proof – if we do, we have defined warfare out. But there are plenty of other, indirect signs of warfare during the Stone Age.

Consider that over the last two million years there were at least 20 species of Homo. By the end of the Pleistocene there was just one – us. It is possible that we drove other Homo species to extinction by indirect competition. Sure. But it is equally possible that we hunted them down.

Let’s take the Neanderthals, who are the closest to us – so close that we might be two subspecies of the same species (we now know that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens could, and did interbreed). There is a famous Shanidar 3 male from a cave in Iraq. Anthropologist Stephen Churchill makes a pretty strong case that this Neanderthal was killed by a thrown spear – which means by a human, since Neanderthals used stabbing spears.


Anthropologist Steven Churchill holds a replica of a Neanderthal spear in his left hand; in his right is the kind of spear thrower that probably killed Shanidar 3. Only modern humans make such a thrower. Source

Another Neanderthal, this time a child, was probably eaten by modern humans.


Neanderthal (top) and reindeer (bottom) jawbones from the Les Rois cave show similar cut marks (details at right), suggesting that both were butchered by modern humans. F. Ramirez Rozzi Source

It is interesting that this 2009 article says: “Svante Pääbo, who leads the Neanderthal Genome Project at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, painstakingly sequenced samples of Neanderthal DNA and found little evidence of their genes in us. His result implies that there was minimal interbreeding.” How quickly things change! Only 5 years later we know that there was a substantial degree of interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals. In fact, I shouldn’t be implying that Neanderthals were not humans. (In the old times people would say Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, but Cro-Magnons have fallen out of fashion).

So it looks like modern humans killed, ate, and had sex with Neanderthals. How is it different from warfare in ethnographically attested foraging societies?

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In the 90s when I first read various pronouncements of learned professors that it is utterly impossible that humans had sex with Neanderthals I couldn’t stop laughing. You had to be a special (I guess the term is WEIRD) kind of human to believe such nonsense. Having grown among savages I knew perfectly well that there is no warm receptacle a savage *won’t* have sex with: baby sheep, goats, dogs, chicken – you name it. Seen some, know people who had seen even more. The idea that even more primitive humans would *not* have had sex with apes or Neanderthals is beyond ridiculous. And yet it required DNA proof to convince learned professors. Food for thought.
Similarly in my experience after sex (with something, willing or not) the second best thing bands of young male savages like to do is fight other bands of young savages. Real fights with sharp objects and dead bodies, not your pussified western fist swinging.
So you learned professors can continue arguing whether wars existed in the past. It is mildly amusing to observe. Maybe you will find a solid proof, maybe not. The very fact that this is a matter to argue about is what is wrong with anthropological sciences today.

Gene Anderson

Mostly agree, though calling wolf competition “war” seems to me a bit of a reach–they don’t have full intentionality the way we do, and it sounds more like a family feud, like the Hatfields and McCoys, anyway.
One correction! Rousseau NEVER used the phrase “noble savage” (it was coined by John Dryden) and never thought savages were peaceful. LIke modern anthropologists, he took the chimpanzee as his model of early hominids (“savages”), and he knew chimps were powerful, aggressive, and combative. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 1986 (French orig. of Second Discourse, cited, 1755). The First and Second Discourses and Essay on the Origin of Language. Ed./tr. by Victor Gourevitch. New York: Harper and Row.
The idea he thought savages were noble and peaceful came from the general tendency to hang any old belief about savages on him!
Otherwise–clearly people have always fought–there have been very peaceful societies, but mostly fairly recent ones. And Pinker’s right that there has been an overall reduction in killing in the last 300 years, spreading with the enlightenment. We need the Enlightenment! Where is it now? Seems to be waning everywhere.

Peter Turchin

By my definition a family feud is a kind of war, particularly when individuals are being targeted not as individuals, but as representatives of the enemy clan. This is known as ‘social substitution principle.” But we don’t need to become hung up on definitions – I am happy to accept that yours, which requires full intentionality (others emphasize planning), is fine. It may be better suited to other theoretical questions.

You can partly avoid the issue of defining war and determining war deaths (as Stephen Pinker does in “Better Angels of our Nature”) by looking at the evidence of deaths by violence. But this at best only answers the question of the evolutionary pressure from violence, rather than specifically from between-group conflict. It does seem plausible that the frequent high levels of violence in recent hunter-gatherer and horticulturalist groups is partly caused by levels of population pressure that may have been absent during important parts of our evolution.

Has anyone tried to quantify the strength of selection pressure that might have existed in early city states? Although the time span for evolution to act was a lot shorter, we have better historic and archaeological evidence about the quite high stakes for between-group conflict in the past few millennia. Studies of ancient DNA may become relevant here, because one of the major arguments against the power of group selection is that group boundaries would have been be too genetically permeable. Yet (so far as I know) this claim is not based on any actual measurements of genetic differences across cultural boundaries.

Peter Turchin

As far as I know, nobody tried to quantify group selection between city states. But the data are there, especially on the Greek poleis.

However, I would not expect to see any evidence for genetic group selection – the action is all (or nearly all) in the cultural domain.


@ Peter Turchin

However, I would not expect to see any evidence for genetic group selection – the action is all (or nearly all) in the cultural domain.

Hasn’t y-chromosomal haplogroup propagation (but not mtDNA haplogroup propagation) been linked with linguistic dominance in gene studies? Isn’t this potentially evidence for genetic group selection?

Peter Turchin

I am not familiar with the studies that link haplogroup propagation with linguistic spread.

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