Friday, August 10, 2012

Warfare is a modern invention

Lately I have been running into a lot of incredulity about the idea that Pleistocene hunter-gatherers didn’t engage in warfare. I think part of the problem is that we tend to use the term war in a metaphorical sense to apply to just about any act of aggression. I was reading recently about how even chimpanzees supposedly engage in acts of warfare on neighboring colonies. This is ridiculous on its face. Yeah, the chimps gang up, ambush, and kill other chimps. But to equate what chimps do with human warfare is a bit of a stretch to say the least. Lion prides gang up, ambush, and kill gazelles. So is that war too? And don’t even get me started about what ant colonies do to each other.

Humans are not pacifist by nature. And there were surely situations where conflict over hunting territory—or just plain xenophobia—led to deadly aggression between neighboring bands. But Pleistocene hunter-gatherers lacked two things that prevent me from calling this kind of inter-band conflict war. First, they didn’t have weapons. They had all kinds of potentially deadly tools, spears, knives, poison arrows, etc. But they didn’t have any tools specifically designed for use against other humans. Poison arrows were no doubt used to kill people on occasion (just like screwdrivers and box cutters are today), but they were designed for antelope. It is my understanding that you don’t start to see things like battle axes and maces in the archeological record until you get large-scale domestication.

And second, even more important than the lack of specifically designated weapons, the social structure of hunter-gatherer bands lacks the hierarchical systems of power and authority necessary for assembling and coordinating the deadly labor-power necessary for warfare. The division of labor that occurs with large-scale agricultural projects sets the stage for the hierarchical ordering of power-relations necessary to organize and carryout military operations.

In addition, nomadic and semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers didn’t have any real reasons to kill each other en masse. Sedentary life-ways anchored to specific physical locations for crops and food storage, and the recurrent need to expand into new territory to accommodate exhausted soils and the inevitable increase in population, gives farmers motives to kill each other that foragers don’t have.


  1. What would be some good books and articles to read that back this up this statement? I hear this argument against hunter-gathers a lot as well...

    1. There are several sources out there supporting the claim that war has always been a part of our human past, but they all seem to me to be highly biased in a Hobbesian “red-in-tooth-and-claw” direction. Lawrence Keeley’s “War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage” is a good example.

      Jared Diamond’s book “The World until Yesterday” is a much better read. He uses the violence of traditional societies in Papua New Guinea to support his claim that humans have always been warlike. But his examples are all farmers.

      Here’s a brief but good academic piece supporting the rarity (virtual nonexistence?) of warlike behavior among Paleolithic folks: Ferguson, R. (2000). ON EVOLVED MOTIVATIONS FOR WAR. Anthropological Quarterly, 73(3), 159-164.