Is it natural for humans to make war? New study of tribal societies reveals conflict is an alien concept

Mankind learned the art of going into battle much later than previously thought, a new academic study

Science Editor

Is it natural for humans to make war? Is organised violence between rival political groups an inevitable outcome of the human condition? Some scholars believe the answer is yes, but new research suggests not.

A study of tribal societies that live by hunting and foraging has found that war is an alien concept and not, as some academics have suggested, an innate feature of so-called “primitive people”.

The findings have re-opened a bitter academic dispute over whether war is a relatively recent phenomenon invented by “civilised” societies over the past few thousand years, or a much older part of human nature. In other words, is war an ancient and chronic condition that helped to shape humanity over many hundreds of thousands of years?

The idea is that war is the result of an evolutionary ancient predisposition that humans may have inherited in their genetic makeup as long ago as about 7 million years, when we last shared a common ancestor with chimpanzees – who also wage a kind of war between themselves.

However, two anthropologists believe this is a myth and have now produced evidence to show it. Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg [umlaut over o] of Abo Akademi University in Vasa, Finland, studied 148 violently lethal incidents documented by anthropologists working among 21 mobile bands of hunter-gatherer societies, which some scholars have suggested as a template for studying how humans lived for more than 99.9 per cent of human history, before the invention of agriculture about 10,000 years ago.

They found that only a tiny minority of violent deaths come close to being defined as acts of war. Most the violence was perpetrated by one individual against another and usually involved personal grudges involving women or stealing.

About 85 per cent of the deaths involved killers and victims who belonged to the same social group, and about two thirds of all the violent deaths could be attributed to family feuds, disputes over wives, accidents or “legal” executions, the researchers found.

“When we looked at all the violent events about 55 per cent of them involved one person killing another. That’s not war. When we looked at group conflicts, the typical pattern was feuds between families and revenge killings, which is not war either,” said Dr Fry.

“It has been tempting to use these mobile foraging societies as rough analogies of the past and to ask how old warfare is and whether it is part of human nature. Our study shows that war is obviously not very common,” he said.

Only a tiny minority of cases involved more organised killing between rival bands of people, which could fall into the definition of war-like behaviour. Most of these involved only one of the 21 groups included in the study – the Tiwi people of Australia who seemed to be particularly prone to violent incidents, Dr Fry said.

Rather than finding war ubiquitous, the two researchers found little evidence that hunter-gatherer societies were in a constant state of violent conflict with rival groups. In short they found that some of the most “primitive” peoples on Earth were actually quite peaceful compared to modern, developed nations.

“These findings imply that warfare was probably not very common before the advent of agriculture, when most if not all humans lived as nomadic foragers,” Kirk Endicott, an anthropologist at Dartmouth College told the journal Science, where the study is published.

The findings also question the conclusions of well-respected academics such as Harvard’s Stephen Pinker and University of California’s Jared Diamond, both of whom have recently published best-selling books on the subject of war-like aggression and tribal societies.

In Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday”, for instance, war is defined as recurrent violence between groups belonging to rival political units that is sanctioned by those units. Under this definition, many tribal societies, left to their own devices, would be in a state of chronic war, Diamond says.

He cites the case of the Dani people living in the Baliem Valley of the New Guinea Highlands who in 1961 engaged in a series of violent conflicts that led to many deaths. Although the Dani are agriculturalists, Diamond uses them as examples of how early humans societies may have interacted with one another.

Meanwhile, Pinker in his book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” argues that humans are innately violent and have only become less so in recent years because of cultural influences that have kept this aggressive nature in check.

Both Pinker and Diamond have been criticised by some anthropologists for simplifying and exaggerating the research they use to support their conclusions. Even worse, some argue that they used discredited work of anthropologists such as Napoleon Chagnon who has claimed that the Yanomami people of the Amazon are in a state of chronic warfare with one another.

“Chagnon’s work is frequently used by writers such as Jared Diamond and Stephen Pinker who want to portray tribal peoples as ‘brutal savages’, far more violent than ‘us’. But none of them acknowledge that his central findings about Yanomami violence have long been discredited,” said Stephen Corry, director of Survival International.

“This latest research is the latest nail in the coffin for Pinker's 'Brutal Savage' thesis. Pinker selects highly questionable data, and leaves out anything which contradicts his argument,” Mr Corry said.

“Although he and his supporters, such as Jared Diamond, present those of us who question them as 'anti-science', in fact their own work is simply a social and political argument with a pseudo-scientific wrapper,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Diamond said that many scholars agree with his conclusions that tribal societies are on average more violent than state societies.

“This conclusion might at first seem surprising, but tribal warfare tends to be chronic, while even nations with the highest war-related death tolls in the 20th Century – Russia, Germany and Poland – were mostly at peace and only intermittently at war,” Dr Diamond said.

“Corry’s passionate and error-laden condemnation of my book is clearly driven by something other than the facts. It’s Corry’s romanticised view of traditional societies that is really dangerous,” he said.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
booksNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Manager

£32000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Manager is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£45000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015