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War and peace among Kalahari San

Mathias Guenther (Professor Emeritus, based at Anthropology Program, Wilfrid Laurier University, Waterloo, Canada)

Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

ISSN: 1759-6599

Article publication date: 7 October 2014




The purpose of this paper is to explain the discrepancy between ethnohistorical accounts on north-western Kalahari San of the nineteenth to early twentieth century and recent ethnographic accounts, the former depicting the San as intensely warlike, the latter as basically peaceable.


Review of historical, ethnohistorical and ethnographic source material (reports, journal articles, monographs).


The warlike ways of the nineteenth-century Kalahari San were reactions to settler intrusion, domination and encapsulation. This was met with resistance, a process that led to the rapid politicization and militarization, socially and ideationally, of San groups in the orbit of the intruders (especially the “tribal zone” they created). It culminated in internecine warfare, specifically raiding and feuding, amongst San bands and tribal groupings.

Research limitations/implications

While the nineteenth-century Kalahari San were indeed warlike and aggressive, toward both intruders and one another, this fact does not warrant the conclusion that these “simple” hunter-gatherer people have an agonistic predisposition. Instead, of being integral to their sociality, bellicosity is historically contingent. In the absence of the historical circumstances that fuel San aggression and warfare, as was the case after and before the people's exposure and resistance to hegemonic intruders, San society and ethos, in conformity with the social structure and value orientation of simple, egalitarian band societies, is basically peaceful.


A setting-the-record-straight corrective on current misunderstandings and misinformation on hunter-gatherer warfare.



The author would like to acknowledge the valuable input to this paper from Kirk Endicott, Richard Lee, Andrew Lyons, Laird Christie and Dean Knight on earlier versions presented at three conferences (10th International Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS 10), American Anthropological Association (AAA) and the Canadian Anthropology Society CASCA, respectively, in June 2013 in Liverpool, November 2013 in Chicago and May 2014 in Toronto).


Guenther, M. (2014), "War and peace among Kalahari San", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 6 No. 4, pp. 229-239.



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