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Hunter-gatherers on the best-seller list: Steven Pinker and the “Bellicose School's” treatment of forager violence

Richard B. Lee (University Professor Emeritus, based at Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada)

Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

ISSN: 1759-6599

Article publication date: 7 October 2014

235

Abstract

Purpose

The question of violence in hunter-gatherer society has animated philosophical debates since at least the seventeenth century. Steven Pinker has sought to affirm that civilization, is superior to the state of humanity during its long history of hunting and gathering. The purpose of this paper is to draw upon a series of recent studies that assert a baseline of primordial violence by hunters and gatherers. In challenging this position the author draws on four decades of ethnographic and historical research on hunting and gathering peoples.

Design/methodology/approach

At the empirical heart of this question is the evidence pro- and con- for high rates of violent death in pre-farming human populations. The author evaluates the ethnographic and historical evidence for warfare in recorded hunting and gathering societies, and the archaeological evidence for warfare in pre-history prior to the advent of agriculture.

Findings

The view of Steven Pinker and others of high rates of lethal violence in hunters and gatherers is not sustained. In contrast to early farmers, their foraging precursors lived more lightly on the land and had other ways of resolving conflict. With little or no fixed property they could easily disperse to diffuse conflict. The evidence points to markedly lower levels of violence for foragers compared to post-Neolithic societies.

Research limitations/implications

This conclusion raises serious caveats about the grand evolutionary theory asserted by Steven Pinker, Richard Wrangham and others. Instead of being “killer apes” in the Pleistocene and Holocene, the evidence indicates that early humans lived as relatively peaceful hunter-gathers for some 7,000 generations, from the emergence of Homo sapiens up until the invention of agriculture. Therefore there is a major gap between the purported violence of the chimp-like ancestors and the documented violence of post-Neolithic humanity.

Originality/value

This is a critical analysis of published claims by authors who contend that ancient and recent hunter-gatherers typically committed high levels of violent acts. It reveals a number of serious flaws in their arguments and use of data.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

Earlier versions of this paper have been presented at: The Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHAGS), Liverpool, June 2013, American Anthropological Association Annual Meetings, Chicago, November 2013, and Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) Annual Meetings, Toronto, May 2014. A warm thank you to the participants in these forums for helping to clarify and focus the issues: Pauline Aucoin, Jean-Guy Goulet, Andrew Lyons, Harriet Lyons, Ida Susser and Frehiwot Tesfaye. Special thanks as well to Larry Barham, Kirk Endicott, Brian Ferguson, Mathias Guenther, Nancy Howell and Sarah Hrdy.

Citation

B. Lee, R. (2014), "Hunter-gatherers on the best-seller list: Steven Pinker and the “Bellicose School's” treatment of forager violence", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 6 No. 4, pp. 216-228. https://doi.org/10.1108/JACPR-04-2014-0116

Publisher

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Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2014, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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