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Myths about hunter-gatherers redux: nomadic forager war and peace

Douglas P. Fry (Douglas P. Fry is a Professor and the Chair, based at Department of Anthropology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama, USA.)
Patrik Söderberg (Patrik Söderberg is a Doctoral Student, based at Developmental Psychology, Åbo Akademi University in Vasa, Vasa, Finland.)

Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

ISSN: 1759-6599

Article publication date: 7 October 2014




The purpose of this paper is to critique several studies that claim to show that nomadic foragers engage in high levels of inter-group aggression. This is done through exploring four myths: nomadic foragers are warlike; there was a high rate of war mortality in the Pleistocene; the nomadic forager data support the “chimpanzee model” of lethal raiding psychology; and contact and state influence inevitably decrease aggression in nomadic forager societies.


Using exact criteria, a sample of 21 nomadic forager societies is derived from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. This sampling method minimizes the chance of sampling bias, a shortcoming that has plagued previous studies. Only the highest quality ethnographic data, those classified as Primary Authority Sources, are used, which results in data on 148 cases of lethal aggression. The specifics of the lethal aggression cases are then discussed vis-à-vis the four myths to demonstrate the disjuncture between the data and the myths.


All four myths are found to be out of step with actual data on nomadic forager war and peace. Overall, the default interaction pattern of nomadic foragers is to get along with neighbors rather than make war against them. The findings contradict both assertions that there was a high level of war mortality among nomadic foragers of the Pleistocene and the chimpanzee model's proposal that human males have a tendency or predisposition to form coalitions and make lethal attacks on members of neighboring groups.

Research limitations/implications

Consideration of nomadic forager war and peace should be contextualized in terms of social organization, contact history (including ethnocide, displacement, and other factors), and the current situation faced by extant forager populations. As in other contexts, the introduction of alcohol at contact or subsequently has increased nomadic forager aggression.

Practical implications

Propositions as to the aggressiveness of nomadic foragers should be viewed with skepticism because they are contradicted by data and a contextual view of nomadic forager social organization and ethnohistory.

Social implications

The debate over nomadic forager war and peace is connected to larger debates in modern society about the nature of human nature and has real-world implications regarding foreign policy and political approaches toward war and peace.


A critique of sampling, methodology, and theory is provided in this area.



Some of the data reported were collected during research funded by the National Science Foundation (Grant No. 03-13670). The authors are very grateful to Kirk Endicott, Chris Kyle, and Richard Lee for offering suggestions for the improvement of this paper.


P. Fry, D. and Söderberg, P. (2014), "Myths about hunter-gatherers redux: nomadic forager war and peace", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 6 No. 4, pp. 255-266.



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Copyright © 2014, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

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