Guest editorial

Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research

ISSN: 1759-6599

Article publication date: 7 October 2014



Endicott, K. (2014), "Guest editorial", Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Vol. 6 No. 4.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Guest editorial

Article Type: Guest editorial From: Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research, Volume 6, Issue 4

Can studies of recent and current hunting and gathering societies inform our understanding of human violence and peacefulness? The contributors to this special issue of the Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research believe that the answer is yes, provided one takes careful account of the similarities and differences between recent hunting and gathering societies and those in the distant past.

One question they address is whether humans are innately inclined to be violent, non-violent, or neither one. (By “violence” the authors generally mean physical aggression against others, but see Tacey and Riboli for discussion of the concept of “structural violence”.) The idea that humans, or at least human males, are naturally violent is a long-standing theme in western thought (Sussman, 2013). This idea continues to be expressed in recent books such as Wrangham and Peterson's (1996) Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Pinker's (2011), The Better Angels of Our Nature, Diamond's (2012), The World Until Yesterday and Wilson's (2012), The Social Conquest of Earth. These authors claim that humans are innately aggressive because during human evolution violence-prone males have been able to out-reproduce peaceful ones, thus increasing the proportion of genes for aggression in the population.

On the other hand, some scholars argue that prosocial impulses – promoting cooperation, social bonding and empathy for others (including non-kin) – have been favoured by natural selection (e.g. Sussman and Chapman, 2004; Henrich and Henrich, 2007; de Waal, 2008; Hrdy, 2009). Their argument is that our early human and protohuman ancestors could not have survived without the support of the group to help protect them from dangerous predators, share food with them and help raise their children. Thus individuals with the best social skills would have had the most children and successfully raised them to maturity.

Both these views place strong emphasis on instincts, inherited behavioural tendencies. However, cultural anthropologists point out that the amount of violence varies widely from one human society to another, and the rate of violence can change rapidly in the absence of biological evolution. For example, Japanese culture changed from militaristic to pacifistic within a few years after Second World War. This implies that humans are capable of both aggressive and peaceful behaviour and that any instinctual inclinations towards one or the other that might exist are relatively weak and can be overridden by socialization. The causes of violence must be sought, then, in the particular circumstances and cultures of the groups in question.

Prevailing theories for and against violence as a human adaptation are based on models of hunting and gathering, a method of subsistence followed by all members of the human lineage until about 10,000 years ago. Did that way of life favour aggressive individuals or cooperative ones?

Our understanding of the ancestral way of life depends upon evidence drawn from several different academic disciplines. Paleontologists have gathered some clues to early behaviour from the study of the bones of early hominins. But hominin bones from the period before the rise of agriculture are scarce, often fragmentary, and hard to interpret. Signs of violence on human bones are very rare, and it is hard to determine whether they are due to interpersonal violence, predator attacks, or accidents. Skeletal evidence does reveal that hominin canine teeth diminished in size, and differences in canine height and body weight between males and females (sexual dimorphism) also diminished as time went on, possibly indicating a decline in aggression (Plavcan and van Schaik, 1992, 1997).

Archaeologists use natural and cultural materials to reconstruct the behaviours of early hominids, but they too are hindered by the paucity of remains from early periods and the difficulties of interpreting them. For example, microwear studies of Oldowan stone tools, produced between about 2.5 and 1.4 million years ago, suggest that they were used for butchery, woodworking and possibly tuber processing, but there is no way of knowing whether they were also used to kill hominins or other animals (Braun, 2012, pp. 230-2). Tools clearly intended to be weapons, such as swords, do not appear until the Bronze Age (Thorpe, 2005, p. 6). One thing archaeologists agree upon is that the hominin population density in the early days was very low (Haas and Piscitelli, 2013, pp. 175-7). Archaeologists often attribute intergroup violence to population pressure and competition for scarce resources (Kelly 2013; Haas and Piscitelli, 2013), which would not have been a problem before the population explosion associated with the beginning of agriculture. Also continent-wide cultural similarities throughout the world between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago suggest that relations between neighbouring groups were not hostile (Haas and Piscitelli, 2013, p. 183).

Some primatologists argue that the behaviours of non-human primates provide clues to the biological roots of some human behaviours, including intragroup and intergroup violence. The problem is that the behaviour patterns differ greatly for different species, and it is not obvious which primates are the best model for early hominid behaviour. Proponents of the theory that humans are innately prone to violence consider the chimpanzee pattern, which includes male defence of territorial boundaries and attacks on members of other groups, as the best model (Wrangham and Peterson, 1996; Wrangham and Glowacki, 2012). However, humans are equally closely related genetically to bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees), and bonobos do not kill other bonobos, and they interact happily with members of other groups (de Waal, 1997; White et al., 2013). In any case, humans, chimps and bonobos have diverged from their common ancestor for as long as seven million years, and their patterns of behaviour, like their physical characteristics, have evolved in very different directions (Duda and Zrzavy, 2013).

Some cultural anthropologists and archaeologists use the study of recent hunting and gathering peoples for insights into the probable behaviour of Paleolithic foragers, the so-called “ethnographic analogy”. This is the approach taken by the authors of the papers in this special issue.

The hunter-gatherer ethnographic analogy has strengths and weaknesses (Wobst, 1978; Wylie, 1985; Marlowe, 2005; Humphreys, 2007; Haas and Piscitelli, 2013). Its main strength is that it can fill in some of the gaps in the information available from other sources. For example, it can help archaeologists determine with some confidence how a certain cultural artefact might have been used by comparison with how similar items were used by recent foragers. Fossil bones and material remains can provide clues to how an ancient people adapted to their physical environment, but the ethnographic analogy may be useful in predicting social and ideological characteristics of early cultures, including the possibilities of intragroup and intergroup violence.

The main problem with the ethnographic analogy is that few of the recently existing hunting and gathering peoples lived in a world populated exclusively by hunter-gatherers, as did our distant ancestors. Most have been influenced by the presence of complex, food-producing societies in their social environment, and these influences may go back thousands of years. For example, most recent hunting and gathering societies have access to iron tools and foods cultivated either by themselves or outsiders. They may also be encapsulated and politically dominated by more powerful groups. Some scholars have even argued that the nomadic hunting and gathering societies that continued to exist into the twentieth century do not resemble ancient foragers at all and are actually products of their subordinate, weak and marginalized position in modern nation states. For example, some claim that the San of southern Africa, who are featured in two of our papers, are products of relatively recent domination by other groups (see, e.g. Wilmsen, 1989; Humphreys, 2007). However, recent archaeological finds at Border Cave in South Africa show a material culture very similar to that of the nomadic San reaching back as far as 44,000 years ago (Villa et al., 2012; d’Errico et al., 2012; Balter, 2012). Most hunter-gatherer specialists view recent foraging societies as sharing some characteristics with early foraging societies living in similar environments, while taking account of the differences introduced by the modern world (see, e.g. Marlowe, 2005).

Before using a particular or generalized hunting and gathering society as a heuristic model for interpreting ancient hominin societies, scholars must consider such questions as the following:

  • What is the history of the model group? Why does it still exist? Does it descend from an unbroken line of hunter-gatherers, or has it recently adopted a foraging way of life?

  • What materials and technologies does the model society obtain from the modern world? How does having, say metal tools, affect the amount of time people must devote to various kinds of work?

  • What foods, medicines, etc. does the model society obtain from the outside world? How does that affect foraging processes and choices?

  • What effect does the presence of militarily and politically more powerful people have on the forager society? Are they serfs or slaves? Are they politically autonomous? Have they been pushed out of more favourable environments?

  • What are the effects of outside religions? Education? Temporary employment in the outside world?

It is also necessary to choose the model that is most appropriate to the group or feature to be interpreted. Most of the evolution of the human species took place in Africa, probably in warm climate forest edge and savannah environments (Hart and Hart, 1986). So it would be most appropriate to use recent African foraging societies, or groups in similar environments elsewhere, as models. Cold climate foragers (e.g. Inuit), mounted hunter-gatherers (e.g. Plains Indians), and sedentary foragers would be unsuitable unless for the interpretation of specific features (e.g. use of bone tools) (Marlowe, 2005, p. 56).

The general picture of the social environment in which our species evolved that emerges from the ethnographic analogy, combined with findings from paleontology and archaeology, is the following:

  • people lived in small groups (median camp size about 30; Marlowe, 2005, pp. 58-9);

  • people lived in temporary camps;

  • there was a division of labour by sex;

  • hunters and gatherers returned to camp at night;

  • vegetable foods provided the bulk of the diet;

  • foods were shared within the camp group; and

  • camps moved and split up or came together according to the changing availability of resources.

The contributors to this special issue believe that this social environment did not strongly favour aggressive instincts in our early ancestors for the following reasons:

  • although interpersonal violence was possible, the simple social organization made large-scale organized warfare unlikely;

  • methods of dispute settlement existed, including the ability of disputants to move apart;

  • high levels of violence would have threatened survival;

  • intergroup competition for resources would have been low due to low overall population density;

  • cooperation with other groups would have promoted survival in times of resource variation;

  • need for unrelated mates would have encouraged good relations between groups; and

  • social activities (e.g. rituals) would have drawn groups together.

The papers in this special issue provide case studies of several kinds of recent hunting and gathering societies in different natural and social environments. They also discuss the question of whether our ancient ancestors lived in an environment in which interpersonal violence was rampant and whether this favoured the evolution of aggressive instincts in men.

In the first paper, “Hunter-gatherers on the best-seller list: Steven Pinker and the ‘bellicose school's’ treatment of forager violence”, Richard Lee addresses the general question of whether humans are inherently prone to violence. He disputes Pinker's claim that the rate of violence has declined as our species has advanced from living in small hunting and gathering bands to participating in modern civilizations. Lee points out that there is little evidence of interpersonal violence, much less war, before the Neolithic Revolution, with “the domestication of plants and animals, the transition from nomadic to sedentary living, and the subsequent growth of population and of fixed property”, about 10,000 years ago. He also argues that instances of violence among recent hunter-gatherers, such as some San peoples of southern Africa, are mostly responses to particular historical circumstances, especially violent incursions by outside groups. Lee shows that Pinker's claims about hunter-gatherer violence are based on flawed samples of tribal populations consisting mostly of sedentary horticulturalists. He also points out that Pinker's claim that the rate of violence is lower in American society today than in hunting and gathering bands does not take account of the many deaths caused by wars in the twentieth century.

Mathias Guenther, in his paper “War and peace among Kalahari San”, presents a detailed description and analysis of the history of the San foragers of Namibia and Botswana over the last two centuries. He describes how the intrusions by non-San cattle herders and later by European colonists caused some San groups to change from peaceful foraging bands into ferocious raiders led by charismatic warriors. Their raids had both economic aims, to acquire cattle to replace the diminished supply of wild game, and political aims, to drive off the usurpers. After over a century of resistance, they were finally subdued by the German and British colonists, and they reverted to their earlier peaceful way of life. Guenther argues that peaceful relationships within and between bands were integral to their nomadic, egalitarian, foraging system, not a result of “pacification” by the colonial governments.

In their paper “Violence, fear and anti-violence: the Batek of Peninsular Malaysia”, Ivan Tacey and Diana Riobli describe how the Batek, like the other aboriginal peoples of the Malay peninsula, reacted to violent slave raiding and intrusions by outsiders by retreating into rain forest refuges and adopting a thoroughly “anti-violent” way of life. They regard this reaction, the opposite to that of the San described in Guenther's paper, as a rational strategy in light of their particular circumstances: their small numbers compared to the aggressors and the availability of deep forest hiding places. The Batek maintain their ultra peaceful values and practices today in response to their current marginal, impoverished and powerless position in Malaysian society, a situation of “structural violence” backed up by the threat of direct violence by agents of the state. This is illustrated by an incident in which a Batek leader embarrassed a Malay politician and then had to flee from the police.

Richard Daly's paper, “War, peace and Northwest Coast complex hunter-gatherers”, extends the discussion to the sedentary, hierarchical, complex hunting and gathering societies of the Pacific Northwest Coast and the adjacent inland regions. These societies, while living off naturally occurring resources such as salmon, were organized more like horticulturalists than nomadic foragers, and like tribal horticulturalists elsewhere, they engaged in some organized group-to-group fighting. Daly places the periods of fighting in their historical contexts, arguing that the early conflicts arose from population movements precipitated by natural disasters and the later ones from the influence of European traders and colonists. He also describes the social mechanisms – such as diplomacy, feast-giving, marriage exchange and gift exchange – that ordinarily maintained harmonious relations between groups and restored peace after conflicts. This case study supports the general conclusion that group conflict (feud, war, etc.) arises when population density rises and resources are localized and sometimes scarce, conditions normally associated with agriculture and animal husbandry.

In the final paper, “Myths about hunter-gatherers redux: nomadic forager war and peace”, Douglas Fry and Patrik Söderberg discuss the importance of studies of recent hunting and gathering peoples for understanding the causes of human peacefulness and violence. They dispute four common “myths” about nomadic foragers, namely, that recent nomadic foragers were warlike; that hunter-gatherers in the Pleistocene Epoch, before the advent of agriculture, had a high rate of mortality due to violence; that nomadic foragers fit the chimpanzee pattern of defending fixed territories and killing strangers whenever they have superior numbers; and that incorporation in nation states has lowered the rate of violence among forcibly settled hunter-gatherers. They show how the proponents of those myths have manipulated and selected their data to support their preconceived notions that humans in a “state of nature” tend to be violent.

Dr Kirk Endicott

Professor Emeritus, based at Department of Anthropology, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, USA


The author thanks the contributors to this special issue and Nate Dominy, Kes Schroer, and Jennifer Koester for valuable help, information and advice.


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Further reading

Sussman, R.W. and Cloninger, C.R. (Eds) (2011), Origins of Altruism and Cooperation, Springer, New York, NY

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