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On the Origins of Warfare

edited July 2006 in Human
As a follow up to Idiru345's recent concern:
Another bomb in Baghdad, another soldier killed in Kabul. A remembrance service for the dead of a battle long ago, a rogue state testing missiles for a conflict yet to come. Warfare is all around us, but for me it has only taken place in distant lands. I grew up during the cold war and live in the aftermath of 9/11 and 7/7, but I have never experienced war first-hand and pray that I never will. Not so for millions of others throughout the world and throughout history.

imageWhy so much war and violence? Perhaps we are an inherently violent species, prone not just to interpersonal violence but also to what the anthropologist Brian Ferguson of Rutgers University, New Jersey, has described as "organised, purposeful group action directed against another group involving the actual or potential application of lethal force" - that is, war. Reports of apparently planned, deliberate killing by chimpanzees in one group of those in another, as described in Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson's 1997 book Demonic Males, have led some to fear that this is indeed the case - that a murderous instinct is an indelible part of our evolutionary heritage. If chimpanzees are taken to reflect our earliest ancestry, and warring tribes such as the Yanomami of the Amazon region - made infamous by Napoleon Chagnon's 1968 book subtitled "The fierce people" - are representative of the pristine traditional society of modern humans, then it may indeed appear that war has always been with us. If so, we must conclude that it will remain for as long as our species survives upon this planet.

Such a bleak conclusion is all too easy to reach when there is so much war around us and in our history books. That does not mean it is right. Like us, those killer chimpanzees are members of the modern world, and they may have been responding to unnatural conditions created by habitat restriction. The other species of chimpanzee, the bonobo, appears to lack such aggressive instincts, and resolves tension by sex rather than violence. The bonobo has just as many credentials to be a model for the human past. Similarly, some argue that Yanomami warfare is a product of European contact rather than a "natural" state for that society. Even if it is not, there is no reason to treat the Yanomami as typical of our prehistoric forebears. The only way to know about the past is to look at the evidence from the past itself.

The Archaeology of Warfare does just that....


I was particularly impressed by the study of tribal warfare on the North American Great Plains prior to European contact, which showed a correlation between climate change and conflict intensity, and also with the analysis of warfare and state development in the Oaxaca valley, Mexico. This focuses on the development of Monte Albán, a site where the brutal slaughter of captives was dramatically recorded in galleries of carved stone images. Such carvings remind us that an ideology of conflict frequently becomes embedded within the culture of a society: the young become socialised with the virtues of violence and the elite become dependent on war to legitimise and sustain their position.

Maori WarfareIt is when ancient ideologies of conflict meet new technology that levels of death and destruction often become extreme. Mark Allen of California State Polytechnic University provides a superb account of the changes in Maori warfare, finishing with how the ancient pattern of fighting for revenge - sustainable for many centuries when this was done with clubs - led to between 20,000 and 50,000 deaths in a couple of decades after muskets were acquired from Europeans.

What these and the other studies in this volume show is that we cannot rely on recent history to understand the nature of warfare and the depth or otherwise of our violent nature. Archaeology provides an essential long-term and global perspective for exploring the interactions between social organisation, cultural values, environmental change, economy and technology in the cause of war and as the consequence of war. The archaeological record suggests that there were long periods when warfare was either absent or sporadic in human society. Unfortunately these appear to have been long, long ago, and the (pre)history of humankind indicates that by the time the bombs in Baghdad have ceased, they will have started up elsewhere. - New Scientist link (sorry, sub only)
War is our very nature. Our conflicts with our environment tends to increase our conflicts with each other. This is a well known connection, shown to have occured at the collapse of many civilisations, both large and small . Everyone knows that many wars of the 20th and early 21st centuries have been fought over our weakening grasp on non-sustainable energies. Do you think the trigger finger of the West will grow more itchy as the energy/climate crisis continues?

War dominates our headlines, our economies and our other political activities worldwide. Could it ever be different without altering the very nature of mankind (ala Brave New World)?

I love the Bonobo's sexual method of conflict resolution. What would a human world evolved from a more Bonobo attitude be like?


  • Humans are sexually Bonobo and aggressivly chimp++ ...the only non violent solution is the Taoist, 'hide until they're gone' technique. Anyway, a physical assault is a sexual act , don't tell any feminists I said that.
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