Warfare

A study concludes that warfare does not come naturally to primitive societies. These Ukrainian marines participate in NATO exercises. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images / September 18, 2014)

It's been argued that warfare is as old as humanity itself -- that the affairs of primitive society were marked by chronic raiding and feuding between groups.

Now, a new study published in Science argues just the opposite.

After reviewing a database of present-day ethnographies for 21 hunter-gatherer societies -- groups that most closely resemble our evolutionary past -- researchers at Abo Akademi University in Finland concluded that early man had little need or cause for war.

Though these so-called mobile forager band societies -- referred to in the report as MFBS -- were not free of violence, researchers said the mayhem was very unorganized and seldom involved rival groups.

In fact, the violence practiced by these wandering societies was overwhelmingly murder, plain and simple, according to Douglas Fry, an anthropology professor, and Patrik Soderberg, a developmental psychology graduate student. 

"Many lethal disputes involved two men competing over a particular woman (sometimes the wife of one of them), revenge homicide exacted by family members of a victim (often aimed at the specific person responsible for the previous killing), and interpersonal quarrels of various kinds; for instance, stealing of honey, insults or taunting, incest, self-defense or protection of a loved-one," authors wrote.

The researchers examined 148 killings and their reported cause. For the most part, the 21 groups were peaceful, but one group in particular stood out for its violence, the Tiwi of Australia. They generated nearly half of the lethal events.

"The findings suggest that MFBS are not particularly warlike if the actual circumstances of lethal aggression are examined. Fifty-five percent of the lethal events involved a sole perpetrator killing only one individual (64% if the atypical Tiwi are removed). One-person-killing-one-person reflects homicide or manslaughter, not coalitional killing or war," the authors wrote.

Only 15% of the lethal events occurred across societal lines, however.

The authors listed numerous factors that made warfare among hunter-gatherer societies very unlikely.

Small group size, large foraging areas and low population density were not conducive to organized conflict. If groups didn't get along, they were more likely to put distance between them than fight, authors said.

Foraging societies are also more egalitarian than sedentary societies and lack clear leadership to organize for war. Likewise, their roaming lifestyle made it difficult to capitalize on conquest.

"Typical spoils of war -- material goods or stored food -- are largely lacking, and the necessity of mobility makes the capture and containment of individuals against their will (e.g., slaves or brides) impractical," authors wrote.

Because of this, the authors argue that warfare is a behavior that humans adopted more recently, after we abandoned a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

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