Were our hunter-gatherer ancestors violent?

Yesterday I was at an anthropological lecture in Liverpool University where speakers talked about violence in hunter-gatherer communities. The overall theme was that our ancestors weren’t as bad as we thought.

Douglas Fry told us that in nomadic social life reciprocation is an important principle. However reciprocating good deeds – like sharing meat and allowing access to resources – is far more common than reciprocating bad deeds. Murder, though, is reciprocated.

Studies of hunter-gatherers have often lumped them together, treated them as all the same and found them violent. Fry argued that we should distinguish between nomadic, complex and equestrian hunter-gatherers. The nomadic ones have been by far the most common, and are much more peaceful. They are egalitarian. They have family feuds, but rarely if ever wars. Feuds are by men over women, or by women over men, or over personal insults or homicide. The complex societies are more settled and non-egalitarian. Often they have slaves and slave-owners. It is the complex societies where wars become common.

Robert Kelly gave us illustrations of how hunter-gatherer violence (war and homicide) is connected to population density. When there are many people relative to the food base people are more inclined to fight.

Nicolas Peterson, the final speaker, played a different tune. Focusing on tribes of central and northern Australia he described their lifestyle – as found by the first European settlers – as a continual round of tit-for-tat murders. Each time family A kills a member of family B, family B is duty-bound to kill a member of family A. The photographs were all of men carrying spears – apparently they took a spear wherever they went. When Europeans set up a mission station in northern Australia lots of Australians wanted to join, to get away from the fighting.

Nevertheless the overall theme was that violence among hunter-gatherers has been exaggerated. Both Douglas Fry and Robert Kelly were critical of Steven Pinker’s popular theory that human violence has been decreasing over time.

Questioners asked the obvious questions. What does this tell us about our society today? It suggests that we really should do something about population control. The main point, however, must be that more egalitarian societies are more peaceful and cooperative. At a time like today, when society is rapidly moving in the opposite direction, it is a salutary reminder.

This entry was posted in Ethics, Society and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.