To complete a trilogy on the anthropology of war, here is episode 8 from the archives. Enjoy!
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Thomas Hobbes famously wrote that life in the state of nature was “nasty, brutish, and short”. Recently, various scholars have claimed that Hobbes was basically right: our ancestors lived in a state of constant raiding and chronic warfare. Indeed, some have suggested that as many as 15% of ancestral humans died due to war. And the claims are made with the utmost confidence.
But there is something disturbing about this confidence. The earliest archaeological records of war are only c. 14,000 years old. And many anthropologists working with modern-day hunter-gatherers claim that they tend to be remarkably peaceful.
The literature around this question is dense and difficult to penetrate. This episode aims to make it a notch more accessible.
Douglas P. Fry is an anthropologist and a leading scholar on the topic. He has written extensively about the origins of war in books such as War, Peace and Human Nature. His papers on the matter have been published in top journals such as Science. And his conclusions might be surprising to many.
In this discussion, Ilari and Professor Fry talk about:
- The archaeological evidence for the origins of war.
- Why do some hunter-gatherers wage war? Why does Fry think that most of them do not? And why is the data in Better Angels of Our Nature so misleading - even fabricated?
- How common is lethal violence in mammals more generally?
- How violent was the human Pleistocene (over 11,700 years ago)? Does it matter?
Ethnic groups mentioned
- Pacific Northwest hunter-gatherers (hunter-gatherer groups well-known for having complex “civilisation”, including social hierarchies, warfare and slavery)
- Calusa (a complex hunter-gatherer group in Florida)
- Tiwi (Australian hunter-gathers who are atypical for having clans and a high level of lethal violence)
- Andaman Islanders (in the Bay of Bengal)
- Iñupiaq (the warring Inuit group, which was not named in the discussion)
Names and technical terms
- Herbert Manscher
- Jane Goodall (primatologist who recorded so-called Gombe wars in chimpanzees)
- Steven Pinker
- Samuel Bowles
- Leslie Sponsel
- Christopher Boehm
- C. Darwent, J. Darwent
- Misreported “war deaths” in Better Angles of Out Nature (Fry & Söderberg 2019) and lethal violence in hunter-gatherers (Fry & Söderberg 2013)
- Lethal violence in mammals (Gomez et al. 2016) and in archaeological skeletons (Haas & Piscitelli)
- Cooperation in a spatial prisoner’s dilemma (Aktipis 2004)
- Peace systems (video & the Nature article)