Today was the first day of the international Conference on Hunting and Gathering Societies (CHaGS).
The 10th meeting of its kind since 1966, it’s brought together approximately 200 delegates — scholars from all four continents, and from the disciplines of anthropology, history, archaeology, and genetics — in Liverpool.
The only thing more diverse than the delegates, perhaps, are the people who are the subject of the conference: the hunters and gatherers who once lived all over the world, and who live still in parts of Africa, Asia, South America, Australia, and the Arctic.
Why does this stuff matter?
This afternoon’s session on Violence serves as an illustration of why everyone should be interested in hunter-gatherers.
Richard B. Lee, an ethnographer of the Kalahari (and a convener of the first international hunter-gatherer conference in 1966), took on the topic “Hunter-gatherers on the bestseller list.”
His presentation focused on a popular 2011 book by Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has Declined.
Pinker — and others whom Lee refers to as “the Bellicose School” — cast hunter-gatherer societies (and by extension all of humanity before the origins of agriculture, approximately 10,000 years ago) as being far more violent than modern, industrialized societies. 
Having established a contrast between hunter-gatherer violence and modern pacifism, Pinker argues that Western institutions may be responsible for the decline of violence.
What’s at stake here, Lee pointed out, is nothing less than our understanding of human nature, and of grand patterns in history.
This is part of a debate that’s often framed in terms of an opposition between a Hobbesian “war of all against all” and a Rousseauian state of primitive harmony.
But Lee’s own work in the 1980s busted both myths at once: The Ju’/hoansi (!Kung San) communities that he studied, he discovered, had homicide rates roughly equal to 20th century American cities.
But no war.
That’s the kicker.
Without warfare between groups — something hunter-gatherers seldom engage in, partly because of the fluid and decentralized nature of their communities — rates of violent death are almost certainly far lower in hunting and gathering societies than in industrialized ones, with their recurrent military conflagrations.
Lee didn’t seek to replace Pinker’s grand narrative with another one, but the evidence would seem to fit a trend of increasing violence through history at least as well as a trend of increasing peace.
An important difference, however, may be that violence in our culture has been in large part hidden, and professionalized: contracted out to soldiers or mercenaries, and exported to other countries.
This is just one example of how attention to the people still living by hunting and gathering — and the evidence left behind by hunter-gatherers of the past — can help us understand ourselves.
 Pinker’s interpretation, Lee argued, is largely due to errors of categorization: lumping other “pre-modern” societies, such as the manifestly violent horticultural groups of highland New Guinea, and the Yanomamo of the Amazon, together in the hunter-gatherer category.
Others whom Lee considers as members of the “Bellicose School” are Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson (authors of the 1996 book, Demonic Males).
For the data that suggest hunter-gatherers experienced less violence, Lee referred to Douglas P. Fry, ed. (2013) War, peace, and human nature: The convergence of evolutionary and cultural views. New York: Oxford University Press (esp. chapter 10, by Haas & Piscitelli, on violence in the archaeological record).