Hunter-gatherer conference: day 1


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. [1]


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.







[1] 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).

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4 Responses to Hunter-gatherer conference: day 1

  1. Mateo says:

    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.

    A friend of mine retired from the U.S. Special Forces refers to soldiering not as a job but as a trade.

    In historical Native North America persistent low level conflict was the norm. Most of their adult males were in some sense ‘warriors’ for whom (and I don’t mean to glorify violence) warfare was a spiritual endeavor. They were certainly not professional soldiers, however.

    • jedstevenson says:

      What’s the sense of that distinction between job and trade, Matthew?

      It’s interesting to get your take on historical Native N America. It sounds similar to some of the southern Ethiopian agro-pastoral cultures I’m familiar with, where there are also warrior age-classes.

      On Wed, Jun 26, 2013 at 12:17 AM, A Human View

      • Mateo says:

        He mentioned the trade/job distinction in the context of laying out his objections to the reinstatement of a military draft in the United States. He argued that a military’s reason for being was combat, and you just don’t get the combat effectiveness from a conscript, high turnover force that you do from a professional, low turnover force. So I understood him to be saying by trade that soldiering was like surveying and carpentry. Six months or two years are just an initiation, not even the whole of the apprenticeship.

        It annoys me how Pinker likes to brush aside World War II as a single, outlying data point. That allows him to keep war at the psychological rather than social level. I think that whichever side of the Fordist/tradesman side of how best to fill the ranks one sits on that it is still important to consider that combat is not the whole of war.

        No one able to give an informed opinion would argue that Germany did not possess the best military in terms of quality of troops and commanders. Germany lost the war because Britain, the U.S., and (especially) the U.S.S.R. geared their populations and economies toward the war effort. Allied factory workers outpacing the production of German factory workers more than made up for the difference in combat effectiveness. Like Stalin said, “Quantity has a quality all its own.”

  2. jedstevenson says:

    Chilling that quotation from Stalin, in that context. I see what your friend means about the distinction now. The vulnerability of a professional army would seem to be that the pay might actually sap motivation — compared to say a citizen militia. The case of Ethiopia’s insurgent movements in interesting here: for instance how the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, with far inferior resources than the Ethiopian state during the Cold War, was nevertheless able to take and hold large areas of the country.

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