Myths about hunter-gatherers redux: nomadic forager war and peace

Published date07 October 2014
Date07 October 2014
AuthorDouglas P. Fry,Patrik Söderberg
Subject MatterHealth & social care,Criminology & forensic psychology,Aggression, conflict & peace
Myths about hunter-gatherers redux:
nomadic forager war and peace
Douglas P. Fry and Patrik So
Douglas P.Fry is a Professor
and the Chair, based at
Department of Anthropology,
University of Alabama at
Birmingham, Birmingham,
Alabama, USA.
Patrik So
¨derberg is a Doctoral
Student, based at
Developmental Psychology,
˚bo Akademi University in
Vasa, Vasa, Finland.
Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to critique several studies that claim to show that nomadic foragers
engage in high levels of inter-group aggression. This is done through exploring four myths: nomadic foragers
are warlike; there was a high rate of war mortality in the Pleistocene; the nomadic forager data support the
chimpanzee modelof lethal raiding psychology; and contact and state influence inevitably decrease
aggression in nomadic forager societies.
Design/methodology/approach – Using exact criteria, a sample of 21 nomadic forager societies is
derived from the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample. This sampling method minimizes the chance of sampling
bias, a shortcoming that has plagued previous studies. Only the highest quality ethnographic data, those
classified as Primary Authority Sources, are used, which results in data on 148 cases of lethal aggression.
The specifics of the lethal aggression cases are then discussed vis-a
`-vis the four myths to demonstrate the
disjuncture between the data and the myths.
Findings – All four myths are found to be out of step with actual data on nomadic forager war and peace.
Overall, the default interaction pattern of nomadic foragers is to get along with neighbors rather than make
war against them. The findings contradict both assertions that there was a high level of war mortality among
nomadic foragers of the Pleistocene and the chimpanzee model’s proposal that human males have a
tendency or predisposition to form coalitions and make lethal attacks on members of neighboring groups.
Research limitations/implications – Consideration of nomadic forager war and peace should be
contextualized in terms of social organization, contact history (including ethnocide, displacement, and other
factors), and the current situation faced by extant forager populations. As in other contexts, the introduction
of alcohol at contact or subsequently has increased nomadic forager aggression.
Practical implications – Propositions as to the aggressiveness of nomadic foragers should be viewed
with skepticism because they are contradicted by data and a contextual view of nomadic forager social
organization and ethnohistory.
Social implications – The debate over nomadic forager war and peace is connected to larger debates in
modern society about the nature of human nature and has real-world implications regarding foreign policy
and political approaches toward war and peace.
Originality/value – A critique of sampling, methodology, and theory is provided in this area.
Keywords Peace, War, Chimpanzee model, Coalitionary lethal aggression, Hunter-gatherers,
Nomadic foragers
Paper type Conceptual paper
A conflagration is raging over whether nomadic foragers are peaceful or warlike. On one front, the
issues are debated in scholarly journals and books (Bowles, 2009; Bowles and Gintis, 2011;
Endicott, 2014; Fry and So
¨derberg, 2013a; Guenther, 2014; Lee, 2014; Wrangham and Glowacki,
2012). In another theater, the arguments are laid forth to lay readers (Gat, 2006; Pinker, 2011;
Wrangham and Peterson, 1996). Why does this question about nomadic foragers matter? One
answer is that nomadic forager data are seen as crucial or at least relevant to much larger issues:
How old is war? Are humans inherently warlike? Is war an evolved human trait? Can war, ironically,
be credited with the development of altruism and cooperation? Do humans (read: males) have an
evolved psychological propensity to form coalitions to attack members of neighboring societies?
Some of the data reported were
collected during research funded
by the National Science Foundation
(Grant No. 03-13670). The authors
are very grateful to Kirk Endicott,
Chris Kyle, and Richard Lee for
offering suggestions for the
improvement of this paper.
DOI 10.1108/JACPR-06-2014-0127 VOL. 6 NO. 4 2014, pp. 255-266, CEmerald Group Publishing Limited, ISSN 1759-6599
PAGE 255

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