The topic of violence and warfare in indigenous societies sounds deceptively stuffy and academic, but it’s actually a very important philosophical and political question that relates directly to the entire human world, and I doubt if that point is lost on Prof. Steven A Pinker, see here for one of his recent lectures: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4028ZG6z5I, and his main inspiration, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley. It all goes back to the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes who pioneered the idea that the modern world rescued us from some kind of Dark Age of savagery. Pinker says in as many words: “Hobbes was right”. Pinker’s opinion is that the last five millennia of “civilization” has had a very calming effect on human nature. Actually I’m not really interested in most of his lecture and I certainly do not wish to extinguish its optimistic tone; what concerns me is the first twelve minutes or so where he talks about violence in “non-state” cultures and how they compare to civilization. There is another side to the story; a man who goes by mononym of “Gyrus” has written a book challenging Pinker and Keeley’s ideas on the changes between prehistory and history; his official webpage contains a link to a free PDF download of the book, War and the Noble Savage, and an illustrated audio lecture from 2009, see: http://dreamflesh.com/projects/war-noble-savage/. Gyrus disagrees with Pinker and Keeley’s judgement, which based on a very simplistic single-axis data analysis system which seems to make sense at first glance: the ratio of deaths by violence per proportion of the population. It doesn’t take into account the fact that non-state people lived in far smaller social units, which were themselves parts of regional communities that were smaller in population than modern ones by an order of magnitude. “Jivaro Indians have five times the murder rate of Colombia!” Sounds impressive; it give you the notion that the Jivaro spend all their time walking round with clubs trying to shatter each other’s skulls… until you realize there are only a few thousand of these guys and that “five times the murder rate of Colombia” in such a small population works out at around one murder per century. Pinker also fails to understand that many of the so-called “war deaths” in these societies were not caused by war as we know it. They happened as a result of engaging in extremely violent sports that were often used to resolve conflict, as an alternative to warfare; in fact in some indigenous cultures the concept of war as we understand it today, the ruthless, pragmatic, amoral and unrestrained killing of our fellow man, was unknown. However when it comes to environmental harmony, the Hobbesians are only too happy to hang their whole hypothesis onto population levels. In truth we don’t know anything about whether prehistoric people were aware of the need to care for the planet because they left no written records, however the contemporary testimony of the few remaining indigenous cultures in the modern world shows a remarkable level ecological awareness and a deep and wise appreciation for our planetary home, see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.co.uk/2007/11/chief-seattles-letter.html.
Why is the nature of indigenous societies such an important political and philosophical question? Because if we can prove that malice, greed, misanthropy and indifference to the environment are hardwired into the evolutionary character of human beings, it eases our conscience considerably when we look at the world around us today; everything from school bullying to nuclear attacks. At the end of the day, isn’t it just people being people? Some of us have a desperate need to believe this, because it lets us off the hook; it saves us from feeling any shame about our behaviour and a cop-out from any sense of duty to make changes. However Gyrus’ research indicates a very different image of our past, one that we have to face up to. The fact is that there are many cultures in prehistoric times in which people simply did not harm each other. They had conflict of course; conflict is an inevitable dialectic of life, but they managed to sort out that conflict in a civilized manner. These societies were not devoid of violence, but the violence was of a different nature. As I said above, they often played brutal games of mortal combat. Good examples of such cultures are Catal Huyuk in Turkey and the Temple Builders of Malta. I recommend this documentary by Richard Rudgley, see: http://watchdocumentary.org/watch/secrets-of-the-stone-age-episode-01-the-wisdom-of-the-stones-video_bff135097.html. One of the most significant stories of the Conquest of the Aztecs was the justification for it by the Conquistador Hernan Cortes. He railed against the viciousness of the Aztecs because they were so “warlike”. And it’s true, the Aztecs were constantly at war with their neighbours. But Cortes beat them because he laid siege to their capital Tenochtitlan and this stumped the Aztecs; because Cortes was targeting innocent bystanders, women and children etc. This was an alien concept to the Aztecs; when they fought wars amongst other indigenous nations they never harmed innocent people and only killed other soldiers. We’ve got to be wary of the falsehoods people like Pinker and Keeley are spreading because such concepts are extremely attractive in a world where it is so emotionally tempting to find a good reason to turn away and not give a damn. “It’s just human nature, mate.” I’ve wondered about this question myself. Could Hobbes be right? Is all the cruelty and destruction in the world simply down to the natural instincts of upright, naked apes? That is best answered by asking, if this is just human nature, why does it need constant maintenance? If you look at the media, education and other forms of psychological manipulation, you’ll see the Powers-that-Be jump through hoop after hoop and sweat buckets in the effort to keep us at each other’s throats. Why do they bother? Why don’t they just sit back and watch the show while we tear each other to pieces? See here for more details: http://hpanwo-voice.blogspot.co.uk/2012/11/thats-just-human-nature-man.html. It’s worth bearing in mind that Thomas Hobbes believed in the need for a one-world government which he called “Leviathan”; he was far from unbiased.