What’s With All This War Stuff Anyway?

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Physical conflict among humans is natural. Faced daily with horrific images of bloodshed via mass media, it may be apparent that these are increasingly violent times for humanity. But upon close examination of anthropological, archaeological and historical evidence, human conflict may just be a part of the natural order. From recorded history to the earliest evidence of human existence, physical conflict has existed in a myriad of forms. Violence is a part of human nature but in the grand scheme of things, global society has evolved toward a more peaceful status in-spite of what the daily barrage of atrocities may imply. Once humans began gathering together in sedentary agrarian societies and central governments became the structural norm, the actual casualties from human conflicts have steadily declined.

There are two schools of thought on how endemic conflict is to humanity. One, is that early humans were so sparsely populated and did not own property prior to 10,000 years ago that there was no justification to fight. In other words, the cost of a fellow tribesman did not justify the gains. This argument, until a decade or two ago, was the prevailing academic philosophy. The other school of thought is that humanity has always been violent toward each other. Vetting of archaeological and anthropological evidence is shifting the paradigm to the latter argument. A sifting through the evidence in works such as Wrangham’s Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and Keeley’s War Before Civilization: the Myth of the Peaceful Savage make a compelling argument for this paradigm shift.

A striking comparison between humanity’s closest related primate, the chimpanzee, and the modern-stone age society of the Yanomamo (translation “fierce people”) tribe of the Amazon basin, clearly implies the extent to which conflict is ingrained into humanity. Sure there are many differences between the human and the chimp. One is that chimpanzees do not have a spoken language and cannot engage in a lengthy discourse on the pros and cons of raiding a neighboring group. The Yanomamo have weapons such as poison tipped arrows and clubs. Chimpanzees use their fists and teeth. There are many more differences yet it is the striking similarities that make a case for conflict being natural. Not just scuffles over food or a perceived wrong, but purposeful strategic conflict with the main goal of causing harm to a neighboring group.  Both chimpanzees and the Yanomamo live in varying group numbers that are linked through related males. In both groups females generally leave their group to join another. Once groups get rather large they tend to spilt up forming separate nearby closely related groups.  A split like this was recorded over a period of years in a group of chimpanzees in central Africa. As time progressed the chimpanzee groups became increasingly hostile toward one another. Eventually small parties of males would leave their territory and silently creep into a neighboring territory and hunt down a male from the other group and attack it, usually this resulted in death.  They were not observed eating during these forays until they returned to their own territory. This behavior went on until the other group disappeared. One of the females in this case was forced to join the dominating group. Similar behavior has been documented in the Yanomamo. Small groups of warriors would raid the neighboring group killing a few at a time, often abducting women, all while fully expecting retaliation. This tit for tat would go on until the weaker group disappeared or moved off. Theories of the cause of this type of conflict abound. A popular one is the selfish gene theory of natural selection.  Defeating other nearby groups ensure that victorious genes get passed on. In the Yanomamo example, for each kill a warrior gets a sort of reward. An anthropologist (Chagon) studying the Yanomamo observed that warriors with these rewards have two and half times the number of wives and three times the number of children as their non-killing compatriots. Chagon also pointed out that approximately 30% of Yanomamo males die from violent conflict.

So chimpanzees and the Yanomamo illustrate examples of modern conflict in isolated “non-civilized” groups.  What about ancient human civilization?  One of the oldest archeological evidence of human conflict is a gravesite in Sudan that was dated to approximately 70,000 years ago. Most experts agree that the skeletal wounds, both lethal and non-lethal, were certainly due to blows coming from the front of the body. In other words people facing each other in a combative stance. Seventy thousand years ago people lived in small nomadic hunter gatherer groups similar to the chimpanzee and Yanomamo. People began settling in small agrarian societies generally around 10,000 years ago. Evidence from these time periods also present a strong case that humans are inherently violent. World-wide, grave sites abound with the crushed skulls of men women and children.  The Aztecs and Mayas massacred thousands purportedly for religious sacrifice. Researchers in the Yucatan peninsula found a cenote (a karst sink hole filled with water) with artifacts and a several foot thick blue clay like substance on the bottom. That clay like substance turned out to be the “Mayan Blue” pigment that the Mayans would use to paint the bodies of the captured people that were to be sacrificed. The theory is that the several meter thick layer is all that is left of an untold number of sacrificial victims. Native American tribes consistently raided neighboring groups often killing all men women and children. As history progressed there are many recorded incidents as well as evidence of genocidal behavior from the Gauls, Vikings, the Mongols, and the early Arabic tribes.

The extent of violence across all civilizations globally and throughout history is debatable, possibly even subjective. The existence of conflict globally, prehistorically and historically however is irrefutable. In-depth examination and analysis of archeological evidence indicate a conservative estimate that 15% of prehistoric or Stone Age people died violent deaths. This statistic now seems to be well accepted in the academic field.

Prehistoric life was definitely one that commonly faced the threat of a viciously violent end. It must have been tough to be caveman. As humans moved from prehistoric to sedentary agricultural based societies, central state governments formed and people began recording history. Conflict shifted from tribal or local to state sponsored warfare. Instead of small groups of warriors conducting raids against each other, entire nations and states began battling one another with increasingly lethal tools. Yet, in spite of the increase in the precision and lethality of weapons and the increase in the population size of the conflicting states, recorded history paints a clear picture of a declining trend in mortality from violent conflict. An analysis of data from written records describing both war deaths and records of population censuses indicate a declining conflict death rate from the 15% estimated for the time span prior to historical record keeping. The graph below illustrates this declining trend in a comparison of war casualties to estimated world population over the last couple of thousand years.


(Data provided by Wikipedia, Analysis by Michael Jones)

The analysis shows that the declining trend in war deaths is fairly well correlated with the date even though the data shows numerous peaks and valleys. The data above most likely presents a very conservative estimate because not all societies across the globe developed uniformly during the last 2000 years. In fact, the example of the Yanomamo above is one of a modern prehistoric society because that particular group of people exhibits more of a Neolithic culture characteristic. An example not used in the data above is an estimate by Pinker that a 3rd century war in China killed approximately one sixth of the world’s population at the time.

Following that trend line there are other peaks such as the Mongolian conquest during the 1500s. The Mongolians under the Khan dynasty used a take-no-prisoners warfare strategy. This created a high mortality rate yet enabled the Mongolian armies to take over large swaths of Asia relatively quickly. If a town resisted an advancing horde of Mongolians, all men, women and children were usually killed with a few intellectuals and specialized artisans spared. If a town offered no resistance they were spared and a token occupying force was left behind. Needless to say, as word spread many communities succumbed peacefully.

Other notable peaks are World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the War to end all Wars (World War II). World War II was one of the most horrific in recorded history. It had one of the highest numbers of recorded deaths. World War II had the only incident of a nuclear bomb being used against another nation during a conflict. Millions of Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Approximately 78 million people were estimated to have been killed.  Seventy eight million people is the estimated population of the earth in 750 B.C. Although that 78 million seems to be a big number it only comprised about 2.5% of the earth’s population at the time (Keeley). In the 1940s the population of the earth was approximately 312 million people. As the trend line above progresses past the 1950s the indication is that modern violent conflict is killing less than 1% of the world population on average.

The prehistoric violent conflict mortality rate of 15% likely spanned tens of thousands of years (Pinker). After the advent of modern society that mortality rate has dropped to the current average of less than one percent. This drop has accompanied an exponential population explosion in addition to exponential technological advancements in weaponry. The reasons behind this are open for debate. As with all things, it seems there is never just one causal relationship but rather a myriad of variables. Nation states with strong central governments tend to have dedicated armies alleviating the responsibility of every male needing to be a warrior in order to defend food, home, and family. These armies (for the most part) seem content to kill other soldiers. In other words massacres of whole populations are increasingly rare. Although there is still modern genocide, these seemed to have waned as society has advanced. With many countries tied together through economic trade and cooperation it becomes less prosperous to wage war on other countries. Additionally, modern agriculture seems sufficient to feed the world. A well fed population is a happier one.

Regardless of the reasoning, death from violent conflict has decreased since the infancy of human existence. In spite of what is implied by the constant reminders through violent images, terrorist bombings, cartel beheadings, school shootings, and even recent genocides, death by violence is waning. What once seemed to be as natural and instinctual for an upper primate as foraging for food or frolicking with a mate, violent conflict seems to be fading into primordial memory along with many of the earth’s natural processes.


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