The absence of war

Hugh Brody
20 May 2003

War creates curious kinds of invitations to anthropology. In the early days of the Iraq invasion, many newspapers published commentaries about the nature and character of war. Lurking behind such writing are questions about human nature. Have we evolved from peaceful into warlike creatures? Or did homo sapiens begin with some kind of enthusiasm for killing one another, hardwired into our very origins?

Those asking and seeking to answer these questions often turn their eyes towards the “primitive”, supposing that there we can find our original selves. So hunter-gatherers, living at the margins of our world, can become the evidence for matters of fundamental importance at the centre.

Or can they? Several essays and articles published in the American press, reflecting on how we can understand events in Iraq, referred to the way New Guinea tribal groups are forever fighting one another in recurrent and endemic wars about territory. One author proposed that since these were “among the most primitive of all societies” we can conclude that to be human is to be bellicose. So the events in Iraq are somehow “natural”. This particular journalist did not say this, but the implication is obvious enough.

The difficulty with this kind of anthropological evidence is both simple and complicated. The simple problem is that the New Guinea warfare referred to is taking place between groups that depend for the most part on small-scale farming, with intense links to territory typical of all agriculturalists. They are not “primitive” in the crude sense of being pre-agricultural. Indeed, their kind of war may be the form that became endemic precisely because of radical and relatively modern change no more than 10,000 years ago. In this case, the evidence is plain wrong.

We are all contemporaries

But the more difficult problem about the use of this kind of evidence lies in whether or not it could ever be right. If we go to the margins of the modern world, do we find remnants of ancient, pre-agricultural peoples?

The answer is both no and yes.

The answer is no, because everyone in the world has been evolving for the same amount of time. We are all contemporaries. The societies that continue to rely on hunting and gathering, or did so until the 20th century, have also been making all kinds of changes to their ways of life and economic systems. Slow changes that come from within their own systems; fast changes that come from their encounter with colonial invaders. So we cannot look to them for evidence of some primordial condition of either mind or customs.

The answer is also yes, because it is evident that hunter-gatherer systems are indeed less warlike than agriculturalists. Communities that have low population density and who depend on a balance between male and female labour and high seasonal mobility within their lands need all their young men. Warfare creates the risk of losing men. For the most part, hunting peoples are very reluctant indeed to take this risk.

Moreover, hunter-gatherer societies tend to deal with conflict by moving to one side: the wise person meets aggression with a careful retreat. In extreme conditions, where retreat would mean losing one’s land, a fight may be unavoidable; but violence and killing are very much the last resort.

This does not mean that hunter-gatherers are pacific or always avoid killing other peoples. The Inuit and their Athabaskan neighbours were very afraid of one another, and there are well-documented cases of ambush and murder. The peoples of the American Plains were quick to turn the arrival of horses and guns to the advantage of raiding and warfare. And many hunter-gatherer peoples made individual decisions to kill colonists who appeared to be threatening their lives or resources, and who seemed unable to listen to reason.

But the strong preference, among hunting societies, is to rely on reason, or being reasonable, even in quite drastic confrontations – with silence, evasion and polite smiles in the face of belligerence, attack and shouting.

So does this tell us anything about the original human condition or human nature? I think not, or only very little. Without any extreme form of reductionism, it is not hard to see the material and rational basis for hunter-gather pacifism; and, by the same token, the basis for the warlike character of human societies since – and because of – the Neolithic revolution. Farmers, with large populations and extreme dependence on specific bits of land that they have transformed with their labour, and with their recurrent and intrinsic need for more such land, are quick to make war. Hunter-gatherers, with very different, indeed opposite, conditions, are not.

Crossing the fence

In the weeks before the first bombs fell on Iraq, protest marches against the war took place in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, the new Inuit territory in Canada, and in Igloolik, a remote Inuit community in the eastern High Arctic. Small groups of men and women, dressed in thick parkas and lined boots, walked along snow-packed streets holding placards and calling out against a war that would appear to be happening far, far over the horizon. Was this the protest of the hunter-gatherer against some other human system? I think not. At the frontiers, colonialism and globalisation are two words for the same set of changes and difficulties.

Not long after the invasion of Iraq, I had to attend meetings in central Namibia and northern Botswana. A colleague and I decided to drive from the one to the other, taking the road from Etosha to the Angola border, going along the first, western part of the Caprivi strip, and then into Botswana on the road that parallels the Okavango River. We drove back to Windhoek along a more southern route, passing through the lands just to the west of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.

The journey through Namibia is broken into two by the notorious veterinary fence – the boundary between lands that are and are not guaranteed free of foot-and-mouth disease. (This is a barrier that has had drastic impacts on migrating ungulates.)

The road came to the fence, where we had to pass through a manned gate. A smiling young man in a rough-and-ready uniform waved us to a halt. He was slim and small; I found myself imagining that he must have Khoisan heritage. It was a sort of police check. The young man asked to see our identity documents. I handed over my UK passport. Continuing to smile, he said: “England, you are England? So why the war, what is Iraq to you that you kill?”

Later in the same trip, heading west across Botswana, we spent a night at a farm that had been set up as a Bushman development project. It lay at the end of a long, sandy track, some ten kilometres into the scrub-covered desert. Only a four-by-four could get through, so we were given a ride on the farm’s people-carrier.

We were the only guests, and the three people working there were all Bushmen, talking to one another in the Naro language. As they showed us some eland to be glimpsed in among the trees near the farm, brought us candles, a plate of stew on rice, and breakfast the next morning, we were able to talk in a mixture of very basic English and many gestures.

When we left, we climbed again onto the back of the people-carrier. The woman who had cooked for us needed a ride to the road, and climbed on beside us. We bumped and lurched along the track; she pointed out things for us to see. She asked where we were from. My friend was from Canada, I told her, and I was from England. “England”, she said – like the young man at the veterinary fence – “and war. Why war? Bad, bad.”

These anecdotes about opponents of the war in remote places do not reveal the original pacifism of isolated or supposedly primitive humanity. No one is isolated or primitive in the sense that such arguments require. These tiny episodes do show the extent to which America and Britain were losing the global propaganda battle in the midst of armed conflict; and the way everyone is now implicated in these events.

They leave us thinking, perhaps, about what kind of society, what kind of material conditions, would underpin a humanity that is not bellicose, that recoils from war, and seeks to find reasonable solutions to disputes.

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