The Peaceful Native – except not really. (The Truth about Pre-State Societies)

It is rather in vogue these days to give non-state societies (such as an indigenous tribe or pastoral community) the benefit of the doubt and assume them to be utterly estranged from the gratuitous violence of nation states. Indeed, Rousseau himself popularized the notion of the ‘peaceful savage’, asserting that peoples that lived more ‘naturally’ (whatever that means) lived in innocence and were ignorant of the debauching effects of technological and political complexity. Many a social justice warrior has fed into this remarkably arrogant and naïve presumption, believing that if a people have been subjugated than their past must then have been a peaceful one, and surely they would never have subjected any of their neighbors to similar coercions.

You know where I’m going with this one… (page references from book at end of article, this is basically a summary of that fascinating and disarming book.)

The largely Western conceit that tribal, pastoral, or early agricultural societies blithely existed side by side without war and exploitation has been hard won by archaeologists and anthropologists alike, who have often gone out of their way to obscure the evidence in order to pacify the past. Some of these ‘professionals’ have even vainly argued that what violence has been found only started after European contact began. The facts, however, would seem to suggest otherwise.

In reality, the opposite is true. The greater the political complexity of a society, generally the safer and less violent it becomes. A quick comparison of the percentage of male deaths by war in the 20th century reveals that the United States and Europe combined are substantially lower than any of their indigenous competitors at around 3% compared to 8 other tribes which range anywhere from approximately 8% to 60%.

People have long assumed that when world wars are taken into account there can be no doubt that nation states are the kings of bellicosity but when we examine the proportions we see that in these significantly smaller, less organized societies warfare and murder occur at substantially higher rates and frequencies. The Australian Murngin people during the latter half of the 19th century lost 25% (about 200) of their male population over a 20 year period from incessant conflict with neighboring tribes. And more than a third of deaths of Yanomamo males in Brazil have resulted from warfare.

More generally, it has been found that only 13% of the indigenous tribes (out of 157 groups) in the Americas did not engage in raiding with neighbors more than once a year, but only 4.5% didn’t participate in any raiding ever. However, these groups lived in highly isolated and very dry environments and were typically quite small (pg. 28). Placid indeed.

One example of these exceedingly rare peaceful foraging societies includes the Mbuti Pygmies in central Africa. But unfortunately, the Pygmy peoples have been ‘politically subordinate’ to the agriculturalist societies around them. Further, they’ve been dependent on them economically (pg. 132). And no, these aren’t European colonists I’m talking about. I now refer to the Bantu.

The Bantu are very open about this arrangement and have even claimed the Pygmies are their ‘servants’. So dependent are they on the Bantu that they’ve even resorted to crop theft when their ‘masters’ have not been generous (pg. 132). Indeed, even the Mbuti Pygmies’ marriages are arranged by and sanctified under Bantu supervision (pg. 219 notes section). Apparently both violence and subjugation come as easily to non-state societies as they do to established polities.

As for that nonsense about European colonists inspiring violence, let’s see what the archaeological evidence has to say about that. In one Nubian cemetery from 12,000 years ago, half of the occupants had clearly died from violence. Another mass grave in Crow Creek, South Dakota acted as a tomb for 500 men, women, and children who had all been mutilated, slaughtered, and scalped. This was about 150 years before Columbus and his happy party arrived in the New World. Must have been fun to live back then (pg. 68).

Indeed, mass extermination of entire communities was not uncommon and has often been the goal of many competing tribes. Genocide, as we know it, seems to have been ubiquitous in the world of inter-tribal warfare.

General violence was also substantially higher in pre-state societies. The Netsilik Eskimo had a murder rate of four times the United States and some fifteen times some European nations even after Canadian Mounties dampened inter-band feuding. The Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego boasted a rate ten times greater than the United States (pg. 29).

Moreover, violent death has been ravaging human societies long before any nation state was conceived. In Italy a child’s skeleton was discovered with a pointed projectile embedded in the spine, dated at around 27 to 36 thousand years ago. And in Egyptian Nubia, more than 40% of the 59 men, women, and children found in the aforementioned cemetery had stone projectiles in their skeletons. That was dated at approximately 14 thousand years ago (pg. 37).

Human beings have always been violent. There is no reason to pretend otherwise. The political organization associated with state societies has only helped to attenuate that violence by providing institutions and other means to mitigate it. Indeed, we are bigger and capable of mass destruction of a kind pre-states can’t fathom. But that is also true for our justice, technology, well-being, and social order. Let’s remember that next time someone starts talking about the ‘good ol’ days’.


War Before Civilization, Lawrence H. Keeley. Oxford University Press Edition, 1996.

(All page references from the above book.)


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