Whether or not war is part of human nature has been debated throughout history. Of course, there is ample evidence of killings in archaeology — but individual homicide is not actual, full-blown war, in which organized peoples take up arms against another entire people or state.
One prominent professor of anthropology holds that we are not hard-wired for war, and that such events actually are the result of conditions that have only existed fairly recently in our long human history.
R. Brian Ferguson, a sociologist and professor of Anthropology and Global Urban Studies/Urban Systems at Rutgers University and a director of the International Institute for Peace, wrote in an 2018 article recently republished in Scientific American that we shouldn’t take it for granted that we can do nothing to avert war since it is not part of our very nature.
War and human nature debate involves collective violence
He states that when exploring the concept of whether or not people are predisposed toward collective violence, “the word collective is key,” in that people have long fought and killed for personal reasons, “but homicide is not war.”
Wars entail the creation of groups that are organized to kill members of other groups.
However — as always — two sides have formed in regard to the study on humans and their proclivity toward war. Some believe that war is “an evolved propensity to eliminate any potential competitors,” Ferguson explains, with humans and even our common ancestors the chimpanzees making war on other groups.
But others believe that true war has only emerged over the most recent millennia, when improving material conditions provided the motivation and organizational opportunities for actually waging wars. The late anthropologist Keith Otterbein of course called these two opposing groups hawks and doves.
If war is indeed an inborn trait of humanity, it follows that there should be many thousands of demonstrable pieces of evidence of this going back into history.
One can certainly innately understand that we have evolved to protect our own tribe, which has become more codified over time to become xenophobia and ethnocentrism in its most extreme forms, leading to war.
Ferguson states our brains not hardwired to kill outsiders
However, anthropologists and archaeologists who find themselves in the “dove” camp disagree with this progression. They — and among them is Professor Ferguson — posit that humans’ brains are not actually hardwired to identify and kill outsiders in collective conflicts.
Quite the opposite, in fact. They believe that lethal group attacks between humans only began happening after hunter-gatherer groups grew in size and complexity, eventually accumulating foodstuffs after the creation of agriculture. Ferguson says “Archaeology, supplemented by observations of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures, allows us to identify the times and, to some degree, the social circumstances that led to the origins and intensification of warfare.”
As to when it began, and insight into the question of war and our human nature, researchers look for different clues, including defensive enclosures.
“We sometimes see people who lived in scattered homes on low flatlands shifted to nucleated defensible villages,” he says, and as can be easily seen, villages across Neolithic Europe were surrounded by mounded enclosures. “But not all these enclosures seem designed for defense,” Ferguson notes, adding “some may mark off distinct social groups.”
Even the skeletal remains on which we sometimes see wounds are not indicative of actual warfare, as a rule. The beautifully-engineered and chiseled stone and bone points that were sometimes buried with a corpse are often ceremonial, linked to hunting, and are not evidence that the person had been murdered or was a victim of warfare of any kind.
“Homicide is not war;” warfare began during Mesolithic period
Even if homicide may have been fairly common in the prehistoric world, Ferguson points out, “homicide is not war.”
And not all fights were lethal, as seen in many different burials where skulls show healed cranial depressions from non-lethal blows. Certainly, fights did occur with clubs, as is common in the ethnographic record all around the world, he notes.
The total global archaeological evidence is “often ambiguous and difficult to interpret,” the professor states.
“War is hardly ubiquitous and does not go back endlessly in the archaeological record. Human warfare did indeed have a beginning,” he acknowledges, citing the possible emergence of actual organized warfare in some parts of the world during the Mesolithic period, which began after the last Ice Age and ended approximately 9,700 B.C.
This was the crucial point at which European hunter-gatherers settled down, creating more complex and interactive societies. Admitting there is no simple answer, Ferguson says that “severe competition among settled hunter-gatherer groups in an area with once rich but declining food sources may have led to conflict.”
War between settled villagers started in Tigris area, part of Fertile Crescent
Just after this point, the ancient settlements, weapons and burials seen in the northern Tigris area suggest that war involving settled villages of hunter-gatherers may have occurred between 9750 and 8750 B.C.
Not far away, the world’s earliest village fortifications were created among farming people in the 7000’s BC; several thousand years later, the first known conquest of an urban center occurred between 3800 and 3500 B.C. Notably, by that time, warfar was common across Anatolia, believed to have been spread in part by conquering migrants who came out from the northern Tigris.
However, Ferguson says, in complete contrast to this, archaeological research has uncovered no persuasive evidence of warfare in either settlements, weapons or skeletal remains in the southern Levant, from Sinai to southern Lebanon and Syria, before about 3200 B.C.
Remarkably, in Japan, not only was warfare unknown but violent deaths from any cause were rare among the hunter-gatherer groups who lived there for all of the early human history there, from 13,000 to the year 800 B.C.
This is also reflected in the early inhabitants of North America, Ferguson points out, who adds that some very early skeletal trauma that is part of the archaeological record “seems the result of personal rather than collective conflicts.”
Although one site in Florida showed evidence of multiple killings about 5400 B.C. and hte same is true in parts of the Pacific Northwest by 2200 B.C., these were anomalies; in the southern Great Plains, the professor states, there was only one violent death in the archaeological record before A.D. 500.
Collective identity, accumulation of goods, creates war, not human nature
Certainly, although war does not seem to be hard-wired into us from time eternal, our increasingly complex human societies that grew up after people settled down into communities and accumulated resources such as livestock and trade goods certainly contributed to the reasons why warfare began to break out in our history.
Add to that the increasing establishment of group boundaries and collective identities such as in tribes; and that led to a potent mixture that could be grounds for conflict.
Centuries after the practice of agriculture began, Neolithic Europeans’ cultural artifacts show that, in essence, when people have more to fight over, societies begin to organize themselves “in a way that makes them more prepared for war,” Ferguson states.
Ethnography, or the study of different cultures, shows that this relative novelty of settlement and wealth accumulation was not the norm for the vast majority of the time that modern humans have been on the planet. Simple hunting and gathering was how humans lived during almost all of our existence, dating back more than 200,000 years into the past.
As a rule, Ferguson says, archaeologists have found that these groups cooperated with one another, “living in small, mobile, egalitarian bands, exploiting large areas with low population density and few possessions.”
This primeval way of life was the norm for many tens of thousands of years, before complex hunter-gatherers, who began to live in fixed settlements with populations in the hundreds became more common.
“Violent peoples replace less violent ones”
It was this development in society where social rankings of kin groups and individuals began to take place, having more developed political leadership. Ferguson points out that indications of such social complexity first appeared during the Mesolithic era; and it was these peoples who often waged war.
However, remarkably, in the Southern Levant, for instance, those preconditions existed for thousands of years without evidence of war.
So why was there an absence of conflict? Ferguson says that many societies also have distinct conditions and features that make for peace. Cross-group ties of kinship and marriage is one of these, added to the cooperation that is necessary for hunting and agriculture. In addition, the flexibility in societies that allow individuals to move to other groups, for marriage, etc., makes for ties that bind communities to others and their almost-universal norms that value peace and stigmatize killing are combined with tried and true means to resolve conflicts.
But “over millennia, the preconditions of war became more common in more places,” Ferguson says, adding “Once established, war has a tendency to spread, with violent peoples replacing less violent ones.”
Creation of states enabled wars to be organized
States began to evolve in many places around the world, and as such they are capable of militarizing the peoples who lay on their peripheries and even their trade routes.
Of course, environmental catastrophes such as frequent droughts can not only aggravate but sometimes generate the conditions that lead to war; importantly, peace may not even return when such conditions end, the professor says.
The era known as the “Medieval Warm period,” which lasted from roughly 950 AD to 1250, and its rapid descent into the “Little Ice Age,” which began around 1300 is indicative of htis unfortunate trend. It was then that warfare increased in areas all across the Americas, the Pacific and elsewhere.
After that period of course came the explosion of Europeans’ global expansion, which “transformed, intensified and sometimes generated indigenous war around the world,” Ferguson posits, during which “local peoples began to make war on one another, drawn into new hostilities by colonial powers and the commodities they provided.”
But even then, the sociologist and anthropologist says, archaeology and the historical shows a much more nuanced reality. “There are no hints of war in early archaeological remains in the simple cultures of Alaskan hunter-gatherers,” he states, adding “the first signs of war appear between A.D. 400 to 700, and they are probably the result of contact with immigrants from Asia or southern Alaska, where war was already established. But these conflicts were limited in size and probably intensity.”
But as increasingly favorable climatic conditions grew over time, by 1200 AD, a growing social complexity had developed among these whale hunters, with more settled populations and expanding long-distance trade. After just 200 years of increasing affluence and proximity, war became common.
War not unavoidable part of human nature
Ferguson acknowledges that the perennial debate over whether war is an endemic part of human nature will not be resolved anytime soon; seeing violent, state-on-state warfare break out at this point in human existence may even feed fuel to that fire.
However, Ferguson points out “But doves have the upper hand when all the evidence is considered. Broadly, early finds provide little if any evidence suggesting war was a fact of life” in the vast majority of human existence, so it cannot be hard-wired into us.
“Humans have always had a capacity to make war, if conditions and culture so dictate. But those conditions and the warlike cultures they generate became common only over the past 10,000 years—and, in most places, much more recently than that,” he says.
Archaeological findings all around the globe support this hypothesis. As Ferguson states, “the most ancient bones and artifacts are consistent with the title of Margaret Mead’s 1940 article: ‘Warfare Is Only an Invention — Not a Biological Necessity.’”