Azara Blog: The Roots of Warfare

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Date published: 2005/02/18

The fifth lecture of the Darwin Lecture Series 2005 was by Barry Cunliffe, about the roots of warfare. Cunliffe is evidently from the old school, not using PowerPoint but instead speaking from notes with the occasional hard-to-read slide.

He first discussed philosophical approaches to understanding wars. Was mankind naturally violent or not. Was mankind naturally territorial or not. Was warfare a result mainly of ecological imbalances, in particular over-population. Was mankind aggressive because natural selection favours aggression. And so on.

He then went on to examine some of the empirical evidence, first for "primitive" tribes, which have been extensively examined for the last couple of hundred years.

He mentioned the Yanomamo tribe in Venezuela. Apparently the population is so low that there is no ecological imbalance. But they still have raids and wars between groups. It was claimed the death rate through aggression was around 7% for women and 24% for men. So unless you want to make a convoluted argument that warfare is happening because it is preventing them from reaching an ecological imbalance, the conclusion seems to be that the aggression is innate.

He also mentioned the Maring tribe in New Guinea. Here there are 70000 people in 200 square miles so there might be some population stress. They apparently have both "small" (or "nothing") fights and also "true" fights. The former occurr in daily confrontations between different groups, and usually is just about aggressive vocalisation against the opposition, but far enough from each other for the aggression not to become physical. The "true" fights are ritualised and can last for weeks or months. The two sides have rest days by agreement, but if one side just doesn't show up then the other side riots and raids the other side's village.

As Cunliffe noted, the problem with these anthropological studies is that the sample is biased, because the sample does not go back far in time and it involves "primitive" tribes that have been placed under stress from the far-away European world.

Cunliffe then did a quick tour of warfare in Europe over the past 40000 years. Apparently even 30000 or 40000 years ago it seems that a high percentage (anywhere from circa 20% to circa 40%) of humans died from trauma (which probably means warfare).

Apparently up to about 3000 BC warfare was opportunistic, and largely involved raids for the purpose of acquiring land or women or other commodities. The weapons used in war were just ordinary tools which had other purposes. But by around 2000 BC warfare became "bureaucratic", run by an elite, and there appeared weapons designed specifically for war, such as swords, shields and armour. Warriors became removed from ordinary economic activity. Wars often happened to prove the prestige of a leader.

He mentioned the Celts, who had short term warfare involving raids on neighbouring groups, mid term warfare involving raids on distant territories (these could last months) and long term warfare acting as mercenaries.

The height of this kind of warfare occurred under the Romans. Apparently Plutarch says that Julius Caesar managed to kill a million people and capture another million in his ten year campaign in Gaul (out of a population of around six million). No doubt that was exaggeration but it shows the scale of the warfare. Apparently Rome had the largest standing army until France in the 17th century (which had three times the population).

The only mention of the modern era was to do with football games as a sort of ritualised warfare. Of course Bush's invasion of Iraq was all about improving the prestige of the leader, so nothing has really changed in the last few thousand years, except that these days the leaders are chicken hawks so hide thousands of miles away from the action.

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