Archaic Societies

What can looking at stateless cultures tell us about conflict and how it can be resolved?
Can studying stateless and archaic societies reveal whether or not humans are naturally violent? Are there any surviving traditional cultures that are entirely nonviolent?

And, if so, can their mechanisms for conflict resolution help us today?
"When we talk about conflict resolution among archaic peoples" says Jean-François Rioux, director of the school of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University, "we're talking about very old societies, mostly hunter-gatherer or hunter-gardener."

The focus today is on nomadic or semi-nomadic pre-agrarian peoples – some call them archaic, uncontacted or stateless, and some use more problematic terminology like 'primitive.' Studying them is understandably difficult because the archeological record is spotty, and only a few similarly-organized societies still exist today for direct observation. And the cultures that still adhere to traditional ways are mostly hybrid societies, meaning that contact with the modern world has changed them.

But that doesn't mean that they've disappeared. One member of a class Jean-François taught years ago was a UN worker who helped bring supplies to traditional societies in New Guinea who were hard hit after a natural disaster, potentially the tsunami in 2004. Contact with groups like these does happen, and they can often be sources of mutual learning. But sometimes they're sources of conflict too.

These conflicts can emerge when members of the community decide to abandon certain traditions or lifestyles. Members of these societies can work seasonally on the plantations for outsiders, and this can sometimes cause tensions. There are also high-profile cases, like with John Allen Chau in 2018, when people violate various laws and make contact for the purposes of civilizing or missionary work.
John Allen Chau, 26, a Christian missionary to travelled illegally to North Sentinel Island in 2018 to preach to the native Sentinelese people, who typically reject any contact with the outside world. He was killed in the process.
Studying instances of conflict among contemporary and ancient archaic societies is common, but examining their mechanisms for conflict resolution also proves compelling. Some do it for the purposes of anthropological knowledge, while others ask whether or not there are things we can learn from these societies that we can put into practice today.

For centuries, contemporary forces have tried to modernize indigenous people, often using invasive and coercive strategies. Various groups or nations were encouraged to resolve their conflicts using modern techniques like political representation and rule of law, but there have been recent movements to rediscover their own ways. Sometimes these ancient techniques remain inside their communities, other times they spread and are changed as they do.

Another reason why archaic societies are studied is to explore the philosophical question of whether or not violence has biological roots. Are humans inherently violent? Is war unavoidable, or was it something that developed over time with the rise of the first states? This is a question we'll be looking at with particular interest.

Archaic Structures

Many of these societies were quite small, upwards of about 200 people or so. Various specialized roles had emerged, such as the shaman, but most societies didn't have a permanent member or chief. Leaders were often temporary, and power bounced from person to person depending on which warrior or hunter was the most effective at a given time. In times of war a more clear leader sometimes emerged, but once hostilities had ceased this person often reverted back to being a civilian.

So there wasn't a set process for resolving conflicts like we have today. We have the law and judges and arbitration mechanisms, but power wasn't concentrated enough to provide a stable source of conflict resolution in the community.

Many conflicts rose out of questions of family and children, particularly with relationships between men and women and questions of paternity. Jealousy was a common cause of strife, as were insults to someone's honour. The type of insult differed depending on whether or not the society is patriarchal, matriarchal or organized along other lines.

Even though people possessed far less than we do today, conflicts over ownership emerged from time to time. Resources were valuable, especially in the form of hunting territory or sources of food and water. Many of the ecosystems they lived in were very fragile and could be distturbed easily – if there were too many people using the same gardens or fishing in the same rivers, or if another tribe moved into the neighbourhood, there was a pointed risk of starvation. This was often a source of conflict with other tribes.

Many people living in these societies lived in fear of attack, sometimes over territory but also over women or as a deterrence against future aggression. Different expressions of culture or religion could also spark conflict, as many of these societies lived in isolation and were not used to engaging with groups possessing different languages, customs, clothing, symbols or so on.

Another source of conflict that we can't ignore is, as mentioned above, honour. And revenge. Sometimes conflicts erupt over insults that contemporary people might consider to be slight, but Jean-François reminds us that (especially in the West), many of our concepts of honour have been weakened with time.

Cycles of revenge, especially those known as blood feuds (where the killing of one member of your clan can lead to a revenge killing which leads to another killing which leads to prolonged cycles of violence), can last for decades. And even after revenge is taken, the cycle can continue further if the latest killing was considered 'not enough' to satisfy a given claim.

There's a big question in the literature, though, about whether there are instances of large-scale violent conflict. There may be disputes about honour or children, or there may be a dozen men killed on a raid, but does this lead to mass violence? Or should it be considered as such?

Rousseau And The Noble Savage

There's a strong narrative, particularly in the anthropological tradition where (at least in North America) it is the dominant view, that archaic societies were not warlike and only wage war in extreme, serious circumstances. Reasons could include the destruction of ecosystems, major territorial excursions or so on.

This idea, often known as the noble savage (dated language, yes), is often traced back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Swiss philosopher who lived in the 18th century and had a major impact on the European Enlightenment. He believed that humankind in its pristine, original state lived peacefully and in perfect harmony. It was only with the dawn of civilization (especially with the emergence of agricultural cultures and, eventually, cities) that people were corrupted and started acting out.

Which led to the thought that, if we observe contemporary stateless cultures, we will find ourselves observing primarily peaceful people. This was an idea that took hold over the next few hundred years. The Austrian anthropologist Franz Boas, widely seen as the major pioneer of anthropology as a field, sought to prove this thesis with observable data.

Boas was the first president of the American Anthropological Association and did a lot of field work in Canada with the northern Inuit, as well as with west coast First Nations groups. In both cases he concluded that these 'primitive' people were peaceful and found no recorded instances of war. Rousseau, he stated, was right.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau | wikicommons
Later anthropologists Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict concurred with Boas, and Mead's work on different cultures on Samoa went on to influence not only anthropology as a whole but even American popular culture in the 1960's.

European sailors made contact with Polynesia for the first time around the time that Rousseau was alive, and a number of their records confirm a similar belief. One memorable incident involved the crew of an exploration ship called the HMS Bounty which landed in Tahiti – a number of its crew became so taken with what they saw that they described the island as a paradise. When crew members, some time later back at sea, rebelled, a myth arose that the men were so attached to peaceful island life that they didn't want to be controlled by British marine regulations (or possibly return to Britain at all). The incident became so famous that this narrative spread across the English-speaking world.

Ths combined with a number of other narratives (perhaps rising from the consequences of the Industrial Revolution, combined wint the cultural movement of Romanticism) promoting Western men and women as being alienated from their roots, fru their original self, with maybe a desire to return to the supposed state of plentitude and peace that was 'primitive' society.

But, Jean-François suggests, this may have been an overstatement. When you read different accounts of Pacific voyages you do see cases of war, conflict and cannibalism throughout. James Cook, a British explorer famous for his journeys through the South Pacific, describes one encounter with a 'big man' (chief) on Samoa who served a huge dinner to all the guests and loaded them up with food and water. He was so impressed with the generousity and peacefulness of these 'noble savages' that he made a point of returning a few years later when he was in the area.

On his return, the islanders said they'd killed the chief long ago for his misdeeds. Cook would die a violent death in Hawaii decades later. Regardless, the narrative of the inherent peacefulness of tribal life continued – even leading to a famous hoax in the National Geographic about the fabricated Tasaday tribe, which was promoted as a Stone Age culture with no words for 'war' or 'weapon.'

But while certain narratives or anthropological findings proved problematic, there are well-documented archaic cultures that survive to this day that really do have more peaceful lifestyles than other similarly extant-groups.

Peaceful Cultures:
The Semai and the Paliyans

You can't avoid the work of anthropologists Brian Ferguson and Douglas Fry when talking about peaceful archaic societies. They and their colleagues have published articles and books and tend to bring forward certain tribes quite often and examples of peaceful living.

One of these is the Semai, who live in the mountains of the Malaysian interior. While some Semai villages have crime rates comparable to other similar villages in the Malay countryside, generally speaking violent crimes such as murder, rape and assault are quite rare. Robert Denton, an anthropologist who's done lots of work with the Semai, describes withdrawal as a common strategy to avoid violence within their communities, with a preference for avoidance over confrontation.
Another tribe are the Paliyans of India. They're found in the southern tip of the country, in states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu. They also live in the high mountains and are known for being extremely peaceful. Many Paliyans work on plantations owned by other cultural groups, but their villages in the interior still hold to various traditions. They practice avoidance like the Semai, but Fry recorded a number of other conflict resolution mechanisms like diplomacy, mediation, facilitation and even a form of clowning.

There are recorded instances that, when they have issues with a plantation supervisor, there is a preference to leave immediately rather than argue or protest. They return to the forest and the mountains, and they are rarely pursued there. Many Paliyans will return to the plantation after some time.
Both the Paliyans and the Semai have special status within India and Malaysia, and there are different state organs dedicated to their protection. Even the British, in colonial days, gave them similar status. While some may use these tribes as part of a philosophical argument about whether human nature is nonviolent, Jean-François suggests that we keep in mind that these protections may in fact preserve them from certain influences that might change their traditions. We don't know for sure, but should guard ourselves against problematic conclusions all the same.

Hobbes And The State Of Nature

There's a whole other narrative to engage with, though, and it promotes the opposite idea.

Thomas Hobbes was a British philosopher who lived in the 17th century during a period of major religious war. England was in the middle of a bloody conflict between Catholics, Anglicans and other factions, and Europe had seen the 30 Years' War spread from the Austrian empire to different regions across the continent.

This context is important because Hobbes lived in an incredibly violent time and he was trying to understand why – and how we can create peace when people seem to be constantly fighting or massacring each other.

His main idea, one that he's still famous for today, was that humanity's state of nature is anything but the paradise Rousseau would propose a century later. He felt that humans are violent, egotistic and out to secure their own positions first and foremost. They rape and steal and burn and kill and, well, they'll do it when there aren't forces that control these impulses.

And what could be a big enough force to control said impulses? Hobbes proposed that the government served just that purpose. His book Leviathan (1651) was about precisely this. The Leviathan, or ruler, can create regulations that are strong enough to hold back chaos and institute both law and order. In his opinion, stateless and archaic societies should be more violent than contemporary states.

Hobbes and Rousseau represent two extreme sides of the debate, and modern anthropologists have been caught in the middle ever since. As mentioned above, the Rousseau perspective found greater traction in North American institutes, and one of the more interesting exceptions was the work of Napoleon Chagnon, from Michigan.

Yanomami: The Fierce People

His claim to fame was the work he did in the 1960's with a tribe in the Brazilian Amazon known as the Yanomami. They cultivate some plants but are mostly hunters, and live in round villages in the rainforest. They had had little contact with the outside world, no permanent missionary or civil contact, and none of them spoke Portuguese.

Chagnon approached them gradually, from afar, and over a period of months made enough small moments of contact to eventually be invited into the village. He went on to learn their language and participate in some hunting expeditions, all the while making notes and recordings on whatever material he could find.

Many anthropologists start with looking at family relations and how villages are structured. Who is whose brother? How are families shaped? To what extent is the village an extended family? There were only about 200 people in each village, and contact would be made with other villages mostly for the purposes of some communication, trade and exchange of spouses.

Except for war.

With the Yanomami, cycles of conflict can last for years, emerging from insults to localized revenge to raids to full-scale conflicts between villages or alliances of villages. Chagnon eventually realized that many of these people are in a constant state of war, fearing raids that could come at any moment.

Even when certain (temporary) alliances would help deter and keep a power balance, people would kill each other within the village too. This left a large impression on him and he eventually went on to give his future book a subtitle: The Fierce People.
In current printings, the subtitle is often dropped out of sensitivity concerns.
Families would be shaped by these cycles of violence, with the warriors at the top of the pyramid (with the most wives and children) being the ones who had killed the most people. Socio-biologists talk about this in terms of an evolutionary drive, with violence being a tool to help you have as many descendents as possible. Chagnon's conclusions were along similar lines.

This caused a huge scandal in the primarily Rousseau-oriented American anthropologist scene, with many researchers convinced that small tribes were inherently peaceful and egalitarian. Chagnon was smeared and his work challenged and he went on to make a lot of enemies.

But he was not alone: other anthropologists came out with their observations of other violent tribes and peoples. That, and emerging tools in the field of archeology helped discover the violent histories of ancient cultures like the Celts, prehistoric Malays, Meso-American tribes and African cultures. Battlefields and massacre sites were discovered as well as localized graves with signs of violent death (cracked skulls, bones marked by blades).

This created a major rift in the field, with the two branches of cultural and physical anthropology separating and gravitating towards Rousseauian and Hobbesean interpretations. Conflicts between them continue to this day.

'Primitive' Warfare

Another interesting debate was around what is known today as primitive warfare. In the 1940's, British anthropologists proposed a thesis that certain archaic practices that looked violent may have actually been anything but.

These practices involved putting on masks or paint and then shouting or dancing in order to express strength. This was in order to try to repulse or deter the other, with maybe one or two deaths before both parties would understand which was the stronger side and who had the most to lose should violent conflict break out. After first blood was spilled, both sides were said to go home.

This was an interesting thesis because it played into Rousseauian ideas and promoted a kind of conflict-resolution that was more theatrical and aesthetic than violent. Later anthropologists added that there were still instances of raids and rapes, but there was still a claim that practices like 'primitive warfare', while perhaps not as comprehensive as previously thought, still formed a mechanism to prevent certain instances of violence.

Situations where 'primitive warfare' was seen as insufficient to prevent mass violence may include starvation, critical encroachment of hunting grounds or major territorial disputes. These are all cases in which an existential threat could very well arguably be felt, and more dramatic action might be justified.

The Data: Who Is More Violent?

Chagnon noticed that perhaps up to 25% of Yanomami villagers were killed in some act of violence, whether war, revenge or raid. Of course these were small tribes, with even a few dozen deaths creating a huge percentage, but this still had a major impact on the communities involved.

Lawrence Keeley is an anthropologist who looked at the archaeological record and tried to calculate death percentage rates for vanished archaic societies. He took his calculations from the amount of bodies found with signs of violent death and developed a per capita figure that aimed to be an estimate of how likely someone would die from war or attack.

The results were stunning: if Keeley's numbers play out, then it seems that ancient societies were even more violent than contemporary ones when looking at the data per capita. The most violent agrarian culture (which is what's meant here by 'civilization') per capita was the Aztecs just prior to the Spanish Conquest, but even they were relatively low down the list. Even further down you'll find German and Russia in the 20th century, with both world wars and all those revolutions.
It's an interesting conversation: should per capita numbers define our vision of what violence looks like? Is 100 people killed out of a 200 person tribe more violent than the systematic killing of six million Jews, or the deaths of 20 million Russians from 1941-45? Some say yes, others say no.

All these numbers makes the existence of groups like the Semai or Palayans even more interesting – researchers want to know *why* these cultures are peaceful. And we don't know. We don't even know if these tribes had these traits 200 or 300 years ago. We don't know if these were traits passed down through generations or if it was a kind of cultural learned helplessness.

In terms of changing attitudes to violence and peace, Switzerland and Sweden are promoted as interesting contemporary models. During the religious wars Hobbes witnessed, they produced some of the continent's most dangerous mercenaries and armies. Now they're seen as peaceful, neutral.

We don't know the dynamics of what changes violent cultures, but it's a question some researchers find increasingly relevant.

Ancient Mechanisms Of Peace

In addition to looking to history for answers to whether or not humans are naturally violent, archaic and stateless societies are also studied for their mechanisms of conflict resolution.

Many of these mechanisms, like village councils, would be multifunctional and intermittent. So councils could be used for decision making and deliberation as much as for solving problems, and they didn't have a set schedule and would be convened as necessary.

Legal scholars also wonder about whether or not they are trying to resolve conflicts or if they're trying to apply law – these are considered two different activities today, but they were potentially more flud back then. This fluidity was due in part to how there was no fixed state or leader with power to resolve conflict as an arbiter. There wasn't a set system to fall back on. Elders could be consulted, myths could be told and retold, people could make their case, but there wasn't necessarily the kind of consistency we would typically associate with law.

But in addition to the academic value of this kind of research, some scholars want to study these mechanisms in hopes of perhaps resurrecting dead practices or perhaps finding new uses for them today. Jean-François is skeptical of their success, but lists a few examples.

First is the welcoming ritual, particularly common in different First Nations across North America. The peace pipe is a particularly valuable symbol, and some researchers have thought that processes like these can help negotiations run smoother. Build rapport before the fact. There may be something to this, but there isn't a lot of data to verify it, and Jean-François reminds us that sometimes a ritual exists for its own sake rather than for a purely functional purpose.

Second is the exchange of gifts, either on a small-scale or during larch potlatches. This was also common in North America, and may have been the reason for the feasting Captain James Cook saw during his voyages in the south Pacific. Some functional benefits may be the generation of trust, or the expectation of reciprocity. Some negative impacts may include how massive spending prior to the ceremony may lead to poverty, and all potentially for the sake of status than for sustainable peace.

Another documented example of exchange is that of women between different tribes. Some say that this promotes peace, others say it's more to freshen up the gene pool. Researchers claim that this was a common practice in European royalty particularly for its ability to hold royal members hostage should hostilities break out.

A third, interesting are the deliberative processes, often found in village councils. As mentioned above, part of what made these processes more inclusive than certain contemporary ones was the lack of centralized power. When your status of chief is conditional (and often temporary), you have less ability to command people or arbitrate disputes, so you need to use mediation and negotiation mechanisms as well. Permanent authority figures only emerged later.

But whenever you talk about these peoples you can't avoid mentioning their gradual (or sudden) disappearance.

Some vanish through demographic decline, especially through intermarriage into stronger tribes or multicultural societies. Academics, missionaries and colonizers have also inadvertently killed certain societies through the transmission of viruses and disease.

Many of the archaic societies still in existence today are hybrid societies, ones that have been impacted by modernity and have been changed even unintentionally. There are a few tribes in the jungles and plateaus that still qualify as 'untouched', but not many. Even in Semai or Paliyan villages you'll see some seasonal workers, a little store, a little church. Some First Nations or Init communities would certainly qualify as hybrid.

There are conversations within the communities themselves about whether or not to continue their way of life – some communities divide over their different answers, or young people move to larger cities regardless. There are also some state-supported initiatives to help support traditional ways of life, but critics claim they go too far or not far enough.

Modern conflict resolution mechanisms (elections, justice systems, tribunals) find their way into otherwise traditional societies – sometimes they form the exclusive way to moderate disputes, and sometimes they exist alongside traditional mechanisms. Some see this as a loss of culture, others see it as an innovation. It'll be up to the next generation to decide what to accept and what to protect, and researchers hope to follow that process very, very carefully.
Jean-François Rioux is the director of Conflict Studies at Saint Paul University.

Josh Nadeau is a freelance writer and dialogue practitioner.
He studied conflict and ethics at St. Paul University in 2020.
Banner photo by Tom Wisdom on Flickr
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Further Reading
Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace
Fry, Douglas P.
Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, pp.10-32.
Cautious, Alert, Polite, and Elusive:
The Semai of Central Peninsular Malaysia
Dentan, Robert Knox
in Kemp, Graham & Douglas P. Fry, Keeping the Peace: Conflict Resolution and Peaceful Societies Around the World, New York, Routledge, 2004, pp.167-184.
Respect for All: The Paliyans of South India
Gardner, Peter M.
in Kemp & Fry (op.cit.), pp.53-72.
The Better Angels of Our Nature:
Why Violence Has Declined
Pinker, Steven
New York, Viking, 2011, pp.31-58.