War and Social Organization From Nomadic Bands to Modern States

The Batek abhor interpersonal violence and have generally fled from their enemies rather than fighting back. I once asked a Batek man why their ancestors had not shot the Malay slave-raiders, who plagued them until the 1920s. . .with poisoned blowpipe darts. His shocked answer was: "Because it would kill them!" —KIRK ENDICOTT, "PROPERTY, POWER AND CONFLICT AMONG THE BATEK OF MALAYSIA"

In the midst of World War II, Quincy Wright published a magnum opus called The Study of War. The two-volume work, totaling well over a thousand pages, draws on information from fields as diverse as psychology, sociology, anthropology, history, and political science, as well as Wright's own discipline, international law. In considering anthropological data, Wright and his team of assistants used a large cross-cultural, worldwide sample.1

Wright was able to rate the vast majority of the societies, 590 in all, regarding warfare.2 Thirty societies (5 percent of the total) were found to lack warfare: The literature revealed no evidence of warfare, no military organization, and no special weapons. Another 346 societies (59 percent of the sample) were rated "to be unwarlike or to engage only in mild warfare," provided that "no indication was found of fighting for definite economic or political purposes in the more specialized literature."3 Combining these two groups leads to the observation that nearly two-thirds of this large worldwide sample (64 percent) are nonwarring or mild-warring. This is no trivial observation. According to Wright, the rest of the societies engage in war for economic or political purposes (29 percent and 7 percent, respectively).

It is also important that a substantial number of the unwarlike groups engaged in nothing more than feuding. If we conceptually untangle feuding from warring—as I've argued we should—then the societies that Wright coded as unwarlike based solely on descriptions of feuding should more appropriately be thought of as nonwarring. But putting this issue aside for the time being, Wright's findings make a very important point: War is either lacking or mild in the majority oj cultures. The cross-cultural picture is not nearly as Hohhesian as is often assumed.

And there is more to this story. The classification scheme that Wright devised incorporates the term war into all possible categories. Thus the societies determined by Wright to have no war are referred to by the label "defensive war." The societies defined as unwarlike or having only mild warfare (which amounts, again, to nothing more than feuding in some cases) are classified under the label "social war." The "social war" category is a mixed bag of small-scale night raids, blood-revenge expeditions, headhunting parties, individual duels or contests, and pitched battles. In other words, "social war" clearly catches feuds as well as war and perhaps also encompasses revenge homicides and juridical contests, the latter being, in reality, a mechanism for resolving conflict. The meanings of Wright's remaining two categories of war are more straightforward: "Economic war" entails economic objectives, military training, and mass tactics, and "political war" has political aims, usually sought through the use of standing armies. The main point is that Wright's labeling scheme manages to include all 590 societies under the war umbrella. Readers must study the fine print, so to speak, in a footnote to get a detailed description of what the categories of warfare actually entail.4

How does Wright justify putting the label "defensive war" on societies that are described as lacking warfare and feuding? Wright writes, "These people have no military organization or military weapons and do not fight unless actually attacked, in which case they make spontaneous use of available tools and hunting weapons to defend themselves but regard this necessity as a misfortune."5 At first, this reasoning may sound plausible, but Wright presents no actual evidence of defensive fighting having occurred in any of the nonwarring societies on his list. Wright seems to have overlooked the possibility that a group might flee or move away if attacked, rather than fight back.

Could Wright's "defensive war" category stem more from an assumption about what nonwarring peoples might do if attacked than from what the evidence shows nonwarring peoples to typically do? If we turn to ethnographic reports on the societies to which Wright applies the defensive war classification, such as the Semang, Jakun, Kubu, Batua (Batwa), and"Sakai" societies (such as the Semai), the typical pattern is one of avoidance and retreat, not defensive fighting.6 The Greenland Inuit bands, another group classified by Wright as engaging in defensive war, lived within a nonwarring social system and had no need to defend themselves or to flee.7 Additionally, avoidance and retreat have been reported for many other societies, most of them bands or tribes, including the Aweikoma, Buid, Chewong, Dorobo, Guayaki, Jahai, Northeastern Dene societies (such as the Hare, Dogrib, Yellowknife, Chipewyan, andSlavey), Panare, Shoshone, Siriono, and Waiwai, among others.8 In Western thinking, it may be cowardly to flee from danger, but not all peoples think like Westerners. Fleeing is often seen as simply sensible.9 Belief systems differ regarding the value placed on fighting or fleeing and also regarding the acceptability of violence. Recall the words of a Batek hunter quoted in the chapter epigraph —he was shocked at the question as to why poisoned blowpipe darts had not been used against slave raiders (see Figure 6.1). Additionally, whereas Westerners come from an agricultural tradition associated with defending particular pieces of land, many other societies do not. Moving away may involve a consciously chosen and sensible alternative to fighting. My point is not that non-warring groups never defend themselves if attacked, but rather that Wright greatly overemphasized this aggressive response, probably based on his own Western assumptions, when he created the category "defensive war" and then put all nonwarring societies into the category.10 An examination of the ethnographic record does not support the viability of this assumption.

To recap, despite Wright's use of labels that imply some kind of warfare in all 590 societies, a closer look at the categories reveals that by Wright's own definitions, 64 percent of the cross-cultural sample are nonwarring or unwarlike. Wright's findings show the cross-cultural spectrum of human societies to he much less warlike than typically assumed. This important observation has hardly received any attention, perhaps in part because it was immediately obscured by Wright's labeling of all societies as practicing war.

The Batek Malaysia Beliefs And Values
Figure 6.1 The fluctuating nature of forager band composition applies to the Batek of Malaysia. The photo shows a family building a raft in 1981. The Batek use blowpipes and poison darts to hunt, but do not use these weapons against people. (Photo courtesy of Kirk Endicott.)

Social Organization

Social organization must be taken into consideration by anyone who is interested in the origin of war, the pursuit of human justice, or conflict management. From one society to the next, types of violence and approaches to conflict management vary in relation to social organization. The range of human social organization can be divided into four basic types: bands, tribes, chiefdoms, and states.11

Bands are small in size, generally with about twenty-five to fifty members,- they are politically egalitarian, lack clear leadership, are nomadic or semi-nomadic, and engage in hunting and gathering as a way of making their living. The Siriono and the Paliyan, described in Chapter 3, are band societies. Individuals shift readily among different bands. Consequently, anthropologists refer to band composition as flexible and in flux. Additionally, band society lacks ranked statuses or classes and tends not to be subdivided into subgroups—social segments—on the basis of kinship or other distinctions. As we shall soon see, this last point, although often ignored, is of critical importance in understanding patterns of human aggressive behavior, including warfare. Nomadic, egalitarian hunter-gatherer band society is the oldest and simplest form of human social organization, extending back over humanity's evolutionary past. Anthropologists often note that members of the human line have spent over 99 percent of their existence on the planet living in nomadic bands. Before assuming that the evolutionary past was rife with warfare, it would be logical to first take a look at conflict patterns in band society.

Tribes tend to be sedentary and typically engage in horticulture or herding. Tribal settlements may contain a hundred or more people. Although headmen, big men, and other leadership roles tend to emerge in tribal societies, the leadership is weak. Tribal leaders attempt to exert their will through the art of persuasion and by leading through example, since they lack, for the most part, other forms of coercive power. Christopher Boehm uses the term acephalous (literally "headless") to reflect the lack of authority among tribal leaders. Headmen among the South American Yanomamo, for example, typify this pattern of weak leadership. The absence of positions of strong authority really means that tribal social organization remains largely egalitarian. Unlike bands, however, tribes tend to be segmented politically into lineages (societal subgroups with membership based on descent from a common ancestor), clans, or other such kinship distinctions. Evolutionarily, sedentary horticultural tribes represent a recent form of social organization compared to nomadic hunter-gatherer bands.

Chiefdoms exhibit considerable variability, although the existence of a social hierarchy is a distinguishing feature. Some chiefdoms vest minor authority in the chiefs, whereas in other cases chiefs wield considerable power. Chiefs are entitled to special privileges. Commoners pay tribute to chiefs, some of which the chiefs then redistribute back to their subjects. The economies of chiefdoms often are based on farming or fishing.

Complex sedentary hunter-gatherers are socially ranked societies with rulers and commoners, and sometimes slaves as well. They are chiefdoms. It is absolutely critical not to confuse complex sedentary hunter-gatherers with nomadic hunter-gatherer bands. These types of societies are as different as night and day. Complex hunter-gatherers exploit rich natural resources such as the salmon runs of the North American Northwest Coast. Population densities tend to be higher than in nomadic hunter-gatherer societies. Ethnographically, complex hunter-gatherers are very rare. Archaeological evidence shows the development of complex sedentary hunter-gatherer social organization to be recent, arising in particular places only within the last 25,000 years, yet most typically within the last 13,000 years or so.12

As recently as 5,000 to 6,000 years ago some early chiefdoms underwent further organizational transformations, and the worlds first states were born. In the evolutionary history of the human species, this development of civilizations occurred only "yesterday."

The economy of states rests on agriculture. Typically, the rulers wield even more coercive power than do chiefs. Economic specialization, social class distinctions, centralized political and military organization, the use of writing and mathematics, urbanization, large-scale irrigation of crops, and the development of bureaucracy characterize states, ancient and modern. Boehm notes that "modern democracies may temper individual power with checks and balances, but centralized power still exists and is backed by coercive force supplied by professional policemen and soldiers."13

To summarize, in bands and tribes, leadership and political power are weak and dispersed, or uncentralized. By contrast, in chiefdoms and especially in states, political power is centralized at the top of a social hierarchy. Social relations in bands and tribes are relatively egalitarian compared to those within chiefdoms and states that are structured according to ranks or social classes. Relatedly, hunting-and-gathering societies are of two general types: Simple nomadic hunter-gatherers have the band type of social organization and are egalitarian, whereas complex sedentary hunter-gatherers are small-scale chiefdoms with social classes or status hierarchies.14

Continue reading here: The Link Between Warfare and Social Organization

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  • Michelle
    Are the Jahai the world’s oldest blowpipe hunters?
    10 years ago
  • moro
    Is batek of malaysia culture foraging?
    10 years ago
  • Semrawit Selassie
    What are nomadic bands?
    10 years ago
  • James Medina
    What is the oldest and simplest of all societies?
    10 years ago
  • imogen crawford
    Do the batek of malaysia practice headhunting?
    10 years ago
  • Semret
    How does being a horticulturist affect the semai social organization?
    10 years ago
  • elaine
    Why anthropologists use large worldwide samples?
    10 years ago