The Politics of Peace (and War) in Preliterate Societies
The Adaptive Rationale behind Corroboree and
by JOHAN M.G. van der DENNEN, Center for Peace and Conflict
Studies, Department of Legal Theory, University of Groningen,
Peaceable preindustrial (preliterate, primitive, etc.) societies constitute a
nuisance to most theories of warfare and they are, with few exceptions, either
denied or `explained away'. Contending theories have also tended to severely
underestimate the costs of war to the individuals as well as to the communities
involved. Materialist theory, as formulated by Ferguson, is one such
"[I]n contrast to the Hobbesian view, we should find nonwar, the
of active fighting, in the absence of challenges to material well-being"
(Ferguson, 1984). Where the costs of initiating violence outweigh the benefits,
war is expected to be absent (Durham, 1976; Ferguson, 1984, 1990, 1994).
There is no theoretical reason to deny the possibility of peaceful societies.
Indeed, "there may be alternative peaceable and militaristic
trajectories of evolution" (Ferguson, 1994).
The capability to make peace (peaceability) and the readiness to make war
(warlikeness) are, it will be argued, not Platonic essences but the outcomes of
a rational (Realpolitical) cost/benefit calculus (though the benefits of war or
peace to the warrior-participants may not always be prima facie
obvious) and an adaptive response (in the Darwinian sense) to particular
Most peoples seem to prefer peace when they can afford it,
i.e., when they can solve the internal problem of the `young male fierce
syndrome' (especially prevalent when the warrior role is rewarded with social
status and/or sexual privileges), and the external problem of being left `in
peace' by other peoples. One reason why it is the young males (especially
young bachelors) who are eager to initiate and conduct war, Keeley (1996)
explains, is that they have the least to lose and the most to gain from
combat: spoils and loot ("booty and beauty"); honor, status and
renown; sexual access to both ingroup and outgroup women, etc.
The ecological roots of peace may be as complex as, or even more so
than, the roots of violence and war. There may be as many reasons for
peaceability as there are for belligerence: Intercommunity nonviolence may be
a response to overwhelming odds; it may be the taming effect of defeat; it
be enforced by colonial or imperial powers; it may be the result of isolation
and/or xenophobia; it may be due to a negative cost/benefit balance of war,
making peace more opportune under the given circumstances; it may be due to
a voluntary decision to abstain from or abandon violence, or to a nonviolent
ethic or pacifistic ideology; or some combination of all these factors. As
(1992) reminds us: "[P]eaceability is not disability, not a cultural
unrelated to a people's actual circumstances". Thus, warlike people are
quite capable of peacefulness, while peaceable peoples are perfectly capable of
intergroup violence under altered circumstances.
If war is so universal and ubiquitous as has been claimed by advocates
of the Universal Human Belligerence theorem (see Van der Dennen, 1990),
mere fact of peace constitutes a problem, and we would have to develop a
theory of peace as an abnormal, anomalous condition. Gregor (1990) has
actually proposed such a perspective: "Political systems are so volatile
war is so contagious that its existence should occasion little surprise. It is
that needs special explanation".
In this contribution I shall argue that the claim of universal human
belligerence is grossly exaggerated; and that those students who have been
developing theories of war, proceeding from the premise that peace is the
`normal' situation, have not been starry-eyed utopians; and that peace - the
continuation of potentially conflictuous interactions between discernible groups
of human beings with other means (to paraphrase the famous Clausewitzian
dictum) - in primitive peoples is just as much a deliberate and rational political
strategy, based on cost/benefit considerations and ethical judgments, as is
The Security Dilemma
General Robert E. Lee is reported to have said that "it is a good thing
war is so horrible or else we would grow too fond of it". The statement
by Davie (1929) that "Men like war" is as apodictic as it is general
(referring to all men), and obstinately reiterated to the present
Lately, Van Creveld (1991) stated (with a similar universal pretense):
"However unpalatable the fact, the real reason why we have wars is that
men like fighting, and women like those men who are prepared to fight on
Jane Goodall (1986) observed a great eagerness in young prime male
chimpanzees for the behaviors involved in `lethal male raiding' parties, but
also pointed out quite emphatically that there are distinct individual differences
in this eagerness.
Fox (1991; Cf. Klineberg, 1964) seems to advance what may be called
a Bad Seed or Rotten Apple theory of war: One rotten apple soon spoils the
whole basket. Similarly, one or a few percent of hyperaggressive or
males distributed more or less at random throughout the megapopulation
be sufficient to create a rampant war complex among all the demes involved
(e.g., Papua New Guinea, Amazonia.)
There is a much more `tragic' variant of this theory in which no one has
to harbor ill will. The expectation or suspicion thereof is sufficient for an
internecine war complex to develop. Virulent war complexes do not have to
explained by some evil streak in human nature, but can be understood - at
in part - as the result of a war trap (Tefft, 1988, 1990), from which nobody
disengage on penalty of annihilation.
Richerson (1995) advances what he calls the `evolutionary tragedy'
hypothesis (not unlike the `tragedy of the commons'): Warfare is liable to
evolve even if it makes everybody worse off. It results from the perversion of
the situation (the perfidious logic of the war `game') rather than that of the
actors involved. The only practical way to avoid victimization by aggressors is
to deter attack by being conspicuously prepared to fight, and display a credible
ability and will to inflict unacceptable damage on would-be attackers.
Primitive societies, like modern nation-states in an anarchic state system,
are trapped in a security dilemma (e.g., Elias, 1978). Simple game-theoretical
analysis reveals why such a situation results, most of the time, in an
stalemate of mutual deterrence (assuming short-term rational choices of actors)
even if none of the actors harbors evil intentions or sinister motives (or is
equipped with aggressive/violent/belligerent drives, urges or instincts).
The security dilemma in which (primitive) peoples find themselves has
the formal structure of a Prisoner's Dilemma (PD) in which individual short-
term rational behavior leads to a collectively irrational outcome: All parties
involved defect and lose (in terms of casualties, destruction of property, costs
of war preparations, opportunity costs, etc.).
In a relatively stable socio-ecological environment (in which each society
knows its and others' place, numerical strength, retaliatory capacity, etc.) to
on the alert and be prepared to defend itself may be a beneficial strategy
resulting in a kind of peace through insulation with only sporadic and
flares of overt violence.
In this case, which has the formal structure of an iterated PD,
diplomacy and peace become viable options. In such an iterated PD situation,
when both parties know each other more or less intimately, and expect future
(reciprocal or mutually beneficial) interactions, mutual suspicion and
xenophobic fear can give rise to mutual caution and diplomatic maneuvering,
but probably only if there also is a higher (e.g., tribal) authority to stop the
private-enterprise (revenge) raiding of the young male warriors, or relax the
obligations of the blood feud (and the concomitant male ideal of the macho
warrior, and material rewards and social privileges attached to the warrior
role). "The Mohave Indians of the Colorado River valley are by
reputation a warlike tribe" Stewart (1947) relates, "although my
informants insisted that the people as a whole were pacifically inclined. It was
asserted that, while war was disliked by a majority of the Mohave, battle was
the dominant concern of the kwanamis (`brave men'), who were responsible
the recurrent hostilities and over whom there was no effective control"
As Goldschmidt (1994) points out, the problem of internal dissatisfaction
with existing peace treaties among preindustrial societies is a recurrent one.
problem is caused partly by (a) distrust and fear; and (b) inability to restrain
(entrepreneurial raiding of the) warriors. "Even when the population is
war weary" Goldschmidt (1994) concludes, "even when there is a
genuine need for peace, the peace is fragile precisely because there remain
those who feel that their masculinity, by which we mean their social identity,
is lost if they do not press their cause", that is, the hatchet will not be
ceremonially buried, when there is no acceptable face-saving device (peace
honor) for the `fierce' warriors.
Nevertheless, even in a situation of chronic insecurity, the acceptance of
mitigating rules of combat, of a common law of war and peace, is in
accordance with enlightened self-interest (Mühlmann, 1940). Rules for
war mitigation and a common law of war and peace can, Mühlmann
holds, gradually develop (only?) in a situation of hereditary enmity.
Paradoxically, the Plains Indians' war complex with its emphasis on
individual feats of bravery and bravado (as exemplified by counting
coup; touching the enemy, whether alive or dead, was considered
to be the ultimate act of bravery) actually limited violence, so that warfare,
though incessant, boiled down to a series of small-scale raids of a few `braves'
striking coup and stealing horses, which were far more important
objectives than killing the enemy.
The Inventory of Allegedly Peaceful Societies
`Simple' human societies, according to Knauft (1991, 1994) place great
emphasis on generalized reciprocity and far less on balanced competition or
negative reciprocity. Concomitantly, collective military action or warfare tends
to be rudimentary or absent. This contrasts in aggregate terms with more
complex, sedentary, horti- and agricultural societies, among which subsistence
and demographic intensification are associated with increasing property
ownership and status inequality, and increasingly competitive politicoeconomic
and military rivalry (e.g., Fried, 1967).
Accordingly, we should be able to find a number of such `simple'
societies without war, or with only rudimentary war, in the literature. Swanton
(1943) surveyed the anthropological literature and found that there were about
as many societies that were peaceable as warlike. Leavitt (1977) found war
absent or rare in 73% of hunting and gathering societies (n=22), 41% of
horticultural (n=22), and 17% of advanced horticultural societies (n=29).
Holsti (1913), Hobhouse, Wheeler & Ginsberg (1915), van der Bij
Numelin (1950), Textor (1967), Bonta (1993, 1997), and Van der Dennen
(1995), among others, present inventories of a great number of peaceful
On the other hand, Otterbein (1970), in a sample of 50 societies, found only
four or five to have engaged "infrequently or never" in any type of
offensive or defensive war. Ross (1983) found twelve societies engaged in
warfare "rarely or never" out of a sample of ninety societies. Also
Jorgensen (1980) identified seven peaceful societies in his study of
North America. Among these peaceful societies are the Monache, Panamint,
Battle Mountain and Hukundika Shoshone, Gosiute, Kaibab Paiute, Wenatchi,
Columbia Salish, Copper Eskimo, Cayapa, Lapps, Gonds, Tikopia, Semang,
Dorobo, and Mbuti. Most of these peaceful societies, as Keeley (1996) notes,
were recently defeated refugees living in isolation, or were forcefully pacified,
or both (cf. also Ember & Ember, 1992).
Nevertheless, the evidence of a substantial number of peoples without
warfare, or with mainly defensive and/or low-level warfare (i.e., seldom
exceeding the level of petty feuding or desultory skirmishes) does not support
the view of universal human belligerence. It does not support the equally
erroneous view of universal peaceability either. Rather, it supports
Mühlmann's (1940) and Dentan's (1992) view that peace as well as war
are the results of illuminated and opportunistic self-interest in the political
Van der Bij (1929) concluded that primitive peoples were peaceful
because they were primitive. Steinmetz (1929), on the other hand, concluded
that primitive peoples were primitive because they were peaceful. Steinmetz
thereby reiterated the statement by Gumplowicz (1892) that peaceful peoples
were evolutionarily stultified and remained on the level of monkeys.
Gumplowicz, by the way, admitted that ethnology offers numerous examples
of such peaceful peoples, without giving any explanation of why and how such
monkey-like peaceful peoples have been able to survive in so warlike a world
as he envisaged.
Peace as the Normal Condition
"The question has been raised whether the traditional view of early
society as one of constant warfare is really justified by the facts. There is, in
fact, no doubt that to speak of a state of war as normal is in general a gross
exaggeration" Hobhouse, Wheeler & Ginsberg (1915) concluded in
their extensive survey of some 650 primitive peoples. Similarly, Quincy
(1942) stated: "No general golden age of peace existed at any stage of
human history nor did any general iron age of war. Neither the Rousseauian
the Hobbesian concept of natural man is adequate".
In even the most warlike societies, the vast preponderance of time is
spent in the pursuit of ordinary, peaceful activities (Gregor & Sponsel,
The unsentimental military analyst Turney-High (1949) proved, in several
parts of his work on primitive war, to be a perceptive and keen psychologist.
He observed that "Cold-blooded slaughter has really never been
by the bulk of mankind. All have understood the amenities of peace to a
or less degree... Peace, then, seems to be the normal situation in the minds of
even warlike peoples".
Similarly, Keeley (1996) notes, warfare, whether primitive or civilized,
involves losses, suffering and terror, even for the victors.
it was nowhere viewed as an unalloyed good". At some level, even the
most militant warriors recognized the evils of war and the desirability of peace
(e.g., Jalé: Koch, 1979; Kapauku: Pospisil, 1963; Jivaro: Karsten,
1967; Apache: Opler, 1983). Even the fierce Jivaro head-hunters regarded
incessant warfare as a curse. Additional evidence of the universal preference
peace, Keeley contends, is the ease with which some of the most warlike of
tribal peoples accepted colonial pacification or pacified themselves (e.g., the
Waorani or Auca; vide infra).
In discussing the Inevitability Belief (i.e., the belief that war is `natural'
and, therefore, inevitable), Ferguson (1989) notes:
[T]he claim for universality [of primitive war] can only be advanced by
relying on several dubious procedures: letting one cultural subdivision
with war represent a broader cultural grouping which includes some
groups without war; letting war at any point in time count, and
disregarding what may be much more typical periods of peace; and when
these fail, falling back on the untestable assertion that a peaceful people
might have had war before the Westerners arrived. Even if we focus on
societies where warfare is an undisputed occurrence, periods of active
warfare involving a given group usually are relatively brief. The vast
majority of humans, living or dead, have spent most of their lives at
peace. So one can agree with Hobbes that politically autonomous groups
have the potential for war, but this tells us nothing about why real war
occurs. Contrary to the Hobbesian image, peace is the normal human
Purification Rituals: Ambivalence toward the Enemy
We have been led to think that disregard for enemy life and his feelings are
characteristic of warfare, Turney-High (1949) states, but this is not necessarily
so, as evidenced by ambivalent feelings toward the enemy and guilt-expiating
ritual, both of which seem to be universal and betraying `bad
War and killing push men into some kind of marginality which is at least
uncomfortable, for there seems to be a basic fear of blood contamination,
an essential dread of human murder. If man did not consider human
killing something out of the ordinary, why has there been such common
fear of the enemy dead, the idea of contamination of even a prestigeful
warrior of the we-group? We have seen that the channeling of frustration
into hatred toward the enemy is good for the internal harmony of the we-
group, but the enemy is human, too. Humanity is capable of ambivalent
attitudes toward its enemies (Turney-High, 1949).
In a chapter of his The Golden Bough, aptly entitled "Taboo
and the Perils of the Soul", Frazer (1890) was the first to acknowledge
the existence, and summarize the available evidence of disculpation ritual,
taboos and purification ceremonies (or lustration), indicative of some sense of
guilt, in the post-war behavior of primitive peoples. The purpose of the
seclusion and the expiatory rites which the warriors who have taken the life of
a foe have to perform is, he points out, "no other than to shake off,
frighten, or appease the angry spirit of the slain man" (cf. Kennedy,
1971; Goldschmidt, 1988; Keeley, 1996).
In his Totem und Tabu, Freud (1913) was so impressed by
these examples of disculpation ritual among primitive peoples that he discussed
the subject at length, connecting the expiatory ceremonies following the killing
of an enemy with the general ambivalence of taboo.
Much of the post-war ritual activity in primitive societies seems clearly
to indicate the expiation of guilt. Various kinds of ritual penance after killing
were widespread in primitive (and ancient) societies. Fasting, sexual
and separation were common, as were ritual responsibilities such as sacrifices
for vows given. Often the returning warrior was considered spiritually polluted
or contaminated and had to undergo additional purification (cleansing) rituals.
The Pima, for example, regarded the killing of an enemy to be such a
dangerous act that a Pima warrior withdrew from battle the moment he killed
his opponent to begin his rites of purification, or lustration (Kroeber &
"There has existed" Turney-High (1949) concludes his
perceptive review, "a dread of taking enemy life, a feeling that if the life
of a member of the we-group was precious, so was that of a member of the
other-group. Fear of death-contamination has demanded expiation or
purification among many folk".
There are a number of instances of tribal communities that do not support
individual members in their personal vendettas against outsiders for fear that
such revenge actions may escalate intercommunity violence which would
detrimental to the collective interests of the whole community. There are three
ways for kin units such as patriclans to avoid unnecessary feuds: (1) They may
send the culprit into exile; (2) they may renounce the clan's responsibility to
avenge him, giving other clans a free license to hunt him down, or the
community may even turn a murderer over to the victim's kin; or (3) his own
clan may put him to death (A.Moore, 1978; S.Moore, 1972; Boehm, 1985,
1986). Boehm (1986) comments: "A clan system of collectivized self-
defense and liability `works' only if clan members are reasonably prudent in
committing homicides or in otherwise stimulating members of other clans to
them. Too much heroic aggressiveness can embroil a clan in so many feuds
it faces serious decimation or cannot earn its subsistence. Warriors living in
feuding societies [such as the Pathans (Pashtun) and Montenegrins] are aware
of these costs, and mostly they behave accordingly - that is, prudently. They
to be as aggressive as honor demands, but also try not to initiate feuds
recklessly or pointlessly".
Peacefulness Does Not Equal Pusillanimity or `Gentleness'
When Gregor (1990) tried to find comparative data to complement his study of
the relatively peaceful Xingu communities, he was frustrated by the minimal
number of peaceful peoples he could find. He writes:
Other researchers, who have combed the literature more systematically
than myself, have reached the same conclusion. Thus Richard Sipes notes
in his study of war and combative sports: `Relatively peaceful societies
are not easy to find. I had to investigate 130 societies to find eleven, of
which five were rejected because of insufficient information' (1973: 68).
Similarly, Otterbein (1970) found only four peaceful cultures among the
fifty in his study of the evolution of war. Turning to advanced, state-level
societies the searcher for peace becomes even more
The societies that come closest to fitting the model of the truly peaceful
culture are small in scale and primarily hunters and foragers. This
conclusion is in keeping with research on war by Wright... and others
who have positively associated war with community size and cultural
development. Peaceful peoples also tend to be geographically isolated.
Otterbein (1970), for example, finds that societies lacking in military
organizations, such as the Copper Eskimo, the Dorobo and the Tikopians,
live on islands, mountain tops, arctic wastelands and plateaus surrounded
by malaria infested jungles. In some cases this isolation is a strategic
adaptation to dealing with more aggressive societies that surround them.
In most instances, however, peaceful societies appear to achieve their
status by evading rather than solving the problems of intertribal relations
Isolation, splendid or not, seems prima facie to be the most
prominent condition for peacefulness. So much so, in fact, that
Mühlmann (1936, 1940) virtually identified peaceful peoples with
Rückzugsvölker (litt. evading/retreating
Why could Gregor find so few peaceful peoples? One of the reasons
might be simply because his criteria were wrong. In order to classify a people
as `peaceable', some scholars demand not only absolute proof of the absence
of intercommunity warring and feuding, but also the absence of
every trace of intragroup violence, manifestations of aggression,
and even conflict. They quite unrealistically require these societies to be
and pusillanimous in all walks of life.
As Turney-High (1949) already observed: "Such warless people
have by no means been friendly and pacific. They have not been ignorant of
how to shed human blood, nor have they abhorred it. Neither have they been
without social institutions which formalized man-killing... Field ethnology no
more demonstrates that a warless people are per se a kindly one than it shows
that a monogamous tribe is sexually chaste" (Turney-High,
Bellicosity Does Not Equal Aggression
Whatever function aggression or violence may serve in the life of the
or the small group, Malinowski (1941) already observed, it does not serve the
same function between political units. Wars between bands, tribes, states or
similar political entities are not just magnified quarrels between individuals.
Warfare is not just simply aggregated individual aggression.
The profound misunderstanding about aggression and warlikeness, and
the fundamental confusion concerning `nonaggressive' and `peaceful' is
best exemplified by Heelas (1989; Cf. also Dentan, 1992), who devotes his
whole contribution discussing definitions of aggression in his Search for
It may be important to note that `peace' as used by Heelas and Dentan,
and by many other Anglo-American authors, refers to the absence of physical
violence generally (including intra- and intergroup violence), while in most
other languages `peace' (except in such metaphors as `peace of mind', etc.)
refers preferentially or exclusively to the absence of `war' (as collective,
organized, armed and violent intergroup or interstate conflict).
Montagu (1978) makes the same distinction between intragroup or
intergroup `aggression' and implies that they may vary independently:
"When reference is made to aggressive societies we have to be quite
whether the reference is to intragroup or intergroup aggression. There are
societies in which intergroup aggression is high but in which intragroup
aggression is low, as among a number of New Guinea peoples. There are
societies in which aggression is high both within the group and between
as among the Yanomamö. There are societies in which both inter- and
intragroup aggression is low, as among the Toda of Southern India, and there
are some societies in which both inter- and intragroup aggression are
nonexistent, as among the Tasaday of Mindanao, in the Philippines"
(Montagu, 1978) (The Tasaday have in the meantime been exposed as victims
or perpetrators of a hoax).
The only reasonable criterion for peacefulness is the presence or absence
of offensive war or warlike behaviors (which implies that it is an
intergroup phenomenon), and not the presence or absence of any
and all forms of intragroup violence, or aggression, or conflict.
confusion rests on the, mostly implicit, assumption that war in some
way is the result of the collective outpouring of accumulated `raw aggression'.
In a previous publication (van der Dennen, 1986) I have tried to outline the
fallacies involved in this kind of reasoning, especially the cumulative fallacy
(the confounding of levels-of-analysis).
According to Kennedy (1971) and numerous other authors (see van der
Dennen, 1986), aggression is obviously correlated with, and an integral aspect
of war, but the relationships between war and aggression are reciprocal,
complex, and mediated by intervening variables. There is no simple cause and
effect relationship, and as White (1949) and others have long contended, there
is probably more evidence to support the proposition that war produces
aggression than the reverse. Ember & Ember (1992, 1994) found
evidence that among primitive peoples socialization for aggression is more
likely to be a consequence than a cause of war. Grudges of `unemployed'
warriors after coercive pacification have sometimes been (mis)construed as
evidence of some kind of innate bellicosity.
Robarchek & Robarchek (1992), discussing the Waorani in
Amazonia (who are probably unique in deliberately and consciously
feuding and warfare), draw attention to the often limited options available in a
hostile environment: "In such a situation, where warfare is endemic [and
rampant], a people's options are rather limited: they can either flee, fight
or be overwhelmed. Given the sociocultural environment of the region (and
with no safe refuge available), engaging in at least defensive warfare becomes
a functional necessity for group survival. Warfare, under these conditions, is
contagious; once one group adopts it as a tactic for advancing its ends, others
must either take it up or be destroyed".
The result is a more or less stable balance of terror with constant raiding
among the various social groups (Robarchek & Robarchek, 1992). In
a situation, fear, as Whiffen (1915) long ago, and Mühlmann (1940)
Meyer (1977) more recently, pointed out, seems to be the predominant war
There is, furthermore, a strong androcentric bias in the accounts relating
aggression and warfare in primitive societies; "with a sleight-of-hand
extension of man into Man... Woman is either ignored or presented as
less aggressive than man. The arguments for a biological difference in the
in this regard are far from conclusive, but in cases where such a difference is
put forward, the general conclusions of humanity's aggressive nature are not
revised" (Howell & Willis, 1989).
These authors also draw attention to the fact that
aggression/violence/warlikeness, though considered `natural' (particularly or
exclusively in males) is also condemned as `bad', while its perceived opposite,
peacefulness, carries with it the negatively valued connotations of being
and inert, qualities which are associated with females. One might go so far as
to state that for many males in primitive communities, as well as in our
culture, `peaceful' equals `weak' equals `unmasculine/feminine' equals
`impotent' equals `emasculated/castrated'.
Primitive War as a Post-Contact Phenomenon
The effects of contact with `civilized' states and colonialism in the warfare
patterns of primitive peoples have, until recently, not sufficiently been
acknowledged. Virtually all over the globe such contact has exacerbated
within and among nonstate societies to a degree we are only beginning to
(e.g. Blick, 1988; Ferguson, 1992a,b; Ferguson & Whitehead, 1992;
"Accepted wisdom even now holds that `primitive' cultures are
typically at war and that the primary military effect of contact with the West is
the suppression of ongoing combat. In fact, the initial effect of European
colonialism has generally been quite the opposite. Contact has invariably
transformed war patterns, very frequently intensified war and not uncommonly
generated war among groups who previously had lived in peace. Many,
most, recorded wars involving tribal peoples can be directly attributed to the
circumstances of Western contact" (Ferguson, 1992b). A consequence of
this is, as he explains elsewhere (Ferguson, 1990), a systematic exaggeration
of images of warlike behavior in supposedly `first contact' accounts.
The Characteristics of Peaceful Peoples
Fabbro (1978) analyzed five peaceable primitive societies, including the
the Siriono, the Mbuti, the !Kung, and the Copper Eskimo. To these
`traditional' groups, Fabbro added two literate peaceful communities for
of comparison, the Hutterites and the Islanders of Tristan da Cunha.
Contemporary peace groups, such as Hutterites, Mennonites and Amish,
living in permanent
communities based on a common religion, are also called `cenobites'.
A peaceful society, according to him, is one that is not involved in
internal (i.e., intracultural) collective violence; one that exhibits relatively little
interpersonal violence; one that provides no special role for warriors; and one
that has values and sanctions precluding violence as a means for resolving
conflict. Peaceability should not be confused with pacifism, which is only one
genre of peaceability (Dentan, 1992).
McCauley (1990) presented the results of a study of the Semai and two
other peaceful societies, the Buid of the Philippines, and the South American
Xingu River conglomeration of tribes. Various combinations of the peaceable
communities mentioned above were also present in the analyses of Gregor
(1990) and Dentan (1992, 1994). From the combined analyses of this rather
small sample a number of patterns emerge:
* All peaceful societies are essentially small, local, face-to-face,
communities with very low degree of social stratification, and open and
* The `traditional' societies do not maintain an exclusive monopoly over an
area of land. Other groups may come and go, and in times of shortage
an incumbent band may share the food and water resources with another
less fortunate group. But conflicts within these groups are also partly
responsible for personnel changes, fission being used as a dissociative
conflict resolution form.
* The traditional societies produce little or no economic surplus. Material
inequality between individuals on a long-term basis is, therefore,
impossible. As a corollary, leadership remains on the level of personal
authority rather than coercive power because there is no surplus to
* The differences in child-rearing practices between the traditional and the
cenobite societies are open to a number of possible explanations.
Cenobites generally are more authoritarian with children than are
peaceable `refugees' like Semai, and they approve the spanking and
whipping of children as corporal punishment of last resort (Dentan, 1992,
1994). The socialization of nonaggression (e.g., Montagu, 1978; Irwin,
1990) may be a relatively minor factor in the creation of peaceability
(e.g., Riches, 1987; Dentan, 1992; Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1993), though some
cross-cultural studies find a positive correlation between child abuse and
neglect or harsh socialization practices and bellicosity (e.g., Levinson
& Malone, 1980; Ross, 1992).
* Many of the peaceful societies develop what Gregor (1990) calls an
`antiviolent' value system; cultural norms and ideologies which
discourage both intra- and intergroup violence (an important component
of which seems to be Gelassenheit at least among cenobites).
Nonviolence is supported by stigmatizing quarreling, boasting, stinginess,
anger, and violence, and by according prestige for generosity, gentleness,
and conflict avoidance. This value system is supported by supernatural
beliefs (McCauley, 1990).
* Peaceability and nonviolence among primitive peoples and cenobites
seems to stem from (a psychology of) defeat: "Defeat tamed
them... those that survived did so by learning virtues of political
accommodation or withdrawal from temporal affairs" (Barkun,
1986; see Dentan, 1992, 1994). Or, as Bigelow (1969) put it "their
`peacefulness' was imposed on them by force". `Islets of
peaceability' can arise as an adaptive response to defeat by neighboring
peoples when there are relatively unpopulated areas (called `refuges' or
`enclaves') to flee to.
* Peaceable `refugees' tend to be insulationist and xenophobic. Lacking the
oppositional frontier processes that create peaceable `refugees', cenobites
need specific mechanisms to maintain the boundaries between their people
and the `others' by means of physical isolation. Peaceable peoples like
Semai contrast themselves with the peoples they fear, creating a
counterculture. The antiviolent value system is embodied in a contrast
between the peacefulness of the ingroup and the violence of outsiders.
Outsiders are bloody, violent, dangerous, ugly, evil, animal-like and, in
a real sense, less than human. Children are warned against outsiders and,
especially, about behaving like outsiders. Apparently, "hating
violence requires violent people to hate" (McCauley, 1990).
* The gender-equality characteristic of many egalitarian band-level
is not a necessary correlate of peacefulness among enclaved peoples,
although the two phenomena can co-occur.
* None of the peaceful societies would seem to operate on the premise that
its members would automatically refrain from violence (even though
aggressive models are absent). Even the most peaceful of these societies
employ various forms of social conditioning and indoctrination to
constrain and deflect the tendencies to resort to violence, as well as
community inducements to discourage violence, and instructions in the
virtues and arts of nonviolent conflict resolution. Tribal cosmology,
rituals, legends, religious and ethical concepts and precepts reinforce the
nonviolent norms of the society. And social ostracism is typically
inflicted on individuals who violate these norms (S.Brown, 1994).
The 52 Peaceful Societies investigated by Melko (1973) are not really societies
(in the ethnological sense) but particular historical periods of particular
civilizations (such as the Han and T'ang dynasties in China) without major
internal physical conflicts. Yet, some of his findings may be summarized for
reasons of comparison.
* No one form of government, no one economic system, no one structure
of society, no one system of education seems to be essential to
* Moderate powers seem to have had the advantage over great powers in
maintaining peace. They are strong enough to resist attack, but not strong
enough to become overextended. Small powers that have been successful
in maintaining peace have refrained from interfering in the affairs of their
neighbors. Great powers seem to succeed in attaining peace only if they
conquer all other great powers within range.
* Peace is the normal internal condition for a society. Conflict involving
physical fighting is exceptional. When it occurs, most people involved in
it are not fighting most of the time. Most people in most places in most
periods of history have not been killed or injured in war.
A Typology of Peace
Tefft (1988, 1990), among many other, pointed to the fact that tribes involved
in so-called `restrictive' (or rather `restricted') wars often have
checks limiting the level of intertribal violence (e.g., Polopa: D.Brown; Bete:
Balandier, 1986; Meru: Fadiman, 1980). Many societies from all over the
world seem to make a clear distinction between `real' wars and more
ritualized wars (also called `agonistic' wars) (e.g., Rappaport, 1968).
In the next section, I shall present a typology of peace and more fully discuss
some of the strategies and mechanisms of peace-making and peace-keeping in
According to Service (1975), it is the evolution of the
various causes of peace (instead of the `causes of war') that can be studied in
the human record, and "a large and essential part of the evolution of
political organization is simply an extension and intensification of