Lethal violence in human history or "The Myth of the Violent Savage"

Started by Volunto, Feb 07, 2023, 06:33 PM

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The full article with all sources can be found on the main page: https://antiviolence.io/en/#violence_in_human_history

It is a common notion that the level of lethal violence (the death of humans at the hands of other humans) in prehistoric times was extremely high and normally could reach 15%, and in some cases even 50%. This means that up to half of the "savages" were murdered.

However, arguments of this kind are highly exaggerated and are based on limited examples, not on overall statistics. A study examining 600 human populations shows that in the entire history of Homo sapiens, the lethal violence rate was only 2%, and this includes cases of wars and genocides. Some studies also argue that the theory of the universality of war in human history lacks empirical support, and evidence for high levels of prehistoric violence (such as that demonstrated in "War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage") may be unreasonably inflated.

Considering all the archaeological evidence for Europe and the Near East, and not just selected cases of violence, one can conclude that the idea that 15% of the prehistoric population died from war is not just false, it is absurd. And there is no evidence that war is an expression of innate human tendencies, or a selective force driving human psychological evolution.

Large excavations in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Near East, and North Africa of sites of the Iron Age also show extremely low levels of lethal violence. For example, a study of 25 Mesopotamian archaeological sites shows that only 28 out of 1278 (i.e., 2.2%) of the remains examined have traces of healed cranial injuries related to violence. Based on the evidence of bloody military conflicts and some level of violence in everyday life in this area, the researchers expected to find a much larger number of injuries of this nature.

The excavations of sites of the Iron Age with the most violent deaths are dating back to Britain during the reign of the Roman Empire. One of the archaeological excavations in London showed many men who had died from violence. However, this can be explained by the "headhunting" by the Roman army and/or defeats in gladiator fights. And the excavations of the Middle Age, showing the most violent deaths, relate to the battles of Visby and Aljubarrota.

These cases hint to us that the bulk of the victims of lethal violence falls on organized attacks by certain violent groups of people, including those of a military nature. One may recall the Crow Creek Massacre, in which an entire Indian settlement was destroyed at the hands of authentically unknown attackers. At the same time, many large archaeological excavations of the New World show extremely low levels of lethal violence. Another fact in favor of this argument is the overall percentage of people who died due to mass murders in the 20th century. In total, out of 11.5 billion people who lived in the 20th century, 5.5 billion people have died (6 billion have lived into the 21st century). About 203 million (or 3.7%) deaths are the result of mass murders. At the same time, only 8 million (or 0.15%) deaths can be attributed to conventional murders.

Claims about extremely high violence in prehistoric men are often based on the analogy with the high violence of some modern hunter-gatherer tribes, especially the Hiwi and Ache of South America with 55% and 30% lethal violence rate, respectively. However, this argument hides the fact that, if you compare these tribes with other similar tribes, then the latter turn out to be far from being so violent.

There are also cases of completely non-violent tribes, famous examples of which are the Paliyar from South India and the Semai from Malaysia. It also turned out to be false that in tribal societies men who commit murder should be more reproductively successful as they eliminate their neighbors from procreation. And since in the past all people lived in tribes, this allegedly made a human a natural born killer. But the studies that make such a claim have methodological problems, they compare men of different ages, which distorts the results. And these results do not agree with the findings of many other studies, which show that killers not only have the same number of children as non-killers, but also that the children of killers are less likely to reach reproductive age.

In general, it is incorrect to describe human violence based only on individual cases of extremely violent isolated tribes. In addition, based on it, one should not lightly draw conclusions about the level of lethal violence in the tribes of the past – a mistake that some researchers make [12][19].