Lethal Aggression in Mobile Forager Bands and Implications for the Origins of War

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Science  19 Jul 2013:
Vol. 341, Issue 6143, pp. 270-273
DOI: 10.1126/science.1235675

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Ancient Warriors or Murderers?

Some have suggested that the human predilection for war is ancient, perhaps dating back to the emergence of our species, while others maintain that evidence for such early warring is scant. Past studies that looked at nomadic foraging bands as models of early humans and their potential for conflict concluded that war is in our blood. Fry and Söderberg (p. 270), however, reexamined the standard cross-cultural sample, the main repository for behavioral data on forage bands, and found little evidence for large-scale conflicts or wars. Instead, the majority of incidences of lethal aggression in these societies were homicides driven by a variety of factors relevant at the individual or family scale.


It has been argued that warfare evolved as a component of early human behavior within foraging band societies. We investigated lethal aggression in a sample of 21 mobile forager band societies (MFBS) derived systematically from the standard cross-cultural sample. We hypothesized, on the basis of mobile forager ethnography, that most lethal events would stem from personal disputes rather than coalitionary aggression against other groups (war). More than half of the lethal aggression events were perpetrated by lone individuals, and almost two-thirds resulted from accidents, interfamilial disputes, within-group executions, or interpersonal motives such as competition over a particular woman. Overall, the findings suggest that most incidents of lethal aggression among MFBS may be classified as homicides, a few others as feuds, and a minority as war.

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