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Monday, 13 February 2012


Thomas Eakins' Arcadia
Arcadia; the pastoral utopia where people lived a simpler life in harmony with each other and nature.  No war or violence of any kind; just happy healthy people living the good life. The idea of Arcadia has ancient origins. We can find references to a kind of Arcadia in the writings of the ancient Greeks (Aristophanes) and Romans (Tacitus) and we can see the concept even in the biblical reference to Eden. We can still see the idea of Acadia today in the writings of Tönnies, Durkheim and Marx.  [Edge] In the UK, we have the idea of “Merry England”, a type of Arcadia which forms the foundation of the Shire in Lord of the Rings.

We look around the world today and we can find evidence of real peaceful people. Primitive people who live without violence, without war and in harmony with the forest around them; giving weight to the idea that we, as a species, lived more peaceful and harmonious in the past than today. We see our cities and our civilisation as opposite to the Acadia ideal we lost in the past; cities full of crime and abuse and our nations going to war at, in what appears, an ever increasing rate. No wonder that people harken back to the good old days.

Real Peaceful People

Yet the evidence we have appears to suggest the opposite; that people experienced more violence in the past than today. Evidence from archaeology, anthropology, sociology, psychology and even ethnography all point towards a more violent past. We can even question the idea of “real” peaceful primitive people.

“Classical Period (c. 1920-c. 1960)
This periodization is taken directly from the writings of George Stocking, who refers to this 40-year span of time as the Classical Period (1976, 1989:210). It is, of course, the period in American anthropology dominated by Franz Boas and his students. Anti-evolutionism reached its peak and cultural relativism flourished. It was also the period in which "the myth of the peaceful savage" emerged, to use the subtitle of archaeologist Lawrence Keeley's book (1996). The myth is described by Keeley as the erroneous belief that primitive warfare—a term used by Keeley—is desultory, ineffective, "unprofessional," and unserious (1996:11). The myth includes three aspects: the notion of prehistoric peace or the "pacified past" (prehistoric peoples did not have warfare) (1996:17-24), the belief that hunter-gatherers or band-level societies did not engage in warfare (disputed by Ember [1978] and Dentan [1988]),
and the assumption that when war occurred among tribal level societies it was ritualistic, game-like in nature—with the first wounding the battle would stop (Chappie and Coon 1942:616,628-635; Chappie and Coon, however, do not consider these assertions to be a myth). Perhaps the most succinct statement of the third aspect of the myth appears in the next period (Naroll 1966:17):

surprise is not a universally applied military tactic. Some primitive tribes simply line up at extreme missile range work up from hurling insults to hurling rocks at each other; this tournament-like war usually ends when the first enemy is killed. This kind of combat is a prearranged tryst, like duels under the European code duello,

I know of no tribe that fits this description.” [Otte2]

Much of the evidence for “real” peaceful people comes from ethnographic studies conducted before 1980. During the late 1970s and into the 1980s they came in to question with regard to their reliability and validity. [Goet, Hamm]

“Although problems of reliability and validity have been explored thoroughly by experimenters and others quantities researchers, their treatment by ethnographers has been sporadic.” [Goet]

Although ethnographers have many problems with their work, two of the most import has to do with time for learning the culture and their own cultural bias.  Ethnographers make conclusions biased on a few years study. Such a few years often falls far short of the time a person really needs to learn a new language and culture.  Yet they make general conclusions based on a small window into a culture. We can take Colin Turnbull’s work on the Mbuti pygmies and the Ik peoples in Africa. He studied the Mbuti for three years and then the Ik people and concluded the Mbuti exemplify real peaceful people and the Ik the opposite. Yet, other studies show that the Mbuti do have a history of violence and warfare and the violence of the Ik people resulted from a period of starvation, once their food supply recover they reverted to a more peaceful way of life. [Edge] As another example, Elizabeth Marshall’s work on the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, where she described them as a “harmless people”. Yet, other studies show they have a higher murder rate. [MarFry] Or we could look at another “real” peaceful people like the Semai people of Malaya who also carry out murders. [Edge, Fabb] 

Either the evidence shows “real” peaceful people as having some degree of violence or we have insufficient evidence to support the “real” peaceful conclusion. [Edge]

Bias in ethnographic studies can go either way. Either the ethnographer inappropriately interprets actions in terms of our own culture or they dismiss actions as they assume they result for their own cultural bias. For example, ethnographers can dismiss actions of violence in primitive people as resulting from Western influence and therefore not a result of the people themselves.

“This may sometimes occur because anthropologists believe that the cruel, harmful, or ineffective practices they see in a folk society are the result of social disorganisation brought about by colonialism” [Edge]

Of cause, if you rationalise away violence in a primitive people only a “real” peaceful people remain!

“… with the re-analysis of hunter-gatherer and horticultural population dynamics, it has become apparent that many pre-state societies do not fit their peaceful “harmless” stereotype. … It is evident that one reason for the underestimation of the level of violence and homicide in pre-state societies relates to past theoretical expectations about the harmonious nature of hunter-gatherer societies” [MarFra]

Violent People, Peaceful People

At this point we should look at what we mean with the terms “violent people” and “peaceful people”. We could easily see a people as violent [Eckh]; if we see murders or warfare then we class the people as violent.  However, we have more difficulty with the term “peaceful people”. People do not spend all day, every day, 365 days a year, year in, year out engaged in violence.

… there is great variability among recently observed hunter-gatherers in terms of the frequency of war (Otterbein 1991), homicide, and capital punishment (Otterbein 1988a).” [Otte]

Even the most violent people spend most of their time at peace and we humans have various methods of resolving conflicts without the resort to violence. So, if we observe a group of people not engaging in violence we cannot conclude that they exemplify a “real” peaceful people.  But even engaging in regular warfare does not make a people violent. For example, if the warfare has a defensive nature.  In the end, what differs a peaceful people from a violent people comes down to degrees. “Peaceful” people use violence to a lesser degree than “violent” people and more defensive violence than offensive violence.

“”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 and Ginsberg (1915) conclude in their extensive survey of some 650 primitive peoples. Similarly, Quincy Wright (1942) stated “No general golden age of peace existed at any stage of human history nor did any general iron age war. Neither the Rousseauian nor the Hobbesian concept of natural man is adequate”” [MarFra]

“War like people are capable of peacefulness, while peaceable people are capable of waging war under the appropriate circumstances … Many people who value peace positively still have relatively high rates of intergroup violence, e.g., Gebusi of New Guinean (Knauft 1987) and San (“Bushmen”) of Africa (e.g., Thomas 1994).” [EibSal]

Evidence for a More Violence Past

The evidence for a more violent pass comes from a multiple of sources.  Archaeology, for example, gives plenty of examples for violence with fortifications, weapons, bodies and evidence of mass murders and genocide. [MarFra] Unlike modern warfare where we try and minimise the killing of non-combatants, ancient warfare did not appear to have such restrictions as we find evidence of whole villages wiped out; men, women and children.

“Archaeologically, there are four basic sources on prehistoric violence: skeletal trauma, defensive architecture and settlement patterns, weaponry and related artefacts and iconographic representations” [MarFra].

“Warfare played an important role in the structure of historic Northwest Coast [of America] society and recent archaeological research demonstrates that warfare has a long history in the region.  The first evidence for conflict on the Northwest Coast occurs by 3000 BC …” [MarFra].

Cave paints can show us glimpse of ancient warfare.

“Rock art in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia, shows the development of armed combat over a 6000-year period (10,000 to 4000 years ago).” [Otte]

Other evidence comes from our closet genetic relative; the chimpanzee. Only two of the great apes engage in organise warfare; us and the chimpanzees. Jane Goodall noted that young male chimpanzees often display great keenness when it comes to joining in with an attack on a neighbouring group. [EibSal] Evidence suggests that warfare goes back before humans even evolved [McNe].

“We don’t know when human warfare --- defined as socially sanctioned, organized, lethal intergroup conflict (Mead 1968) --- originated. The earliest evidence of warfare among hominids comes from the analysis of the fossil remains of six homo antecessor --- an extinct hominid species that lived between 1.32 million and 800,000 years ago …” [Pitm]

“Humans and chimpanzees are the only members of the great ape family that engage in warfare (Goodall 1986, 503-14, 519-21; Wrangham 2006; Boesch and Boesch-Achermann 2000, 129-57). … This implies that warfare among humans and chimpanzees originated in their common ancestor that lived between approximately 13 and 7 million years ago, and has been named as Pan prior (Wrangham  2001) and Chororaphithecus abyssinicus (Suwa et al. 2007).” [Pitm]


Man is neither, by nature, peaceful nor warlike. Some conditions lead to war, some do not.”[Otte]

Human begins have the potential for violence and for war and we have the potential for peace too. We actually spend more time at peace than war. The frequency of violence can change from people to people or from time to time within the same people as does the nature of the violence. 

However, the idea of a golden age in the past where people lived in harmony with one another does not stand; Arcadia exemplifies a myth. We have, in general moved form a more violent past to a more peaceful present. Understanding the myth of Arcadia and our progression to less violence today becomes important if we want a more peaceful future. If we believe in Arcadia and want to go backwards to a simpler past, taking inspiration form “real” peaceful people we run the risk of deluding ourselves and creating the opposite of what we aim for.  

Instead of following the myth and getting lost in the delusion of a golden age, we should look more at those factors that increase peace; look at the evidence even if it doesn’t fit with how we want to see the World. Why have we becomes more peaceful? What leads to more peace at certain times and war at other times?


 [Eckh] William Eckhardt. “Primitive Militarism”. Journal of Peace Research. Vol 12. No 1. Pp 55-62. 1975.

[Otte2] Keith F. Otterbein. “A History of  Research on Warfare in Anthropology”. American Anthropology. 10 [4]. Pp 794 – 805. 2000.

[Fabb] David Fabbro. “Peaceful Societies: An Introduction”. Journal of Peace Research. No. 1 Vol. VX. 1978.

[Goet] Margaret D. LeCompte and Judith Preissle Goetz. “Problems of Reliability and Validity in Ethnographic Research”. Review of Educational Research. Vol 52. No. 1. Pp 31-60. Spring 1982. 

[Hamm] Martyn Hammersley. “Ethnography: problems and prospects”. Ethnography and Education. Vol 1, No. 1. Pp 3-14. March 2006.

[Pitm] George R. Pitman. “The Evolution of Human Warfare”. Philosophy of the Social Sceinces. 41(3). Pp 352-379. 2011.

[Otte] Keith F. Otterbein. “The Origins of War”. Critical Review. 11, no 2. Pp 251 – 277. Spring 1997.

[Edge] Robert B. Edgerton. “Sick Societies : Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony”. The Free Press. 1992

[McNe] William H. McNeill. “Violence and Submission in the Past”. American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 2007.

[EibSal] Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt and Frank Kemp Salter. “Indoctranability Ideology and Warfare.” Berghahn Books. 1998.

[MarFra] Ed. Debra L. Martin and David W. Frayer. “Troubled Times : Violence and Warfare in the Past”. War and Society Vol 3. Gordon and Breach Publishers. 1997.

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