The Human Evolution Of Cooperative Interest Excerpt

'The Human Evolution of Cooperative Interest' by Bruce M. Knauft, Emory University
excerpted from A Natural History of Peace (edited by Thomas Gregor)


The range of simple societies in the archeological record is greater than those few decentralized forager groups that have been scrutinized by twentieth-century ethnographers. The latter have been strongly influenced by state encroachment and ecological marginalization; they cannot be taken as representative of our evolutionary history (Schire 1984; Headland and Reid 1989). However, these changes have reduced rather than intensified the distinctive features discussed here; the legacy of simple society characteristics was likely much stronger in the past. Historical studies document that the qualities of leadership, residential centralization, individualistic property ownership, and status competition all increase rather than decrease as foragers are subject to the trade networks and political status differentiation of horticultural and state societies (e.g., Cashdan 1983, Hitchcock 1987; Kent 1989; Knauft 1990b; cf. classic analaysis by Murphy and Steward 1955). In contrast, decentralized leadership, diffuse and flexible interband alliance, generalized reciprocity, and adult male status equality are more common in relatively more autonomous and more decentralized foragers than in hunter-gatherers subject to greater economic interaction with state societies (e.g., Mbuti net-hunters versus Mbuti archers, !Kung San versus Basarwa [Cashdan 1980, 1986]). In terms of developmental trajectories, then, the haze of recent developments suggest that the distinctive features of simple human societies as presently discussed were much stronger in our evolutionary past than in the altered band societies of the early ethnographic present (cf. Woodburn 1988).5

It would be a mistake to write off our best data about simple societies as a function of Western state encroachment and projection (see Solway and Lee 1990; contrast Wilmsen 1989). Indeed, careful combination of data from ethnographic and prehistoric research, as well as primatology, is indispensable to a penetrating view of human social evolution.

Variations have certainly existed with the general category of "simple societies." For instance, patterns of violence and sociality among late Pleistocene hunters of preglacial Eurasia, who were highly dependent on very large game (offering the potential for large aggregations of consuming foragers and sizable frozen food stores), were somewhat more like those complex hunter-gatherers than were those of foragers relying more on disperesed floral resources and smaller game (Foley 1988: 217-219; Mellars 1989: 356-357). More generally, the difference between simple- and complex-forager patterns of violence and sociality may parallel differences in resource concentration of population aggregation that potentitate them. That highly decentralized, nonintensive foraging adaptations are, on a global scale, likely to be both underrepresented in the archeological record and subject to less scholarly interest than the relatively dramatic material assemblages of more socioeconomically complex prehistoric groups should not blind us to the fact that the bulk of our genus's evolution was spend as simple foragers.


Given the importance of empirics in future research, a concluding section with some fresh data is apposite. My scenario of sociality and violence in human evolution6 has recently been applied by archaeologists Paul Taçon and Christopher Chippendale to a detailed progression of prehistoric rock art in Arnhem Land, Northern Australia (Taçon and Chippendale 1994; see Knauft 1994c). These renderings are particularly important because they depict interpersonal aggression and fighting. Such depictions are rare in the prehistoric rock art from any world area, and this rarity is itself significant given the copius prehistoric rendering of aggression directed against nonhuman species, such as hunted animals. How rare was warfare in prehistory, and which types were most prominent?

Arnhem Land rock art reveals vivid differences in interpersonal aggression as portrayed over three artistic phases that stretch from over 10,000 years ago to relatively recent times. To understand and appreciate these differences, a bit of background is necessary about the fighthing patterns recorded by ethnographer W. Lloyd Warner (1930, 1937) in the late 1920s among aboriginal inhabitants of Arnhem Land. Warner found multiple types of Murngin conflict and an extremely high rate of interpersonal killing - over thirty times greater than the present homicide rate in the U.S., which is itself one of the highest in the industrialized world (Warner 1937: 146f.; see Knauft 1987: 464). Moreover, much of the lethal violence occurred in collective battles and raids between rival groups, that is, it could be classified as warfare between clans or local bands.

In cross-cultural and evolutionary perspective, the Murngin are an important example of complex rather than simple hunter-gatherers. That is, they inhabited a rich ecological environment and employed prehistorically "late" technologies that allowed them to have relatively high population densities and status differentiations, even though their society did not depend on food production, horticulture, or animal domestication. The same is true of the Tiwi, also from the lush northern coast of Australia (Hart and Pilling 1960). In these aspects, Murngin and Tiwi contrast with the more dispersed and decentralized aboriginal groups that inhabited the large bulk of arid central and western Australia.

In terms of global human prehistory, complex hunter-gatherer adaptations did not become prominent until 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, and they are rare before 13,000 B.P. (Henry 1985: 366; Price and Brown 1985; Zvelebil 1986). Since the genus Homo is certainly more than a million and a half years old, complex hunter-gatherers probably represent less than 1 percent of our genus's evolutionary history. As has long been known, trends of socioeconomic intensification that began with complex hunter-gatherers eventually fostered sedentism (year-round residence in one place), an increased emphasis on material property, a greater sense of territoriality, and social exclusion of outsiders. These trends were accompanied by an increasing propensity toward warfare. Organized, inter-group fighting was common among the societies that used to be called "tribes" and was, if anything, intensified in the premodern hierarchical polities that have gone under the name of "chiefdoms" and "archaic states." In short, with the transition from "simple" to "complex" hunter-gatherers, patterns of violence intensified in organizational scale and magnitude. Warfare became more prominent as simple foragers became more sociopolitically complex (Knauft 1991).

That complex hunter-gatherers, much less "tribes" and "chiefdoms," are not representative of our species' history leaves us with an empirical conundrum. There are only a few well-documented groups of "simple" foragers to use as points of evolutionary departure. And as noted above, even these must be considered with extreme caution; evidence from archaeology, paleontology, mathematical modeling, and primatology can all become relevant as supporting parts of the evolutionary puzzle. It is this context that evidence of prehistoric conflict in Arnhem Land, which culminated in warfare among complex hunter-gatherers, becomes particularly important.

Taçon and Chippendale found that depictions of warfare are limited to the later stages of Arnhem rock art, characterized by complex hunter-gatherer adaptations. Conflict representations dating from between 6,000 and perhaps 10,000 years ago were mostly between two individuals rather than groups. A number of details suggest that these older depictions were of armed wrestling matches or ceremonial conflicts in which the two antagonists could wound each other, but with kinsmen able to rescue an injured principal if the injuries became too severe. The conflicts did not appear subject to collective escalation. This type of controlled conflict was still present among Murngin in the early twentieth century under the name of nirimaoi yolno and makarata (Warner 1937: 156-157, 163-165). The latter were glossed by Warner as "ceremonial peacemaking fights," in which combatants were allowed a final display of antagonism to finish their anger.

Taçon and Chippendale suggest that this earlier period of Arnhem Land conflict corresponds to my characterizations of sociality and violence in simple societies (Knauft 1991). They argue further that the ecological and archaeological evidence supports the thesis that the social organization of this period was relatively simple and socioecologically decentralized, in contrast to the "middle-range" characteristics of more complex hunter-gatherers.

However, climactic changes rendered Arnhem Land more ecologically plentiful 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. Coupled with increasing technological sophistication and socioeconomic complexity, a transition to middle-range societal characteristics is suggested by Taçon and Chippendale for this period, that is, concomitant with complex hunter-gatherer adapatations. Correspondingly, a new art style during this period exhibits a much greater incidence of collective armed conflict and, in particular, a greater incidence of severe and/or lethal wounding.

Later in the sequence, "new phase" depictions in Arnhem Land rock art point toward increasing patterns of large-scale warfare. Extremely violent conflicts are depicted, with as many as fifty-four combatants portrayed on two distinct sides, spears flying, and many gravely stricken warriors. Although one must always be wary of extrapolating behavior from prehistoric art, these latter depictions appear similar to the all-out massed warfare between two sides called gaingar by the Murngin who were Warner's informants (Warner 1937: 161-163). These vicious fights climaxed the building up of tensions and feuds between opposed groups across a large region of Arnhem Land and were intended to result in numerous deaths on both sides.

Certainly, further consideration of these rare and captivating rock art depictions will provide a more nuanced understanding than can be conveyed here. But basic features do suggest a relative abscence of warfare among simple hunter-gatherers and its relative increase along with the increasing complexity of hunter-gatherer society and with the transition from simpler to "middle range" societal adaptations. These changes occurred in many world areas some 6,000 to 9,000 years ago during the Mesolithic (e.g., Zvelebil 1986).

The larger point is that scenarios of peace, cooperation, and violence in human evolution should be moving away from the realm of abstract argument and speculation to that of concrete application. Careful ethnographic study of aggression and affiliation among simpler human societies can dovetail with evidence from archaeology, paleontology, and frame testable hypotheses will move us well beyond simple abstract argument or math modeling. It will also move us beyond competing speculations based on simplistic chimpanzee-to-human analogies, or, alternatively, crude retroprojections based .. ethnographic sources. Data and creative theory from many arenas should be increasingly applied to the archeological and paleontological record.

This is a difficult task. I close, however, with a final prediction. The general role of cultural transmission and widespread social affiliation in human evolution is likely to become increasingly important in models of spread and development of Homo, and Homo sapiens in particular, across the globe. Compared to other primate radiations, this expansion occurred with an amazing dearth of speculation. It is quite likely that diffuse social communication, trade, affiliation, and mating or marriage between groups created a chain-link network of interconnection among regeional populations that favored the development of Homo sapiens as species with unprecedented global distribution. In the years ahead, the affiliative role of human culture will become increasingly difficult to ignore in the academic study of human evolution.


5. Though twentieth-century hunter-gatherers persisted in ecologically marginal areas, this does not imply that "pristine" foragers experienced ecological bounty. Because low nutritional yield per unit land is a function of technology and organization as well as of the environment per se, nonintensive human ecology needs to be viewed in evolutionary as well as in "devolutionary" terms, that is, in terms of the strategies available at earlier periods to exploit a given habitat. Symbiotic trade between hunter-gatherers and members of horticultural or state societies (e.g., Leacock and Lee 1982: pt 2) was absent prior to the first few millennia B.C., making the arduousness of resource reliance greater in simple societies of earlier periods. Moreover, the striking human trajectory from Homo erectus until quite recently has been one of expansion into environments that were at the outset "marginal" relative to the ecozones previously inhabited. The prevailing economic tendency in simple societies is typically conservative: to minimize both labor and food surplus and to keep yields well below possible limits (cf. Sahlins 1972). The low-intensity human ecology associated with ethnographically known simple societies, and the associated patterns of sociality and violence presently adduced, are probably quite common in human evolution until the rise of complex hunter-gatherers, which were most common after 12,500 B.P. (Henry 1985: 366; see Price and Brown 1985).

6. See Knauft 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990a+b, 1991, 1993a+b, 1994a+b; Bowers 1988; Craig 1988; Betzig 1988; Boehm 1993; Erdal and Whiten 1993.

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