The sad and violent history of 'peaceful societies'

“...war is almost ubiquitous in the ethnographic record, in the absence of external powers that imposed pacification, and the frequency distribution is skewed sharply towards the high end.” - Ember & Ember (1997)

Semai man wearing the Shamanic Headman's Dress. "The blowpipe and dart quiver are emblems of Semai identity." - From  Overwhelming Terror  (2008) by Robert Dentan

Semai man wearing the Shamanic Headman's Dress. "The blowpipe and dart quiver are emblems of Semai identity." - From Overwhelming Terror (2008) by Robert Dentan

Over at the Department of Anthropology web portal on the University of Alabama at Birmingham website, there is a section on ‘Peaceful Societies’, with an ‘encyclopedia’ listing 25 putatively peaceful societies. The page is clearly influenced by the work of Douglas Fry, who is the chair of the anthropology department at UAB, and, fittingly, two of his books are recommended on the ‘Best Books’ section of the site. Along with links to ‘News and Reviews’, and the ‘Peaceful Societies’ facebook page, there are two motivational quotes displayed on every page:




Aspiring to make the world a more peaceful place seems like a worthwhile goal to me. To that end, one would think that seeking out societies that have solved the problem of violence, and thus may be worthy of emulation, would be a productive endeavor. For each of the societies referenced, the website attributes their seemingly low rates of violence to social norms discouraging violent behavior, and traditional practices of peaceful conflict resolution.

Unfortunately, I think there is a very important factor being left out.

In addition to the fact that some of these populations had higher rates of recorded violence in the ethnographic past, many of the ‘peaceful societies’ mentioned have a long history of being violently subjugated and enslaved by more powerful neighboring societies.

Consider the G/wi foragers of the Kalahari Desert. The ‘Peaceful Societies’ page cites Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert (1981) by George B. Silberbauer as the “major book on the G/wi”. In that book, Silberbauer describes the G/wi as “a timid people, fearful and initially shy and reserved in the presence of strangers.” This is perhaps unsurprising considering the history of violent interactions with neighboring groups that Silberbauer describes;

John Campbell, who visited the southern Tswana in 1813 and 1820 describes Bushman [G/wi] raids on his hosts’ cattle as if they were of fairly frequent occurrence. Retaliation ranged from giving the reivers a severe thrashing to the indiscriminate slaughter of men, women, or children encountered by the punitive party. Missionaries and travlers who worked among and visited the Tswana in the second half of the last century report them as keeping Bushman slaves. Mackenzie, writing in 1870, said that the slaves were absolute property…He makes it clear that both the Tswana and the Kgalagari despised Bushman and treated them very badly at times. (Silberbauer 7)

In addition to violent conflict with various neighboring native African societies, Silberbauer also describes extensive violent interactions with Dutch, German, and British farmers during the 19th century, with the killing going both ways. In the 1970’s anthropologist Mathias Guenther noted that many Bushmen living in the same district as the G/wi began to refer to themselves as the 'kamka kwe, which in the Naro language means ‘weak or inconsequential people', comparing themselves unfavorably to more powerful neighboring societies.

A scarred G/wi woman. From  Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert  (1981) by George B. Silberbauer

A scarred G/wi woman. From Hunter and Habitat in the Central Kalahari Desert (1981) by George B. Silberbauer

Another society on the list, the Batek of Malaysia, has a similar history. I previously referred to the Batek in an article I wrote for Quillette about contemporary hunter-gatherer societies. Quoting myself here:

…the Batek of Malaysia…have a long history of being violently attacked and enslaved by neighboring groups, and developed a survival tactic of running away and studiously avoiding conflict. Yet even they recount tales of wars in the past, where their shamans would shoot enemies with blowpipes.

While the ‘Peaceful Societies’ page for the Semai of Malaysia is focused primarily on their methods of conflict avoidance, a link to one of the cited sources mentions how the Semai, “raise their children to fear strangers with stories of violence. The Semai have been dominated and enslaved by their neighbors, the more powerful Malay people, for centuries.” In anthropologist Robert Dentan’s book about the Semai, titled Overwhelming Terror (2008), he writes that, “The slave raids, unpredictable and brutal, create a sense that the whole cosmos is unpredictable and brutal. As in the Semai case, they may give rise to feelings that love and peace within the local group are the only security people can have.”

For the Mbuti, their ‘Peaceful Societies’ page draws on Colin Turnbull’s ethnographic works The Forest People (1961) and the aptly titled Wayward Servants (1965). These works describe the “submissive” relationship the Mbuti pygmies have with their neighboring Bantu village “masters”. While these works contain many charming descriptions of Mbuti individuals exercising personal agency and controlling their own destiny, and while Turnbull rejects any use of the term “slavery” to describe the Mbuti relationship with the neighboring villagers, the social system portrayed may be fairly described as one of servitude and dependency. In Wayward Servants, Turnbull writes,

As a child an Mbuti may grow accustomed to a number of "owners," as his parents move from band to band, or village to village. When he is old enough to hunt he will choose whichever "owner" happens to be convenient at the time, but if he does not get the treatment he expects, he will without hesitation get himself "adopted" by another villager, even in the same village. (Turnbull 47)

I have not given a detailed reading of the ethnographic literature for every society listed on the ‘Peaceful Societies’ page, but my impression is that many of these societies are ‘peaceful’ because they have been ‘pacified’ by more powerful neighboring societies. Many anthropologists have previously remarked on this pattern. As Lawrence Keeley wrote in his volume War Before Civilization (1996), "Most of these peaceful societies were recently defeated refugees living in isolation, lived under a "king's peace" enforced by a modern state, or both."

Many of the societies on the UAB 'Peaceful Societies' list have a sad and traumatic history of being killed, exploited and enslaved. Highlighting these societies as paragons of peace – alongside motivational quotes – as though their situations are something to aspire to, seems to me completely inappropriate.