Sunday Thoughts: Are Humans Born To Engage In War?

In early 2016, the journal Nature reported the discovery of skeletons of 27 men, women and children in Nataruk, Kenya, a find which was believed to be the oldest known evidence of prehistoric warfare. It was said to demonstrate that even when we existed in isolated bands roaming across vast, unsettled continents, we showed capacity for hostility, violence and barbarism.

“The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war,” lead author Marta Mirazon Lahr, a paleoanthropologist at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement.

She added in an interview with the Smithsonian, “What we see at the prehistoric site of Nataruk is no different from the fights, wars and conquests that shaped so much of our history, and indeed sadly continue to shape our lives.”

Shortly after the bones were unearthed, the New York Times editorial board argued that even if the discovery shows violence and war is nothing new, it does not mean that the future must always be one marked by neighbors killng neighbors.

“If warfare is indeed common from the dawn of human history, does that suggest that we will never cease fighting? Not necessarily. A propensity for violence, even if it is innate, has been more than matched throughout our existence by a preference for peace — a fact the bones of the victims of the battle of Nataruk cannot show,” wrote the editors.

The answer to the question of whether humans have always gone to war is important to find and one which is addressed in a lengthier piece by Sarah Peacey in The Conversation.

“Might a willingness to fight neighbouring groups have provided our ancestors with an evolutionary advantage? With conflicts raging across the globe, these questions have implications for understanding our past, and perhaps our future as well,” she writes.

An examination of warfare throughout history does not provide a clear answer, but Peacey does find some hope.

“It’s difficult to conclude that prehistory was free from intergroup aggression. Military historian Azar Gat and evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker, among others, argue that warfare existed before the agricultural revolution. Pinker also claims that violence has overall decreased over the centuries. This may seem difficult to believe given the gloomy headline news in 2016, but such a zoomed-out view of history at least suggests hope for the future,” she concludes.

A similar strain of examination is pursued by Gemma Tarlach in a recent issue of Discover magazine. In that article, Tarlach cites the discovery in Kenya as one of the 20 things we know about violence, a list which attempts to answer whether humans are “hardwired” to be violent.


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