The Non-Violence Myth of Pre-State Societies


Intraspecies Violence

One of Montagu’s theory’s main foundations is hunter-gatherer societies which he writes about:
these people live, more or less clearly approximately the way our ancestors lived during a great part of human evolutionary history, and they afford us some insight into the basic questions of human nature and human culture.

If we are indeed innately violent, if we are really creatures driven by genes to murder our own kind, if we are indeed incapable of controlling the hostile forces within ourselves, we should see these characteristics demonstrated here in these people… and they are peaceful. And friendly. And cooperative. They share their food and their belonging with each other and with strangers. Their relationships with each other are close and loving. They care.”

Like many Rousseauistic romantic anthropologists, his observations of hunter-gatherers societies are extremely biased. Since similar false perceptions are sometimes heard by some animal activists, we find it important to examine these societies from a more critical viewpoint.

Not only that Montagu argues about aggression but writes only about wars, disregarding any other form of aggression, when he writes about wars among pre-state societies he also disregards the fact that their warfare is different than the modern one. For example he writes that: ”It may be taken as the general rule that peoples who are not politically organized are also not given to war, and hunter-gatherer societies lack political organization.“
However, scholars studying small-scale societies are using a much broader definition of war which usually requires 3 elements. The first is violence executed by groups of any size, but not by single individuals (then is it murder). The second is that the violence is between groups belonging to two different political units. The third is that the violence must be approved by the whole or most of the political unit, even if only some of its members carry it out.

As we explained more broadly in the text about the Seville statement, many of the pre-state wars are very similar to wars among chimpanzees, namely, a surprise lethal attack on outnumbered opponents known as “lethal raiding”. Groups of males gather for the explicit purpose of invading a rival group territory, tracking down lone individuals and then ganging up on them and killing them.
Despite that these planed raids are cross-cultural and very common, Montagu argues that “some of these societies have never developed warfare or conquest. However their warfare that does exist in such societies is generally a matter of petty raiding for small economic gain or for purposes of vengeance or prestige”. Right! exactly like organized wars by states only on small scale. If these planed raids, were done by larger groups, he wouldn’t doubt whether they are wars or not. And not only that they are, these small scale planed ambushes are the ones he should look at when examining human natural aggression. They are wars’ ancestors made by human’s ancestors. Culture by no doubt altered warfare but it didn’t invent it.

One example of Montagu’s constant mix of war with violence and with aggression, is the Kalahari desert people called the !Kung, who were at some point, many anthropologists’ model for a simple, peaceful, and nonviolent society. Indeed, the !Kung don’t tend to conduct wars, but it is mainly since there are only 5 water points in the arid area they live in, so fighting over them is simply too dangerous. But they are definitely not peaceful. Later studies revealed that the !Kung have a homicide rate higher than that in New York since they solve some of their problems with murder.

Based on the works of ethnographers (who recorded demographic data, including deaths over long stretches of time), and archaeologists, (who studied prehistoric skeletons in burial sites and museum collections, checking for the kinds of damage known to be left by human assaults), in his book “The Better Angles of Our Nature“, Steven Pinker specifies some violence figures among non-state societies. He argues that hunter-gatherers and other foraging societies he categorizes as non-state, are far more violent than state societies. We find this conclusion very arguable (a post regarding the book is the following topic of this series), we don’t think that non-state societies are more violent than state societies, as he does. However, the data itself is indisputable. There is no doubt that pre-state societies are violent and definitely not inherently peaceful as Montagu and other Rousseauistic romantic anthropologists argue.


Additional evidence is based on the work of Richard Steckel and John Wallis who analyzed data of 900 skeletons of Native Americans, distributed from southern Canada to South America, all of whom died before the arrival of Columbus. They divided the skeletons into hunter-gatherers and city dwellers, the latter from the civilizations in the Andes and Mesoamerica such as the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayans. The proportion of hunter-gatherers that showed signs of violent trauma were 13.4% compared with 2.7% among city dwellers.

According to two ethnographic surveys, 65 to 70 percent of hunter-gatherer groups are at war at least every two years and 90 percent engage in war at least once a generation.

And these high figures were possibly much higher in the past since hunter-gatherer groups we observe today may be historically unrepresentative.

Steven Pinker explains why: “We find them in parched deserts or frozen wastelands where no one else wants to live, and they may have ended up there because they can keep a low profile and vote with their feet whenever they get on each other’s nerves. As Van der Dennen comments, “Most contemporary ‘peaceful’ foragers . . . have solved the perennial problem of being left in peace by splendid isolation, by severing all contacts with other peoples, by fleeing and hiding, or else by being beaten into submission, by being tamed by defeat, by being pacified by force.” For example, the !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert, who in the 1960s were extolled as a paradigm of hunter-gatherer harmony, in earlier centuries had engaged in frequent warfare with European colonists, their Bantu neighbors, and one another, including several all-out massacres.

The anthropologist Kim Hill, studied homicide in two tribes for over 15 years, interviewing all living men and women. He recorded 317 intentional violent deaths and 68 humans who disappeared and were never seen again, in combined population of less than 1,000 people, over a century. The following are the prevalence of reasons:

93 Infanticide
45 Child Homicide
10 Euthanasia
8 Suicide
5 Spousal Homicide
11 Homicide
9 Ritual duel
4 Intra-Tribal Warfare/Feud
133 Inter-Tribal Warfare

More indications of hunter-gatherer societies being far from peaceful are that many of them glorify wars and warriors. Usually successful warriors have more wives and children, and in some societies young men who had not killed, are rarely married. A success in battles, grants high status for the warriors whom all are men.

In many cave paintings for example, shields can be seen, meaning some of them are of war scenes (that is of course in addition to the abundant paintings of weapons and violent scenes directed at nonhumans, which most humans speciesistly don’t even consider as violence, a disregard which is the topic of the second part of this text).

One of the things that drives intergroup conflict is ethnocentrism which is also culturally universal. Most ethnographers report that hunter-gatherers see themselves as the people – we are the people and others are not quite people, they say.

Usually the peaceful relations between hunter-gatherer groups occur when the neighbors are of their own society, meaning the same ethno-linguistic groups. But when the neighbors are different ethno-linguistic groups, violence is much more frequent. They kill members of other societies without provocation but as part of planed raiding, attacking in an imbalanced power.

But that is not always the case. In his latest book the world until yesterday, Jared Diamond argues that in many cases it is exactly the opposite:
Among so-called trade relations, neighboring societies may actually exchange goods at prices and exchange rates varying along a continuum from real trade (mutually voluntary exchanges between equally strong parties at fair prices), through “extortion” (unequal exchanges at unfair prices between a strong and a weak party, whereby the weak party gives up goods at low prices so as to buy peace), to raiding (one party “supplies” goods and the other party gives nothing in exchange, whenever one party’s weakness enables the other to raid and thereby to obtain goods for no price at all). Famous “raiders,” such as the Apache of the U.S. Southwest and the Tuareg of northern Africa’s deserts, actually practiced a sophisticated mixture of such fair trade, extortion, and raiding, depending on the capacity of their partners at the moment to defend themselves.”

Feuding is also universal. All male foragers are prone to take blood revenge for the death of a kinsman. Retaliatory killing is cross cultural and very fundamental in humans. Chimps do it on the individual level but humans have developed it to the group level.

Raiding for trophies is also very widespread. In many cases these “trophies” are women.

The Nuer for example who occasionally raid the Dinka, kill the men and club to death the babies and older women, but kidnap the women of marriageable age to force-marry to Nuer men, and also, Dinka weaned children are brought home to rear as Nuer.

The Yanomamo, who live in the forests along the border between Brazil and Venezuela near the headwaters of the Orinoco and the Rio Negro rivers, also “spared” women in order to use them as mates. Warfare and male bravado play a very conspicuous role in their communities. They are virtually making perpetual war against one another. 33% Yanomamo male deaths are caused by wounds received in battle. Moreover, the Yanomamo practice an especially brutal form of male supremacy involving frequent wife beating, and gang rape of captured enemy women.

For other societies like the Pacific Northwest Native Americans, and the Calusa from the southwest coast, defeated enemies were of no value alive. War’s goal among the Dani, Fore, Northwest Alaskan Inuit, Andaman Islanders, and many other tribes was to take over the enemy’s land and to exterminate the enemy of both sexes and all ages.

The Iroquois, who inhabited the Hudson river, are also well-known for their incessant warfare as well as their merciless treatment of prisoners of war. Captives were forced to run a gauntlet, their fingernails were pulled out and their limbs were hacked off, and they were finally decapitated or roasted alive at the stake after which their remains were consumed in cannibalistic feasts.

Small-scale societies go to war not only to acquire women as wives, but also to acquire other individuals for other purposes. Jared Diamond mentions a few:
The long list of head-hunting peoples that went to war to capture and kill enemies for their heads included the Asmat and Marind in New Guinea, the Roviana people in the Solomon Islands, and various peoples of Asia, Indonesia, the Pacific islands, Ireland, Scotland, Africa, and South America. Cannibalistic peoples who ate captured or dead enemies included Caribs, some peoples of Africa and the Americas, some New Guineans, and many Pacific islanders. Capture of enemies to use them as slaves was practiced by some complex chiefdoms and tribal societies such as northwest New Guineans, western Solomon Islanders, Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and Florida, and West Africans.”

Montagu argues along the book that humans are far more cooperative than aggressive. But not only that these traits are not contradictive, many argue for a strong connection between them.
Many researchers argue that humans have become more cooperative because of wars, since for one group to overcome another it takes as many participants as possible and for them to cooperate on a high level. Humans have become more cooperative since groups who didn’t succeed in cooperation lost battles.
Coalitional violence is of special interest to evolutionary biologists because all group members share the benefits of winning a battle. Since multiple group members must cooperate in high risk to win, there is always a temptation to free ride, meaning to hang by while other individuals die for the group instead. The cooperative mechanism that has developed, which solved this free ride problem, may be applied to other aspects of human lives as well, explaining the highly cooperative character of humans with non-kin. So humans’ lethal violence appears to represent an evolutionary irony. The cruelest humans’ behaviors may turn out to be causally related to the cooperative tendency of humans.

This leads us to the most violent expression of humans’ coalitional violence which is not wars but hunting and other forms of relations humans maintain with other species. Violence that both the Rousseauistic and the hobbesians systematically ignore.

Interspecies Violence

Human traits that Montagu and others view as positive and even idolized such as high adaptability, ingenuity and cooperation constitute humans’ violent global domination.
Biologically ill-adapted to predation (lacking claws, large fangs, great speed or muscle power), humans invented various weapons which expanded their prey size and their hunting range.

The following is a short introduction of the conceptual common hunting methods defined by anthropologists and archeologists:
“Disadvantage: includes any technique that limits the escape of an animal or exploits an animal naturally disadvantaged to gain time or access so that a weapon can be employed. Game drives were included if the expressed aim was to force the animal into a handicapped position in which the weapon was applied. Examples include impeding animals by driving them into water, deep snow, or mud; treeing an animal or forcing it into a defensive stance with dogs; or attacking an animal during hibernation in its den.

Disadvantaging allows a spear to be applied repeatedly against an animal incapable of escaping, so even the largest animals can be dispatched once disadvantaged.
Ambush: involves instances in which hunters wait in hiding, whether behind man-made blinds or natural features, for animals to pass within effective range of their weapons. Drives were considered ambushing if the intent was to force animals past concealed hunters.

Ambushing is also effective with larger, slower prey, allowing the hunter more time to place a spear thrust or throw before the animal moves away.
Approach: includes stalking free-moving animals to within effective weapon range. The object of approach hunting is to avoid evoking the prey’s flight response before the hunter is within effective weapon range. Luring of animals was also included in this category.
For example both the Tiwi (Melville Island, Australia) and Tasmanians were reported to hand throw very thin and light spears during approach hunting of wallabies and kangaroo.
Pursuit: entails chasing an animal to overtake it and place the hunter within effective weapon range or to exhaust and thus disadvantage it. With pursuit hunting the weapon system is used after the animal has taken flight, and, in some cases (running an animal to exhaustion), the flight response is used as an aid to capture. Pursuit may involve domesticated animals such as horses to close the distance between hunter and prey or dogs to keep the animal moving until exhaustion.

Cases of pursuit with thrusting spears involved either the use of horses (to close the gap between mounted hunter and fleeing prey), dogs (to catch the animal and then hold it at bay), or a hot and dry environment where endurance pursuit tactics could be employed.
Encounter: refers to hunting in which animals are taken, either jumped from the bush or spotted in trees, as they are encountered. Hunters are often within effective weapon range when the animal is found and often do not pursue the animals if they move out of range.

The encounter hunting, which is primarily directed at smaller prey, a bow and arrow is an effective shock weapon capable of bringing down an animal struck anywhere on the body.
In the rest of the methods the bow and arrow is used “surgically,” directed towards the thoracic cavity with the goal of striking a vital organ and inducing death by hemorrhage. The ability to use it in this way makes the bow and arrow effective against even large animals, if they manage to shot an arrow precisely between ribs or behind the shoulder blade.“

And the following are specific examples of specific societies:
The waorani tribe of the Ecuadorian rain forest hunt caimans by beating them with sticks, peccary pigs by stabbing them with spears and piranhas with poisoned arrows who they specially carve so they‘ll break inside the fishes’ bodies when they struggle to take them out.
They also like honey so they take advantage of rainy days in which it is harder for the bees to fly and to cooperate, and cut down trees with bee hives when some humans drive away the bees while others steal the honey.
But the waorani people are most famous for their “artisan” use of blowguns which they use to hunt spider monkeys.
They cut down the nearby trees to spook the monkeys and start chasing them through the jungle. They cooperate to block optional escape routes and they try to get close enough to shot arrows, smeared with muscle paralyzing poison, at them. Sometimes the monkeys are severely injured from blows they get while falling down from very high branches, until they die from blood loss or from the poison.


The waorani people are most famous for their “artisan” use of blowguns which they use to hunt monkeys

The San People of the Kalahari desert, also known as bushman (and among them are the earlier mentioned !kung), hunt using probably the most horrible hunting technique – persistence hunt. The animals these humans want to hunt are much faster than they are, but for the long term humans can better handle the extreme heat and dryness so they isolate individuals and chase them until they collapse. It can take several long and exhausting days of frightened scuttle until they break down.

They also hunt giraffes, antelopes, duiker and Guinea fowls with poisoned arrows. The poison preferred by the San people comes from a specific larva of a leaf beetle. It inhibits the blood’s ability to carry oxygen to the cells and slowly paralyzes the muscles. They ambush water holes, putting the poor animals in a cruel dilemma – unbearable fear or unbearable thirst. When they give in to their thirst they are murdered by the hunters.

The famous human ingenuity and cooperation can be seen in their porcupine hunt, which is particularly horrible since their underground dens are almost impregnable. The hunters come during the day while these nightly rodents are asleep, dig small vents above their dens for their spears, and stab the porcupines over and over until they run in panic out of their dens, where other hunters await them.

In the San culture, a boy becomes a man when he brings home his first kill. It is his initiation into the tribe. Not gathering but hunting (and not girls, but boys only – egalitarianism is another myth about hunter-gatherers).

The Jahai people from Malaysia also hunt monkeys with blowguns. They smear their arrows with a poison that stops the heart in a few minutes or hours, depended on the hit location and the shot animal.
They also cooperate to hunt porcupines. The humans seal all the dens’ outlets except one which they ambush while another human is smoking the den until the suffocated porcupines have to escape although they know at that point that someone awaits them outside. When they go out they are speared by the ambushing humans. Some suffocate to death inside the den.
The Jahai catch fishes too. They use tree trunk containing rotenone poison which prevent cells from getting oxygen. They scatter this poison in the lake and later pick up all the dead that float. The lake is considered poisonous for 3 days.

The people from the Samburu tribe from Kenya and the Maasai took animals’ exploitation and violent cooperation to the next level by herding cattle. They force skinny cows to live in extremely arid areas, walking long distances to the few wells of the territory. One of their most important nutritional parts is cows’ blood mixed with their milk. A bunch of humans forcefully subdue a cow while one of them pierces a vein in her neck with an arrow. Each time each cow struggles and cries in vain.


The Samburu people pierce a vein in cow’s neck and drink their blood mixed with their milk

They don’t murder the cows since they are worth more alive than dead, but they do kill every other animal around including goats which they also herd. When doing so, the meat division is one with a strict hierarchical precision. The chiefs and aged are getting the head, the worriers the ribs and hind legs, the married women get the internal organs and the bachelors and children the leftovers. That goes to show that hierarchy is a very significant element in hunter-gatherer societies, and more importantly that meat is a very significant element in these societies. There is no such hierarchy when it comes to eating plants.

Every once in a while the cows are taken to new pasture. The journeys are long and tiring including hard mountain scaling. The calves are in severe danger of dehydration.
At night they imprison the cows in circular enclosure with thorn fence against predators but the cows are its main victims since they stressfully respond to every sound.

The Solomon Islanders hunt sharks on kanus. They call the sharks to their boat, using a rattler made of a coconut shell which its sound travels far and fast in the water. The sharks are very sensitive to sound waves in water and so mistake it with fishes in distress.
To lure the sharks, the Islanders use fishes as live baits. They attain them by spear fishing which means diving into water and throwing spears at fishes. Some are used as live bait and some are eaten. They tie the fishes to a very long line they throw to the water while waiting on the boat. When the sharks are hooked, they pull them to the surface of the water and then kill them.

The peak of the Solomon Islanders’ cooperation is during common fishing. Many villagers are building together a huge fishes trap made of vines they collect. They create a very long stretch of it and take it with them to the coral reefs during the low tide when the fishes are most visible and vulnerable. Then they create a loop to trap fishes inside it, tiding it around them. It is not a physical barrier but the combination of the wrestling, kicking, shouting and trashing of the humans, that makes the fishes extremely stressed and therefore they squeeze together inside the vine circle trap.
Once the vine circle is small enough, they put a net underneath it and bring up all the caught fishes.

The Islanders also hunt on land. They set traps using coconuts in the forest to catch giant crabs called Coconut Crabs who are going out at night to look for coconuts.

The Mongolian kazakhas can’t survive in the cold Altai mountains so they hunt foxes to use their skins. It is hard to hunt foxes by their own so they do it with golden eagles. The eagles are caught young and trained for years. They hunt until the age of ten and then they are released to the wild to breed. They spend most of their time in darkness except when they are sent to attack. Humans keep a hood on the birds because they want them calm in routine and fervent when hunting so they take off their mask when they send them to attack.

When they cooperate to hunt, two humans on horses are the “flashers”, meaning they will make the foxes or wolves run for their lives in the valley while two other humans are waiting with the eagles on their arms waiting to hunt them down. “Their” horses are forced to climb extremely steep hills which are also extremely hard and dangerous to go down afterwards.

Survival in the Altai mountains was only made possible by domesticating animals like goats, sheeps, cows, camels and horses which they use for everything, work, milk, leather, hunting and even meat. There are no trees so there is no wood, so they burn dry animal dung to warm themselves.

It is a very dry place so they carry huge chunks of ice to later melt and drink. Of course they don’t carry the heavy ice, that’s why they keep camels.

Since there are many wolves in the area, every evening about a thousand goats are packed and moved before sunset into a large stone enclosure guarded by dogs.

So for humans to survive in nature they use goats for milk, meat and wool and since they “need to be herd” they are using horses and dogs and also murder the ‘enemy’ wolves with trained eagles. And all of that suffering is done to support one family.

The Namal tribe lives in Tanna islands between Australia to Fiji Islands. They hunt everyone who lives on the island including wild pigs since they mate with “their” domesticated pigs that they imprison to regularly use.

Fruit bats are hunted with bow and arrow and flying fox bats are hunted by throwing heavy sticks on them in the twilight which is the ”perfect” time since they are busy eating. Children are practicing being cruel to bats by being cruel to birds, shooting small rocks at them with slingshots.

And their version of violent cooperation is their fishing method of crabs, shrimps and eels. They create a small pool using rocks which they keep draining until the “loot” is left to suffocate on the dried rocks.

Steven Pinker mentions in the better angles of our nature that “Pets” too are treated harshly:
a recent cross-cultural survey found that half the traditional cultures that keep dogs as pets kill them, usually for food, and more than half abuse them. Among the Mbuti of Africa, for example, the hunting dogs, valuable as they are, get kicked around mercilessly from the day they are born to the day they die. When I asked an anthropologist friend about the treatment of animals by the hunter-gatherers she had worked with, she replied: “That is perhaps the hardest part of being an anthropologist. They sensed my weakness and would sell me all kinds of baby animals with descriptions of what they would do to them otherwise. I used to take them far into the desert and release them, they would track them, and bring them back to me for sale again!”

The Pygmies and the Yanguere of the N’gotto rainforest in central Africa hunt using leg traps. They place dozens of them in the forest and check each every 4 days. Meaning, animals are sometimes get trapped for 4 days before humans come to murder them.
Another common trap they use is a sticks fence forcing animals who walk by to step on a trigger that operate a wire noose which strangles them to death.

The Pygmies cooperate to hunt large mammals, especially monkeys, using huge nets. One group of humans hold the nets together while other humans’ role is to cause a lot of noise and panic in the woods so all the animals would run and in the chaos some would run straight to the huge nets. Then all the humans beat them to death together.


The Inuit use harpoons to hunt seals. They ambush them near the breathing holes they make in the ice and stab them. Once the harpoon is pulled out its detachable head is locked in the body of the victim causing excruciating pain.
A child is considered a man only after he kills a polar bear. This is their initiation.
They also use dogs to carry their heavy belongings including themselves on sleds of course. Each night one of them is tied in front of the igloo to guard it in the Arctic freezing night.

The Sami people are also from the arctic and they are famous for their reindeer exploitation. They use them for meat – 90% of their nutrition is from reindeers, cover – they make cloths, beds and blankets of their skins, and servitude as they carry all of their belongings.

Once a year they force their herd to a very long and hard journey called the annual reindeer roundup.
It takes between 3 to 9 days with the purpose of moving to a new pasture. In many cases they face snowstorms and the young die on the way. The dogs constantly intimidate them to stay gathered. And one of their most frightening obstacles is a river they are forced to cross.
The herds of all the families, several thousands of reindeers, march together. But of course the “property” “needs” to be marked to show rightful ownership. So the humans are using a lasso to subdue the reindeers and when they do, each “owner” makes a unique cut on each reindeer ears with a knife while they are totally conscious and with no analgesic being used.
Each reindeer also goes through a physical checkup including the teeth. They all resist humans as if they are in a life danger, and some really are as the old and weak are slaughtered.


The Baka people of Cameron are known for carving their teeth to a sharper shape so they can eat meat easily and since it is an important status symbol. They hunt antelopes by imitating their young distress call, attracting the worried adults and then kill them.

They also hunt turtles. After finding them in the forest, they rub their belly so they’ll come out of their shell and then they tie their legs so they can’t run away.

Turtles are hunted in many hunter-gatherer societies. A Web site for Native American cuisine includes the following genuine recipe:



One turtle

One campfire


Put a turtle on his back on the fire

When you hear the shell crack, he’s done

Obviously, it is not that modern society relations with animals are better, as you all know it is much worse. But you have to be extremely speciesist to ignore so much violence inflicted on animals by these “non-violent” people. Human violence (in general, and towards animals specifically), is as old as humanity. Humans would do to animals everything that crosses their minds if they gain something of it no matter if it is material, or not, like dominance, boredom, rituals, fun, power, prestige, relaxation or whatever. As in the present time, so it was in the past, or more accurately, nowadays it is like it has always been. Only a lot worse, and done to many more animals.

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