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People have often found solutions other than violence

WAR / Is man fundamentally violent? History does not show exactly that. We have several examples of large societies in prehistory showing few traces of war and authoritarian rule.


Must there always be war in the world? The bombs rain down Gaza, the Russian invasion is taking more and more lives in Ukraine, and the relationship between USA and China is mildly tense. NATO have for a long time listened to the claim that evolution has given us a one-way ticket to war, brutality and authoritarian forms of government. After this claim, all thoughts of peace and reconciliation are, as NATO adviser Christopher Coker put it, a dream that is both naive and dangerous. Similar thoughts support imperialism, militarization and authoritarian forces in both East and West.

But this is challenged by new studies in archeology and anthropology.

The ability to collaborate is and always has been a decisive factor.

The idea that man is fundamentally predisposed to war has deep roots. In the 1600th century, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that it is natural for humans to fight with each other over food and other resources. Therefore, he believed that the world would collapse into war and chaos if authoritarian rulers did not keep us in check.

The Stone Age

Some believe that the Stone Age began around 2,5 million years ago, when the first primates began making stone tools. Others believe that the Stone Age began when modern man arose, around 300 years ago. According to the latter estimate, the Stone Age is 000 times longer than all other parts of human history combined. Thus, the Stone Age can be essential for anyone who wants to say something about human evolution and nature.

We have few traces of war in the Stone Age. This does not mean that there was no violence in the Stone Age, but it does indicate that violence was not as decisive for evolution as has long been believed. Rather, more and more researchers emphasize that the ability to collaborate is and always has been a decisive factor.

Critical voices will object that most people in the Stone Age lived in small groups. At least since the 1800th century, scientists have believed that war and authoritarian leadership will necessarily arise as soon as a society reaches a certain size. That argument is outdated. Firstly, Stone Age societies were not necessarily as small as many people think. Secondly, we have several examples of large societies in prehistory showing few traces of war and authoritarian rule. Ancient Mesopotamia was long considered a sort of cradle of dictatorship. New studies, which the anthropologist D. Graeber and the archaeologist D. Wengrow made available to the public in the book The Dawn of Everything from 2021, suggests that even large Mesopotamian city-states were governed by various forms of democracy. In some cases, such democracies lasted for several hundred years – longer than many of the violent kingdoms we know from historical times.

The Viking Age

One reason why the past often seems more violent than it was is that we tend to give the most attention to the eras with the most violence. We see this, among other things, by comparing the Viking Age (approximately 800-1000 AD) with the pre-Roman Iron Age in Norway (approximately 500 BC to year 0).

In the Viking Age it was a violent ideology, at least in the parts of society that we know about from written sources. In comparison, we have very few signs that violence was idealized in the pre-Roman Iron Age. The Viking Age receives massive attention both in research and in popular culture. Pre-Roman Iron Age, on the other hand, I would think that many readers have hardly heard of, even though the pre-Roman Iron Age lasted twice as long as the Viking Age.

Peaceful relations

We have traces of violence and war from prehistory on all continents, but we also have periods of apparently peaceful conditions. Graeber and Wengrow argue that the eras of relatively peaceful conditions often lasted longer than the warlike eras. In addition, they believe that some of the wars in prehistory were quite theatrical. We have long known that wars between Aboriginal groups in Australia could end with a few dead on each side, and that the aim of the war was not strictly to kill each other. Graeber and Wengrow see signs of similar tendencies in large parts of prehistory.

The eras of relatively peaceful conditions often lasted longer than the warlike eras.

There is little reason to believe that violence was as crucial to evolution as some researchers have assumed. There have probably always been conflicts, but people have often found solutions other than violence.

At the moment, political advisers and leaders in both East and West are listening to realpolitik hypotheses that it is natural for humans to resort to violence. In the long term, we can hope that they will listen to the facts about prehistory, which give a far more complex and nuanced picture of human development.

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