Tag Archives: sociobiology

Tribal warfare, anthropology, and the Awajún

Awajún protestors with spears near Bagua, Peru, 2009
Awajún protesters with spears near Bagua, Peru, 2009

One of the biggest challenges of writing Upriver was finding a way to talk about the history of Awajún interpersonal violence and warfare without falling into the rhetorical traps that afflict contemporary debates about tribal societies. Tribal violence is an intensely polarizing topic among anthropologists, a situation famously expressed in the nasty point/ counterpoint over Napoleon Chagnon’s books on the Yanomami people of Brazil and Venezuela.  Others have leveled similar criticism at the work of Jared Diamond.  I had hoped, perhaps naively, to stay out of this crossfire.

Anthropologists influenced by sociobiology and evolutionary psychology often accept tribal violence as an intrinsic or at least widely distributed aspect of non-state societies.  Some focus on the selective reproductive advantage allegedly conferred on violent men in such societies (assuming that they aren’t killed first by their ever-widening circle of enemies!).  Anthropologists committed to this position are likely to foreground high levels of interpersonal violence and to accept uncritically the notion that it is ubiquitous.

Opposed to this perspective are two main counter-arguments that sometimes interweave:

  • Many, perhaps even most, tribal peoples found to have high levels of conflict-related mortality are essentially victims of expansionist colonial states. This argument is compellingly laid out in the SAR Press volume War in the Tribal Zone: Expanding States and Indigenous Warfare, edited by R. Brian Ferguson and the late Neil Whitehead, published in 1992.  (Full disclosure: my friend Eduardo Fernández and I contributed a chapter to this book: PDF here.)  The argument is that colonial expansion destabilizes local mechanisms for keeping the peace, provides access to more lethal weapons, introduces valuable trade items, such as steel tools, that foster competition between communities, and creates a situation in which tribal groups become pawns in a colonial game (e.g., via “ethnic soldiering”).
  • Regardless of whether tribal peoples are warlike, their endangered status trumps public discussion of violence by anthropologists. In other words, today they are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it. Making a big deal about the violent tendencies of a given tribal people is morally repugnant because (1) it gives states an excuse to persecute them and (2) it continues the colonialist tradition of “othering” peoples whose rights and cultural values continue to be trampled upon.

Both of these arguments are marshaled by Stephen Corry in a take-down of Steven Pinker and his book The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Finding middle ground in this ideological duel is challenging. The “tribal zone” model has compelling evidence to back it up. And it’s fair to say that some of Pinker’s evidence has been cherry-picked to support his argument that small-scale societies are significantly more violent than modern nation-states.  (PDF of R. Brian Ferguson’s analysis of the evidence is downloadable here.)

That said, it strikes me as implausible to contend that tribal peoples rarely fight one another or that the well-documented existence of warrior cultures in Amazonia, Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere is entirely an effect of state expansion. Whatever the root causes of violence, many small-scale societies have developed elaborate mechanisms to foster and institutionalize aggression against other communities. These values are encoded in rituals, myths, and everyday behaviors.  When such situations are encountered, it seems reasonable for anthropologists to report and analyze them in a balanced way.  Sweeping unwelcome facts under the rug for political reasons raises serious ethical questions in a discipline that aspires to some degree of objectivity.  (Whether anthropology does still aspire to objectivity is a matter of debate.)

What makes the Awajún case different from many others is that the Awajún celebrate their history of feisty independence.  To the extent that they are violent today, it is mostly in defense of their lands and way of life.  And thus far, their resistance has provided some protection from a predatory state.  Not enough, certainly, but some.