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Tribal feud body counts: help me out here

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2008, on the World Wide Web.

Dear LazyWeb,

Jared Diamond makes the following claim in [his recent article on tribal blood feuds in New Guinea:

Without state government, war between local groups is chronic; co?@c3;b6;peration between local groups on projects bringing benefits to everyone—such as large-scale irrigation systems, free rights of travel, and long-distance trade—becomes much more difficult; and even the frequency of murder within a local group is higher. It's true, of course, that twentieth-century state societies, having developed potent technologies of mass killing, have broken all historical records for violent deaths. But this is because they enjoy the advantage of having by far the largest populations of potential victims in human history; the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot.

— Jared Diamond, The New Yorker (2008-04-21): Vengeance is Ours

I don’t think that anything interesting about anarchism turns on where this factoid comes from or whether it’s true. (It’s not as if I’m suggesting personal vendetta or communal blood feud as the anarchistic replacement for state court systems. Anarchy as I understand it is an achievement for the future, not a recovery of the past.) But it is a very strong claim, which Diamond asserts without providing a citation to the source for these figures or an explanation of how they were calculated. Presumably he has a particular source, but I’m curious as to what it is.

Anyone know a likely anthropological source for this factoid, or for factoids in the general neighborhood? Help me out here.

16 replies to Tribal feud body counts: help me out here Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. william

    it’s funny, I’m republishing some of David Graeber’s work as we speak.

  2. Jeremy

    Yeah, Adam was beating me over the head with that quote on Salon Liberty. I’m interested in its pedigree as well.

  3. steven

    Even if Jared’s tale is true, it is still not a valid justification for forcing peaceful, rights respecting individuals to support and submit to associations that they do not consent to.

  4. Rad Geek


    I agree. My interest in finding out what his source for the claim is has to do with empirical curiosity, not because I think that the factoid, if true and accurately explained, has any real bearing on the issue of anarchism, or really even on the general nature of pre-state tribal societies (as opposed to the handful of surviving societies like that that are available for the inspection of contemporary anthropologists).

  5. JJH2

    I remember hearing a while ago that the homicide rate in tribal societies was around 30% of the population, so I did some googling around that theme…

    My best guess is that Diamond’s assertions come largely from a 1996 book called “War Before Civilization” by Lawrence H. Keeley, which argues that warfare was far more pervasive than has been recently thought in “premodern” societies.

    Secondarily, I find a lot of loose references to the work of anthropologist John Patton who has lived with and studied the Achuar of Ecuador, whose men apparently have a 50% chance of dying of homicide. I can’t seem to find any of his original work (his Univ of Fullerton website is useless), but there are links to a couple of popular articles about his work.

  6. Bob Kaercher

    Diamond’s reasoning is, um, interesting, to say the least. I don’t know much about the subject either, but is it even possible to estimate such a thing as the percentage of people who died violently in pre-state societies? Did pre-state societies even keep such records?

    I just love it when writers for major magazines casually toss out little nuggets like that without offering any kind of reference to back it up.

  7. Bob Kaercher

    Thanks, JJH2. For Some reason, I didn’t see your post before I typed my question.

  8. steven

    Charles, I know what you meant. It’s just that for me, a fairly recent convert from advocate of limited government to advocate of market anarchy, it felt so damn good to state what is now obvious to me.

    I’m sure you can understand.

  9. John

    Rad Geek and others,

    Thinking about what Jared Diamond claims and what JH2 cited above, maybe the theory that pre-Statist tribes were even more warlike and homicidal does have some bearing on the issue of anarchism. Not its complete moral correctness, but on its evolution and implementation. I’m thinking of what Herbert Spencer said:

    “It is a mistake to assume that government must necessarily last forever. The institution marks a certain stage of civilization–is natural to a particular phase of human development. It is not essential, but incidental. As amongst the Bushmen we find a state antecedent to government, so may there be one in which it shall have become extinct.”

    I don’t really know what Diamond’s “findings” or Spencer’s thought on the Statist stage of civilization imply, but maybe anarcho-capitalism will be better implemented as an ascension from Statism than as pre-State tribalism. Also, primitives didn’t really have capitalism or widespread division of labor, which definitely does not require the State, but we do have those now, so it’s irresponsible to claim that future anarchist societies would devolve into their pre-historic (tribal and non-capitalistic) conditions without states to keep the economy and the courts going.

  10. Soviet Onion


    I have no idea as to Diamond’s source, but reading this immediately reminded me of Bruce Benson’s writing on the Kapuaku Papuans, who live the same area of New Guinea and could very well be the people in question. His views, and those of the anthropologists he cites, suggest at least a milder interpretation:

    Popisil observed 176 dispute resolutions involving “difficult cases”: only 5 led to stick fights and 1 resulted in war

    Bensons two articles containing the subject, “Enforcement of Private Property Rights in Primitive Societies” and the more concise “The Enterprise of Customary Law” are available on the Molinari Institute website.


    Welcome aboard.

  11. Rad Geek


    I don’t really know what Diamond’s findings or Spencer’s thought on the Statist stage of civilization imply, but maybe anarcho-capitalism will be better implemented as an ascension from Statism than as pre-State tribalism.

    There’s a lot I disagree with here (as there pretty much always is in any theory that posits a series of very general stages along which all societies progress or regress, or in any theory which excuses force against peaceful people parties in order to restrain the crimes of unrelated third parties).

    But setting most of that aside, what I’d want to stress is that this doesn’t follow unless there are no social processes other than State law and politics that could transform a blood-feud culture into a culture that solves disputes in some less lethal way. If there are any other processes that might pull off the same transformation, then that undermines the claim that the State represents any kind of necessary intermediate stage. But as an empirical matter, I know that there are other ways for that transformation to occur; for a historical example, see the medieval Icelandic law and civil society institutions, which were not imposed through a centralized political authority, and which did emerge in the context of what had been a fairly belligerent feuding culture. That succeeded fairly well in transforming into a culture where disputes were primarily resolved through public arbitration and private negotiation. (As well as transforming the violence that did remain from clan-based blood feuds into much more limited, less communal personal vendettas.) But if they found a non-statist path out of feuding, then I expect that other cultures might very well find the same way, or yet other ways that are worth pursuing.

  12. John

    Rad Geek,

    I actually totally agree with you. I’ve read a lot (well, all I could find) about the Icelandic Free State and medieval Ireland. I guess what I’m thinking is that, even though they lasted for a long time, successfully–longer than the United States is going to last as a constitutional republic–they don’t exist as free societies anymore because they devolved into Statism. Whatever they did to achieve anarchist voluntarism, it was great but not permanent. I don’t see any reason that they or other societies have to go through Statism and then return to anarchism in order for anarchism to last. But maybe that’s what will happen. I hope that’s what will happen.

    So perhaps simply as a practical matter, learning from our mistakes as nation-states will make us more averse to making the mistake of Statism again in the future than our ancestors were when they founded government after government everywhere they went.

  13. John Markley

    John, My understanding of the Icelandic situation is that the number of gothi positions was fixed by law, and were eventually consolidated into a few wealthy families. They could be bought and sold, so there was some possibility of new entry, but you couldn’t just enter the business on your own. (The closest modern analogue I can think of is taxi licenses, oddly enough.) Thus, the Free State was ultimately undermined by the remnant statist elements in its constitution.

    As to the broader issue, there is an important “seen and not seen” effect here. If we look at history, we can see states restraining violence and crime (to the extent that they actually do so), but we cannot see what would have happened if our ancestors had successfully developed non-statist means of protecting their societies, since states by their nature will crowd out or violently crush alternatives within their own territories.

  14. Joel Schlosberg

    Steven Pinker is probably the most well-known advocate of the idea that (1) tribal feud/revenge/honor cultures are more violent than modern nation-states, especially when violence is measured in proportion to the total population and (2) that the only practical way to prevent a feud culture is through the state and good old-fashioned Hobbes-style law-and-order. His stuff, including articles like this one and especially the book The Blank Slate, should give you as many relevant citations as you could possibly want. (And yes, he does rely extensively on Keeley.) Some quotes:

    “To begin with, the stories of tribes out there somewhere who have never heard of violence turn out to be urban legends… The !Kung San of the Kalahari Desert had been described by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas as ‘the harmless people’ in a book with that title. But as soon as anthropologists camped out long enough to accumulate data, they discovered that the !Kung San have a murder rate higher than that of American inner cities… Many intellectuals tout the small numbers of battlefield casualties in pre-state societies as evidence that primitive warfare is largely ritualistic. They do not notice that two deaths in a band of fifty people is the equivalent of ten million deaths in a country the size of the United States.” (The Blank Slate p. 56)

    “Contra leftist anthropologists who celebrate the noble savage, quantitative body-counts—such as the proportion of prehistoric skeletons with axemarks and embedded arrowheads or the proportion of men in a contemporary foraging tribe who die at the hands of other men—suggest that pre-state societies were far more violent than our own. It is true that raids and battles killed a tiny percentage of the numbers that die in modern warfare. But, in tribal violence, the clashes are more frequent, the percentage of men in the population who fight is greater, and the rates of death per battle are higher. According to anthropologists like Lawrence Keeley, Stephen LeBlanc, Phillip Walker, and Bruce Knauft, these factors combine to yield population-wide rates of death in tribal warfare that dwarf those of modern times. If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.” (“A History of Violence”)

    “The first is that Hobbes got it right. Life in a state of nature is nasty, brutish, and short, not because of a primal thirst for blood but because of the inescapable logic of anarchy. Any beings with a modicum of self-interest may be tempted to invade their neighbors to steal their resources. The resulting fear of attack will tempt the neighbors to strike first in preemptive self-defense, which will in turn tempt the first group to strike against them preemptively, and so on. This danger can be defused by a policy of deterrence—don’t strike first, retaliate if struck—but, to guarantee its credibility, parties must avenge all insults and settle all scores, leading to cycles of bloody vendetta. These tragedies can be averted by a state with a monopoly on violence, because it can inflict disinterested penalties that eliminate the incentives for aggression, thereby defusing anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating the need to maintain a hair-trigger propensity for retaliation. Indeed, Eisner and Elias attribute the decline in European homicide to the transition from knightly warrior societies to the centralized governments of early modernity. And, today, violence continues to fester in zones of anarchy, such as frontier regions, failed states, collapsed empires, and territories contested by mafias, gangs, and other dealers of contraband.” (“A History of Violence” again)

    “Why don’t we see peridontists or college professors dueling over a parking space? First, they live in a world in which the state has a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. In places beyond the reach of the state, like urban underworlds or rural forntiers, or in times when the state did not exist, like the foraging bands in which we evolved, a credible threat of violence is one’s only protection.” (How the Mind Works p. 497)

    In Shermer’s The Mind and the Market, pp. 201-203, he quotes a very similar statement from Diamond (from Guns, Germs, and Steel) — “Once the threshold of ‘several hundred,’ below which everyone can know everyone else, has been crossed, increasing numbers of dyads become pairs of unrelated strangers. Hence, a large society that continues to leave conflict resolution to all of its members is guaranteed to blow up. That factor alone would explain why societies of thousands can exist only if they develop centralized authority to monopolize force and resolve conflict.” — which he attempts to at least partially refute from a libertarian perspective.

    The Peaceful Societies website is a good resource for data about societies (some tribal, some not) whose nonviolence has been well documented.

    “Update on Saharasia” is Reichian James DeMeo’s response to Keeley’s book.

· May 2008 ·

  1. Rad Geek

    JJH2, Soviet Onion, and Joel,

    Thank you all. That helps quite a bit. My guess based on what you mention is that Diamond is probably drawing mainly from some specific passage by Keeley, Patton, or someone else who makes a specific claim in terms of percentages in the vicinity of 30%-50% lethality.

    Pinker (quoted by Joel):

    Many intellectuals tout the small numbers of battlefield casualties in pre-state societies as evidence that primitive warfare is largely ritualistic. They do not notice that two deaths in a band of fifty people is the equivalent of ten million deaths in a country the size of the United States.

    You’ve just got to love this sort of comparison of percentages between societies with radically different absolute population sizes.

    Apparently, for you to have the equivalent of only one American getting killed, you’d have to have 0.000000167 of a !Kung San man or woman killed. Any time one whole !Kung San man or woman is murdered, it’s like 6,000,000 Americans being murdered. The !Kung San are apparently so savage that every single murder is another Holocaust.

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