historical perspectives, latest, South America
Comments 14

The Return of the Brutal Savage and the Science for War

by Stephen Corry, via CounterPunch


The last few years have seen an alarming increase in claims that tribal peoples have been shown to be more violent than we are. This is supposed to prove that our ancestors were also brutal savages. Such a message has profound implications for how we view human nature – whether or not we see war as innate to the human condition and so, by extension, broadly unavoidable. It also underpins how industrialized society treats those it sees as “backward.” In reality though it’s nothing more than an old colonialist belief, masquerading once again as “science.” There’s no evidence to support it.

The American anthropologist, Napoleon Chagnon, is invariably cited in support of this brutal savage myth. He studied the Yanomami Indians of Amazonia from the 1960s onwards (he spells the tribe “Yanomamö”) and you’d be hard pressed to find a book or article on tribal violence which doesn’t refer to his work. Popular writers such as Steven Pinker and Jared Diamond frequently make much of Chagnon’s thesis, so it’s worth giving a thumbnail sketch of why in reality it proves little about the Yanomami, and nothing about human evolution.

First, it’s important to dispatch a red herring from the murky cauldron being cooked up by the brutal savage promoters: They often point to Darkness in El Dorado, a book by Patrick Tierney, which attacked Chagnon’s work, but went too far. Tierney raised the possibility that one of Chagnon’s colleagues may have deliberately introduced a deadly measles epidemic to the Indians. That simply wasn’t true: In fact, the epidemic was inadvertently started by American missionaries. That Tierney was wrong on this single point is now used to claim that all his and other writers’ criticisms of Chagnon have been discredited. They haven’t. In any case, were a single error deemed to negate a whole thesis, then pretty much all science, as well as journalism, the law and a lot else, falls apart.

Anyway, let’s set Tierney aside. For decades, Napoleon Chagnon’s findings have been rejected by almost all of the many other anthropologists who have worked with the Yanomami, and in most countries his work simply isn’t taught. He had rather faded from anthropology in the United States too, until his recent resurgence as the darling of establishment attitudes.

According to Chagnon, brutality is a key driver of human evolution. How did he come upon such a disturbing “discovery”? Basically, he counted how many Yanomami men boasted that they were unokai and he told us this means they’ve killed people. He then crunched the numbers to show that unokai are similarly successful in love as they are in war, and that by fathering more children than non-killers, they ensure the next generation is as murderous as they are.

As with any sweeping conclusion in human sciences, there are numerous known unknowns. For example, did Yanomami raiding in the 1960s increase through growing pressure from settler or missionary incursions? (After all, Chagnon used the extremist New Tribes Mission to get into the Yanomami.) Did the influx of outside trade goods, including guns, play a role? Such impacts are difficult to analyze, though some believe they were clearly significant.

But the most significant fact, the extraordinary single error that, in this case, does destroy Chagnon’s thesis in one swoop, is something Chagnon doesn’t tell us – unokai does not just mean “killer.” It’s also the status claimed by everyone who’s ever shot an arrow into a dead body during an inter-village raid (most raids stop after one killing). It describes many other individuals as well, including men who’ve killed an animal thought to be a kind of shamanic embodiment of a human, as well as stay-at-homes who try and cast lethal spells. It even includes those who’ve participated in a ritual during their future wife’s puberty (she also becomes unokai). In other words, many unokai haven’t killed anyone. With this simple fact, every one of Chagnon’s conclusions about “killers” falls apart.

But supposing he was right after all, what would his figures show? What percentage of the population are we talking about? Here the brew gets fishier: Chagnon plays fast and loose with his own data. His autobiography, “Noble Savages,” says that “killers” number “approximately 45 percent of all the living adult males.” Yet even according to his own (shaky) data, that is simply not true: Chagnon’s own figures do not show that 45 percent of men are unokai. He has grossly inflated his percentage by ignoring everyone younger than 25, an age group with far fewer claiming unokai status. Were they included, his percentage would plummet.

Chagnon has been asked about this manipulation for years. When he bothers to reply, he claims he’ll publish new supporting data. We’re still waiting.

So there you have it: That’s the poster boy of the “scientific proof” behind the myth of the brutal savage. The fact that Chagnon’s thesis has been repeatedly demolished in scholarly publications for decades is simply ignored by those who want him to be right. For them to dismiss the many Chagnon critics, to pretend that science is on their side, and to chorus sneeringly “noble savages” whenever Chagnon is criticized, is just facile propaganda.

By the way, if you want to know how many unokai (supposed “killers”) Chagnon managed to winkle out during a quarter century of fieldwork with one of Amazonia’s largest tribes – numbering several thousand – the answer is just 137 men. They could all comfortably fit into a single car on the New York subway. How many of those were actually killers? We’ll never know.

That’s the size of the sample group supposedly proving that tribal peoples live in a state of chronic warfare and, by throwing in more red herrings, that our ancestors did so too. The latter assertion is widely promulgated. It goes like this: The Yanomami are a small-scale tribal (non-state) hunting society, our ancestors were the same, so the Yanomami can teach us about our ancestors because they live in a similar way. And yet the theory fails on several points: For example, no one knows the degree to which our distant ancestors scavenged for meat, rather than actively hunted it. That’s quite a different approach to life, and the Yanomami wouldn’t dream of doing it. In any case, a moment’s informed reflection tells you that no one who inhabited the ice age plains of Eurasia, for example, lived remotely like the tropical rainforest Yanomami of Chagnon’s 1960s.

The real story is more obvious, prosaic and simpler than the Chagnon-created “fierce people” and their supposed “chronic” warfare. The truth is that there are some tribal peoples who have a belligerent reputation, others known for avoiding violence as much as possible, and lots in between. That’s nothing to do with any grasping at mythic noble savages, it’s what anthropologists have actually found.

Despite the growing mythology, the archeological record reveals very little evidence of past violence either (until the growth of big settlements, starting around 10,000 years ago). Researchers Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscitelli studied descriptions of 2,930 earlier skeletons from 900 different sites worldwide.

Apart from a single massacre site of two dozen people in the Sudan, they found “but a tiny number of cases of violence in skeletal remains,” and noted how just four sites in Europe “are mentioned over and over by multiple authors” striving to demonstrate the opposite of what the evidence actually reveals. The archeological record before 10,000 years ago, they conclude, in fact “shows that warfare was the rare exception.”

Much of the other “proof” for the brutal savage advanced by Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, and other champions of Chagnon, is rife with the selection and manipulation of facts to fit a desired conclusion.

To call this “science” is both laughable and dangerous. These men are desperate to persuade us that they’ve got “proof” for their opinions, which isn’t surprising as they’re nothing more – opinions based on a narrow and essentially self-serving political point of view. They have proved nothing, except to those who want to believe them.

Does it matter? Yes, very much. How we think of tribal peoples dictates how we treat them. Proponents of Chagnon seek to reestablish the myth of the brutal savage which once underpinned colonialism and its land theft. It’s an essentially racist fiction which belongs in the 19th century and, like a flat earth, should have been discarded generations ago. It’s the myth at the heart of the destruction of tribal peoples and it must be challenged.

It’s not just deadly for tribal peoples: It’s dangerous for all of us. False claims that killing is a proven key factor in our evolution are used to justify, even ennoble, the savagery inherent in today’s world. The brutal savage may be a largely invented creature among tribal peoples, but he is certainly dangerously and visibly real much closer to home.

Visit Survival International’s campaign here.

Stephen Corry has worked with Survival International, the global movement for tribal peoples’ rights, since 1972. The not-for-profit has a San Francisco office. Its public campaign to change conservation can be joined at www.survivalinternational.org/conservation. This is one of a series of articles on the problem.


  1. Seamus Padraig says

    I am no expert on the anthropology of war, but my gut feeling on this one is that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    On the one extreme, you have the ‘bloodthirsty savage’ theories which strike me as obvious imperialist hokum. I believe this line of thinking originally got started to justify invading and conquering what we would now call third-world countries. Of course, if you invade somebody’s country, they are going to fight back if they have any self-respect at all–that is by no means unique to savages.

    On the other extreme, you have the ‘noble savage’ myth which goes back to Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau, as it turned out, had no first-hand knowledge of savages at all, having never left Europe his entire life. Nevertheless, by relying on second-hand reports he got from missionaries and fur-trappers, he felt expert enough on the subject to depict savages as being more enlightened and democratic than his own fellow Europeans. Usually, these people have a bee in their bonnet regarding western culture and tradition, and hold up some hallowed image of the noble savage only for the purpose of defaming our own cultures. This noble savage worship is basically a employed as a rejoinder to those who would argue that any defects in western culture/civ. are owing primarily to generic defects in human nature.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It is difficult to assess the truth because one can never be sure the whole mess of hidden and not-so-hidden agendas behind publication on the subject has been fully untangled.

      However, the following are indisputable:

      1) We have directly observed in historically documented societies stunning brutalities on small and larger scale countless times. The most parsimonious explanation is that human nature has not really changed after the advent of civilization, thus there is no reason to expect anything different from tribal societies, all else equal. The question is whether all else was equal.

      2) The cold hard logic of the evolutionary process is such that one’s survival and the maximization of the number of copies of his genes usually comes at the expense of others. Thus without knowing anything about humans, we would a priori expect them to behave as murderous barbarians in any situation, in which the benefits from doing so outweigh the costs. Which is what has been observed in practice in historic times — if you are a member of the societal elite spending your evenings attending fancy dinners, there is very little incentive for you to go out there and butcher people, because if you do so, you will lose your social status. One the other hand, if you are running a concentration camp in war time, most of the time you can assume there will be no consequences for anything you do, thus elaborate torture, inhumane medical experiments, etc. Or, for a more recent example, if you live in Eastern Congo, where there is no functioning state and nobody to punish you for what you do, you can rape and plunder all you want as long as you can fight off others wanting to do the same.

      In all likelihood, the situation in tribal societies develops depending on that cost-benefit dynamics too — if it pays off to be a brutal savage, then people will behave that way. And that certainly has been the case on numerous occasions, even if it may not have been the universal norm.

      It would have been really nice if we had dependable field observations, but in reality most people reporting on these things have preexisting ideological commitments, making the unreliable witnesses.


      • Jen says

        No one disputes that anthropologists and others studying tribal peoples and societies come with their own sets of ideological biases and commitments. What the article is about is claims coming from scientists about tribal peoples that might pick particular customs or traditions of theirs, and work them into something much bigger than it deserves to be, which can be used to misrepresent their societies as one-dimensional things that those peoples would not recognise. These incorrect ideas are then used to tarnish those peoples and their cultures, all to justify an agenda that involves stealing their lands and resources.

        The examples that you use about concentration camps and the situation in the eastern Congo look like red herrings to me. Concentration camps have their own cultures and values that are more or less supported and reinforced by the governments or corporations on whose behalf they are run. If governments and corporations treat certain groups of people as sub-human and build prisons and camps to hold them in, then those they employ to police them will be encouraged to treat them accordingly, or at the very least those wardens’ actions will go unpunished.

        The situation in the eastern Congo may be due partly because the government in Kinshasa is too weak and too poor to be able to control what is going on there; the area may be remote and transport and other links are poor and unreliable. Among other things affecting the eastern Congo is the fact that the Rwanda government encourages its soldiers to plunder that region for rare earth minerals and other resources that Rwanda then exports to the West. The West does not condemn Rwanda for doing this because Rwanda effectively acts as a mercenary country for Western interests.


        I do not think evolution comes into this unless you are arguing for a particular ideological view of evolution in which competition is more important than cooperation, because there is a case for saying that an individual’s chances of survival depend as much on cooperating with others as competing with them.


  2. Kev says

    If humans are peaceful were the neanderthal go, along with all other humanoids ?

    And if humans are peaceful by nature why is conflict such a constant throughout history ?

    I guess if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck – if you know what i mean

    Liked by 1 person

    • Moreover, human ‘nature,’ such as it is, is as much a product of culture, education, or indoctrination, as it is heritable, and probably a whole lot more cultural than heritable.

      Institutions, not individuals, are the real perpetrators of violence and murder; governments and their militaries are the real purveyors of violence and murder.
      No individual is genetically predisposed to gravitate toward this or that sort of organization; but every individual is born into a specific society that inculcates dispositions and attitudes that legitimize and make membership in existing organizations appealing.

      The military, like banking, is a human historical invention and thus really an unfortunate accident. Because it really is an invention that has been consciously elaborated and refined by men to its awful purpose, it could conceivably be proscribed, culturally speaking. Violence would then be an aberration, an exception rather than the rule. In such a context, our so called ‘nature’ would appear to be quite other than it now appears though nothing biological would be any different than it now is.

      On the other hand, how many people do you personally know who you could describe as being murderously violent? Not many if any, I would venture to guess. So why not rely upon that observation as a gauge of the violent or peaceful ‘nature’ of ‘human nature?’

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just a quick edit:

        Before the sentence that begins with “Moreover, human ‘nature,’ such as it is, is as much a product of culture, . . .”

        the following was intended to appear:

        “Humans aren’t anything by ‘nature,’ otherwise there wouldn’t be any ‘evolution,’ and by ‘evolution,’ I don’t mean change that is directional, but random. ”

        The typing obviously got away from me.


    • Jen says

      Kev, I’m sure you’re aware that much history that is written, is written by the victors and not the losers. And if the victors are the ones who choose conflict over diplomacy or compromise, then the history that is allowed to be written is the history that emphasises conflict and the use of war (rather than peaceful solutions) to achieve goals.

      History and the teaching of history also serve as propaganda. If you teach that conflict is a constant throughout history, and never teach that diplomacy, compromise and working together peacefully to solve problems are also constants throughout history, then you are teaching propaganda.

      This really has nothing to do with human nature, and everything to do with brainwashing and moulding people into a particular psychological state (that more or less becomes habitual and therefore automatic or “natural”) that predisposes them to use conflict over peaceful means of getting what they need or want.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Jen says

    Readers might be interested to know that in 1986, twenty scientists representing such disciplines as neurophysiology, biological anthropology, psychology, sociology and biochemistry among others examined the available evidence for violence as biologically determined in humans, and concluded that war is not part of human nature. The anthropologist Richard Leakey and neurophysiologist Jose Rodriguez Delgado (who performed the hair-raising experiment with a bull fitted with a chip in its brain charging him in a bull-ring while he held the remote to control the animal – a film of the experiment can be seen on Youtube if you do a search on Delgado’s name) were among the signatories. These scientists put their signatures to the 1986 Seville Statement on Violence, the text of which can be found at this link:

    The core ideas are as follows (from the Wikipedia article on the Seville Statement on Violence):
    “It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors.”
    “It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behaviour is genetically programmed into our human nature.”
    “It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behaviour more than for other kinds of behaviour.”
    “It is scientifically incorrect to say that humans have a ‘violent brain’.”
    “It is scientifically incorrect to say that war is caused by ‘instinct’ or any single motivation.”

    Significantly Steven Pinker has criticised the statement as a moralistic fallacy.


  4. Great to see you sharing Counterpunch articles! I wish they had a comments section – could be a place of really good debate.

    I see the Guardian are attempting to see how it will work with no comment threads – it will be the death of them, every article without comments gets bugger all shares I’ve noticed.


      • No. And the witch-hunt against him has since been proven to have been precisely that. Unfortunately, most people who read about North American culture wars — the hue and cry against Chagnon was a part of that — take the claims by one or the other side as true without bothering to consult the original texts or the opposing arguments. In this case, what I found particularly disturbing was the outright deception in the accusations launched against Chagnon by self-identified progressives in the field of cultural anthropology.

        Here’s an excerpt from a relevant Slate article on this:

        “The American Anthropological Association and other groups looked into all of the charges and discovered that Tierney’s book [Darkness in El Dorado] was really a work of fiction based very loosely on fact. With the exception of relatively minor transgressions by individuals other than Chagnon or Neel, everyone was cleared. Neel was asked to drop off half of the vaccine doses with missionaries, which accounts for the “missing” portion. He was instructed to dose only half of the villagers at time since the vaccine was expected to make many of the people who received it ill. By giving half the people the vaccine, the un-dosed half could care for the sick, and later the other half could be given the shot.

        A long list of cultural anthropologists used Darkness in El Dorado to discredit both Neel and Chagnon. After investigations cleared these researchers, most of those anthropologists either remained silent or continued to uncritically refer to Darkness in El Dorado, despite the book having been discredited.”



  5. elenits says

    Excellent article with a lot of implications – for example, mixing in Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, the United States [Exceptionalistan] & Israel [Chosen] can self-justify their barbaric aggression as a genetic by-product of being anointed and exceptional Alpha-[fe]Males.


    • Indeed, it can’t be helped: it’s a law of nature that always was and always will be. The ‘science’ of anthropology tells us so . . .

      And then just look at the content of our movie entertainment: that which is most popular with audiences is blood and gore and war. Never mind that the industry produces little else that might be more interesting . . .

      Thus by dint of a campaign of images and narratives, we really are forced to conclude that man, the species, is really also and perhaps essentially ‘homo assassin.’ Killing is like farting or diarrhoea, an integral if irregular part of the human condition to which, when it takes us, we cannot but surrender . . .



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