Did civilization cause human violence, or did civilization diminish it? Were less complex societies more peaceful and harmonious, or did civilization save us from a brutish, violent existence?

The fossil record on this has generally shown that hunter-gatherer tribes were more peaceful, but that lethal aggression did sometimes occur. What was the driving factor behind this violence? A new wide-ranging study of hunter-gatherer populations in California has just been published. Researchers looked at lethal violence indicators, as well as indicators of resource availability and indicators of cultural complexity. Their findings show that lethal violence is tied to resource scarcity, and not to complex civilization or political organization. In other words, unless there was an immediate need to compete for resources, people rarely killed each other.

The study states, “The proportion of individuals suffering from sharp force trauma significantly declines with environmental productivity, confirming the prediction that resource scarcity increases lethal aggression.”

Populations in lower productivity environments have significantly larger territories and greater mobility within those territories. Low population densities translate into widely separated groups unfamiliar with their neighbors and territorial boundaries. Low-resourced individuals are more likely to travel into neighboring territories in search of resources, where disputes can result from conflicting territorial claims or from misunderstandings and misinformation. Resource shortfalls may lead to territory violations.

 

Lethal Violence Declines with Resource Abundance (2016)

Lethal Violence Declines with Resource Abundance (2016)

This can inform modern policy.

Use big data to look for pockets of scarcity and need. Low environmental productivity could be associated with violence simply as a result of individuals experiencing more frequent resource shortfalls, which may lead to theft or poaching. In the date, we see that people who steal from others who have very little creates more violence than those who steal from those who have a lot.

Increase information about where to find resources, and data on neighboring cultures. Tribes make their best guess assessments about how to acquire resources across a large and unproductive landscape on the basis of what little information they have regarding their neighbors, but this has the unintended consequence of increased violence.

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Reference:

Resource scarcity drives lethal aggression among prehistoric hunter-gatherers in central California

Mark W. Allena,1, Robert Lawrence Bettingerb, Brian F. Coddingc, Terry L. Jonesd, and Al W. Schwitallae

aDepartment of Geography and Anthropology, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, CA 91768; bDepartment of Anthropology, University of California, Davis, CA 95616; cDepartment of Anthropology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT 84112; dDepartment of Social Sciences, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, CA 93401; and eMillennia Archaeological Consulting, Sacramento, CA 95817

Edited by Robert L. Kelly, University of Wyoming, Laramie, WY, and accepted by Editorial Board Member Richard G. Klein September 6, 2016 (received for review May 19, 2016)