Friday, August 10, 2018

War and the Lockean State of Nature in Aboriginal Australia

During my recent travels in Australia (Brisbane and Sydney) and New Zealand (Wellington and Auckland), I thought about how those countries have been two natural laboratories of human evolution.

New Zealand was the last major land mass to be settled by human beings.  There were no human beings in New Zealand prior to about 1300 AD, when the Polynesian ancestors of the Maori people navigated their way to those islands.  The Maoris were preliterate people living in tribal chiefdoms without a state.  The first brief European contact occurred in 1642 when tow Dutch ships under the command of Abel Tasman sailed to Golden Bay at the top of the South Island.  After a skirmish with some local Maori attacking in their canoes, Tasman sailed away without landing and never returned.  In 1769, James Cook, on the first of his three voyages around the world, became the first European to land on New Zealand and establish contact with the Maoris, who lived as independent tribes, often at war with one another, although they were also bound together by trading networks. Beginning with Cook, the British and Maori established a barter trade.  I will return to this evolutionary history of New Zealand in a future post.

In contrast to the recent human settlement of New Zealand, the first human settlers of Australia arrived over 50,000 years ago, probably crossing a land bridge with what is now New Guinea.  Until James Cook's mapping of Australia's east coast in 1770 and the first British establishment of a penal settlement in Sydney in 1788, Australia was an isolated continent of Aboriginal hunter-gatherers--with no agriculturalists, pastoralists, or states.  When the Europeans arrived, they found a continent of over 300 tribes of hunter-gatherers.  This was a perfect laboratory for the study of human evolution as hunter-gatherers, which constituted over 90% of human evolutionary history, and which can be identified as our evolutionary state of nature.  To resolve the debate among political philosophers--such as Hobbes, Locke, Spinoza, and Rousseau--over the state of nature, the study of Aboriginal Australia should be crucial.

Since human beings in the state of nature--like the Aboriginals of Australia and the Maoris of New Zealand--have been preliterate people, they have left no written records of their history.  Anthropologists from literate societies have tried to write the history of these "prehistoric" people through the ethnographic field research study of hunter-gatherer societies that have survived into recent centuries.  But this creates the "contact paradox"--to study hunter-gatherers we must contact them, but this contact changes them from what they were before contact.  By the time anthropologists write their ethnographic reports, the hunter-gatherers have been influenced by their contact with agriculturalists and state societies.

The study of Aboriginal Australia minimizes this contact problem, because the purely hunting-gathering way of life of the Aboriginals was isolated from the rest of the world for over 50,000 years, and consequently whatever the Europeans saw in Australia during their first contact can be considered perhaps the best picture of our evolutionary state of nature.  Hobbes and Locke thought the European reports about the American Indians might be the best account of the state of nature--"In the beginning, all was America," as Locke said.  But the European discovery of Australia might be even better--In the beginning, all was Australia.

Azar Gat has made that argument in claiming that the evidence for warfare in Aboriginal Australia refutes the assertion of Rousseauian anthropologists that the state of nature was perfectly peaceful and that war was a late cultural invention coming only after the adoption of agriculture and the state.  Some of the best evidence for Aboriginal warfare in Australia comes from William Buckley (1780-1856).  Buckley was brought to Australia in 1803 as a convict on a convict ship that established a settlement at Port Philip (now Melbourne).  He escaped shortly afterwards, and for 32 years he lived with an Aboriginal tribe--the Wallarranga.  He learned their language, married one of their women, and joined in all of their activities.  In 1835, he returned to the white settler community.  For a few years, he worked as an interpreter and mediator for the English in dealing with the Aboriginals.  He then moved to Hobart, Tasmania, where he lived for the rest of his life.  He told his life story to John Morgan, a Tasmanian newspaper editor, who wrote The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, published in 1852.  Although some people have questioned the accuracy of his stories, some anthropologists who have studied the Australian Aboriginals have said that his account of life with the Wallarranga seems quite accurate.

Buckley describes many lethal feuds, raids, and ambushes among the Aboriginal tribes.  The most common cause of the conflicts was disputes over women and retaliatory vengeance.  He describes their weapons of war--clubs, spears, boomerangs, and shields.  Remarkably, there were no bows in Aboriginal Australia.  He also relates his observations of cannibalism.

Buckley reports that a typical tribe was composed of 20 to 60 families.  Some people--such as skilled hunters and warriors--had high social status, and leading men could have more wives.  But "they acknowledge no particular Chief as being superior to the rest" (86), which distinguishes them as pure hunter-gatherers unlike the chiefdoms of the Maori.

Here's one example of Buckley's reporting of warfare.  He describes his tribe meeting about 300 members of the hostile Waarengbadawa tribe:
"A general fight now commenced, . . . spears and boomerangs flying in all directions.  The sight was very terrific, and their yells and shouts of defiance very horrible.  At length one of our tribe had a spear sent right through his body, and he fell.  On this, our fellows raised a war cry; on hearing which, the women threw off their rugs, and each armed with a short club, flew to the assistance of their husbands and brothers. . . . Even with this augmentation, our tribe fought to great disadvantage, the enemy being all men, and much more numerous."
". . . I had seen skirmishing and fighting in Holland; and knew something therefore, of what is done when men are knocking one another about with powder and shot, in real earnest, but the scene now before me was much more frightful--both parties looking like so many devils turned loose from Tartarus.  Men and women were fighting furiously, and indiscriminately, covered with blook; two of the latter were killed in this affair, which lasted without intermission for two hours; the Waarengbadawas then retreated a short distance, apparently to recover themselves. . . ."
". . . Soon after dark the hostile tribe left the neighborhood; and, on discovering this retreat from the battle ground, ours determined on following them immediately, leaving the women and myself where we were.  On approaching the enemy's quarters, they laid themselves down in ambush until all was quiet, and finding most of them asleep, laying about in groups, our party rushed upon them, killing three on the spot, and wounding several others.  The enemy fled precipitately, leaving their war implements in the hands of their assailants and their wounded to be beaten to death by boomerangs, three loud shouts closing the victors' triumph."
"The bodies of the dead they mutilated in a shocking manner, cutting the arms and legs off, with flints, shells, and tomahawks."
"When the women saw them returning, they also raised great shouts, dancing about in savage ecstasy.  The bodies were thrown upon the ground, and beaten about with sticks--in fact, they all seemed to be perfectly mad with excitement; the men cut the flesh off the bones, and stones were heated for baking it; after which, they greased their children with it, all over.  The bones were broken to pieces with tomahawks, and given to the dogs, or put on the boughs of trees for the birds of prey hovering over the horrid scene" (60-61).
Some people have questioned the reliability of Buckley's reports, but many other historical accounts of Aboriginal warfare written by other European observers in the first few decades after contact confirm Buckley's stories.  There is also extensive skeletal evidence of violence among the Aboriginals across Australia studied by archaeologists (Allen 2014; Pardoe 2014).  This evidence includes cranial depression fractures and parrying fractures in the bones above the wrist that show the damage from face-to-face combat or from raising the arm in defense against attacks by a club or other weapon.

In response to this evidence for lethal violence among the Aboriginal Australians, some Rousseauian anthropologists like Douglas Fry have argued while this shows that hunter-gatherers engaged in homicide, this is purely personal violence that is not really war.  Gat identifies these anthropologists as "Quasi-Rousseauians," because they have given up on Rousseau's claim that hunter-gatherers were perfectly peaceful.  But even this modified Rousseauism fails, because much of the violence that Buckley describes includes battles between tribes that clearly qualifies as warfare, because he relates battles involving hundreds of people.  Of course, if one defines war in such a narrow way, as Fry does, so that raiding, ambush, and feuding are not defined as war, then forager conflict is not war.  But if one defines war as lethal conflict between independent societies, as Steven LeBlanc (2014) does, then the Australian Aborigines certainly engaged in war.  As Buckley indicated in the passage above, he had fought as a British soldier in the Napoleonic wars, and he compared his experience in a European war with the warfare he saw in Australia.

Thus, as Gat concludes, the evidence of Aboriginal Australia seems to show that Hobbes was right about the state of nature being a state of war, and therefore Rousseau was wrong.  But the evidence also shows that Hobbes was wrong in claiming that life in the state of nature was a perpetual war with no peaceful cooperation.  In fact, Buckley and others have reported that the Aboriginal Australians lived in communities with norms of peaceful cooperation that included intertribal cooperation such as networks of trade.  And they sometimes had long periods without intertribal war.

Like many of the social scientists involved in this debate over the evolution of war, Gat assumes that the debate is between two alternatives, represented by Hobbes and Rousseau, and he ignores Locke as taking a third position.  Consequently, he fails to see that the evidence supports the conclusion that Hobbes was partly right about the state of nature, Rousseau was mostly wrong, and Locke was mostly right.  Locke was right to see that the state of nature is a state of peace that easily becomes a state of war: establishing government can therefore have a pacifying effect through the rule of law to settle disputes that easily become violent feuds in the state of nature.

In his new book The Causes of War and The Spread of Peace, Gat comes close to recognizing that the evidence from Aboriginal Australia sustains Locke's account of the state of nature.  Gat says that Locke's "more balanced depiction of pre-state as compared to state societies was suggestive" (39).  Oddly, however, Gat says that "Locke, like Hobbes and Rousseau, was not a researcher of the past but a political philosopher defending a particular political creed.  His interest was the present."  Gat does not notice that Locke, like Hobbes and Rousseau, studied the earliest ethnographic reports about hunter-gatherers as evidence for the state of nature.

Some of my earlier posts on Gat can be found here and here.

The same ethnographic and archaeological evidence of hunter-gatherer warfare in Aboriginal Australia has been found around the world--including Europe, North America, South America, and New Guinea (Allen and Jones 2014).  This supports the conclusion that hunter-gatherers both simple and complex have engaged in socially sanctioned lethal conflict between independent societies, and that this long evolutionary history of warfare can be traced back to early hominins.  This shows that human beings have an innate propensity to warfare shared with chimpanzees (Wrangham and Peterson 1996; Wrangham and Glowacki 2012), although human beings can also choose not to act on that innate propensity, particularly when their lives have been shaped by a Lockean liberal culture that favors declining violence.

Posts on the "chimpanzee model" for the evolution of war can be found herehere, and here.


Allen, Mark W., and Terry L. Jones, eds. 2014. Violence and Warfare Among Hunter-Gatherers. London: Routledge.

Allen, Mark W. 2014. "Hunter-Gatherer Violence and Warfare in Australia." In Violence and Warfare, eds. Allen and Jones, 97-111.

Gat, Azar. 2017. The Causes of War and The Spread of Peace: But Will War Rebound? Oxford: Oxford University Press.

LeBlanc, Steven. 2014. "Forager Warfare and Our Evolutionary Past." In Violence and Warfare, eds. Allen and Jones, 26-46.

Morgan, John. 2002 (orig. 1852). The Life and Adventures of William Buckley. Ed. Tim Flannery. Melbourne, Australia: The Text Publishing Company.

Pardoe, Colin. 2014. "Conflict and Territoriality in Aboriginal Australia: Evidence from Biology and Ethnography." In Violence and Warfare, eds. Allen and Jones, 112-132.

Wrangham, Richard, and Dale Peterson. 1996. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Wrangham, Richard, and Luke Glowacki. 2012. "Intergroup Aggression in Chimpanzees and War in Nomadic Hunter-Gatherers: Evaluating the Chimpanzee Model." Human Nature 23:5-29.

No comments: