The Roots of Violence

Archaeology can shine needed light on the evolution of our aggressive tendencies.

By Travis Rayne Pickering | April 1, 2013

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS, APRIL 2013From massacres of schoolchildren to terrorist detonations to garden-variety homicides, human violence looms omnipresent in many awful shades. But we need only look to one of our closest primate cousins to understand that we are not alone in our propensity for carnage. Like humans, chimpanzees also rape, murder, and even wage rudimentary war.

In the last 20 years, primatologists, rightly impressed by the genetic closeness and behavioral continuities between “us and them,” have resurrected the old idea (albeit now clothed in more sophisticated terms) of our emergence from “killer-ape” ancestors.  But even though there is no question of the heuristic value of primate models, if employed to the exclusion of other data, they can never yield sufficient scenarios of human evolution. This is because our ancient human forebears left behind a rich archaeological record of their activities—a record that cannot be ignored and that, in many ways, does not accord with the behavior of extant nonhuman primates.

My book Rough and Tumble appreciates the vital role of primate ethology for elucidating our past. But it also acknowledges the vast and largely untapped contribution that archaeology can make to understanding the extent to which our ancestors’ violent inclinations might have driven human evolution.

With minor variations, the opinions of diverse specialists converge on the same hypothesis: that hunting was a primary factor in our ancestors’ evolutionary success. Hunting facilitated the first human migrations out of Africa and into less-generous lands, where year-round vegetable foods were unavailable. Hunting also probably underlies our unique social dynamics, including a sexual division of labor, with hunting men and gathering women who live in extended, food-sharing groups. The central role of meat in the human diet meant our forebears’ concomitant dependence on carcasses large enough to sustain them and to facilitate complex distribution of protein to all group members. The earliest archaeological record, composed of stone cutting tools and butchered bones of large ungulates, supports the proposition that prehistoric humans hunted big game on a regular basis.

A sole reliance on the observations of nonhuman primates would never have revealed these important elements of our evolutionary history. Male chimpanzees kill animals that are smaller than those whose bones populate the archaeological record, and chimpanzees share meat only reluctantly, in order to consolidate political alliances or in trade for sexual favors from females. Another important distinction between chimpanzees and humans is that the former are super-athletic, using mainly their bodies and teeth to chase, capture, and dispatch prey with agility and fury. In contrast, our early human ancestors—small-bodied, blunt-toothed, and slow-footed—were outmatched by the large, fleet animals that archaeologists deduce they killed and ate.

Humans, as relatively feeble predators, needed weapons to close the gap between them and their imposing prey. My book presents data that indicate humans may have hunted with spears as long as 2 million years ago. I posit that successful spear hunting was predicated on emotional control, and also review various lines of evidence—psychological, osteological, and behavioral—that, when combined, indicate humans possessed this kind of emotional control by that same 2-million-years-ago mark. This all suggests that the old, but influential, concept that our ancestors were killer apes, who acted with undifferentiated aggression in both hunting and interpersonal conflict, is a canard.

I don’t believe that pacifism is the default moral position in every relevant circumstance (knowing what we now know, what “good” person transported back to late 1932 would, given the chance, resist slitting Hitler’s throat?). But modern human society definitively has a problem with aggression on many levels, from simple interpersonal conflict to full-blown warfare. The point is, appreciating and confronting this challenge, while essential to advancing the quality of human existence, does nothing to elucidate the origins of that existence. That task is in the hard work of piecing together all the clues that nature provides us, including not just the behavior of our living primate relatives but also the material record of our own unique past.

Travis Rayne Pickering is professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and honorary professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Read an excerpt of Rough and Tumble.

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Avatar of: Curculio


Posts: 61

April 19, 2013

Some of us are killers some of us aren't.  We are an immensely variable species but much of the idea of violence is rooted in our own concepts of what defines violence.  Am I considered a blood-thirsty carnivore if I fish? if I lived on termites? Deer eat ground nesting bird eggs and chicks in partial need to obtain calcium. We would be gods except we have stomachs. Fortunately, we can also teach non-violence.  I think it is best to concentrate on how to be more compassionate people and study our baser and selfish motivations only as a means to that end.

Avatar of: W. Boernke

W. Boernke

Posts: 18

April 19, 2013

The notion that humans are violent by nature is simply biological determinism.  No different than saying the human brain is "hardwired" to produce violent behavior.  Stephen Gould in "Ever Since Darwin" points out that if we are programmed to be violent, then we can not be held accountable for our violent behavior.  In other words, morality is not possible if humans do not have the capacity to choose to behave nonviolently.  Anger is biological, yet we condemn road rage.   A human who must always act in a stereotyped way because her barin is "hardwired" would be at a distinct selective disadvantage.  A plastic brain that is capable of a variety of responses to environmental stimuli would be favored by natural selection.

Computers are hardwired because they are slaves to their programming.  This is readily apparent when you try to interact with computers.  I have a GPS navigation system in my car, but sometimes I think the route the computer selects for me is crazy.  A person with a hardwired brain, like a computer, lacks judgment.

I agree with Isaac Beshevis Singer: "We have to believe in free will; we have no choice."

Avatar of: ds sheriff

ds sheriff

Posts: 5

April 19, 2013

Man is angel in technology but ape in social life are words of wisdom long forgotten. Yet trying to mirror human behavior through ape's may sound scientific and relevant. Yet what we see today all around us is making of our own. Human mind and endeavours are limited by vision for the future and what will happen to posterity. One must understand the limitation of human mind. It is simply because we have outgrown the laws of nature. We are not in harmony with nature or our own fellow beings. We see killings everywhere and we see our biological instincts taking control of our humanity. 

In spite of so many prophets and great thinkers time and again teaching us to live in peace, speak the language of love, respect life and follow the path of non-violence- we live our lives like apes in social life- sometimes worse than them with  scant respect for human life and dignity. Only when we  respect human dignity, when we make all our fellowbeings live a decent life and when we revere our planet- we will not find solutions to human violence and tragedy. We may find scientific reasons- we can diagnose the disease- we cannot treat it unless we spread the message of universal brotherhood, live respecting each other's freedom and right to life. Love only can bind us and liberate us. 

Avatar of: Alexandru


Posts: 102

April 19, 2013

I know that you are skeptics about the Bible true, but, because I am the first person in the world that observed the biblical certification of the Evolution, and the genetic certification of the Genesis, I try to convince you about this.

Let us see the shortest description of the Evolution in the world:

"The first one looked like a lion, but had wings like an eagle. While I was watching, the wings were torn off. The beast was lifted up and made to stand up straight. And then a human mind was given to it." (British Bible, Daniel 7.4)

"The first was like a lion, and had eagle's wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made to stand upon two feet as a man; and a man's heart was given to it." (American Bible, Daniel 7.4)


British translation indicate the biological evolution from animal ancestors to Homo sapiens (neocortex = human mind), that stop 200000 years BC according to Eve mtDNA theory.

American translation indicate spiritual evolution based on LMSC (learning management system control - using human mind to give man's heart), that will stop in 2239 according to Adam mtDNA theory (6 working days from Adam's creation 3761 BC - one day means 1000 years according to Peter, Second Letter 3.8)

I suppose that the human brain is not previous programmed and for the human brain is much important the data bases that are involved in brain education.

To be "in harmony with nature or our own fellow beings" (ds sheriff) we shall use "bio-GPS navigation system" (W. Boernke) existed in xiphoid process (one man's ribs - see Bible, Genesis 2.21 and Paul, Hebrew 4.12).

Only the true LMSC give us the true orientation, as satellite antennas system.

The EDUCATION gives the good life hope to the children. I have expressed my opinion based on God. ("The Audacity of Hope, Barrack Obama")

"Foolish people! How long do you want to be foolish? How long will you enjoy pouring scorn on knowledge? Will you never learn? Listen when I reprimand you; I will give you good advice and share my knowledge with you." (The book of Solomon proverbs 1. 22-23)

Avatar of: Raman


Posts: 5

April 20, 2013

All attributes of all objects (seen and unseen) are already endowed by the Lord by the myriads of combinations of three Gunas, per the The Hindu Scripture.  These three Gunas are Sathva-Guna(the most Noble), Rajo-Guna and Tamo-Guna.  These can be thought of in terms of Free-Energy(activity coefficient), Enthalpy(Latent-Heat-Content) and Entropy (degree of order). All tendencies, attributes(genes) of Beings can be expressed with these... Unfortunately Science cannot quantify... This is in fact Fortunate because, our Governments would want to assign an additional bio-Coefficient for each of us and try to controll our lives.  The less known (revelable) the better!  But it is fun to study, analyze and manage, control these, especially from the point of profit-hungry-minds....

Avatar of: John Edser

John Edser

Posts: 24

April 25, 2013


Our most important adaptation is ancient and social: the evolution of the tribe. It  was mostly competition between tribes that characterised human violence, both then and Now. As tribes expanded, this uniquely human, mutual but not necessarily equal beneficial adaptation allowed ever increasing specialisation providing an exponential increase in individual productivity. This inevitably converted into individual Darwinian fitness increases ( i.e. was not group selective), dramatically expanding tribal populations. Within the early Cro-magnon tribes that led the way out of Africa I contend that barter primarily drove the evolution of our minds. No other primate can be observed to trade or taught to trade. To be able to do so in even the most primitive sense requires a quantum leap in abstract thought and self/non self awareness. To mutually exchange, respondents must be able enter the mindset of others and abstractly measure "apples" relative to  "oranges" to enable an exchange. As trade within tribes expanded violence between tribes increased. Primitive tribalism necessarily employed a common language, belief system and visual conformity to identify and coordinate tribal individuals. These same systems achieved the opposite for between tribe relations, increasing alienation and inter tribal violence.The deep rooted sense we have of our own tribal identity was only overcome after 1000's of years of intellectual thought allowing trade between tribes to flourish. The intellectual opposite to trade is war. Like trade war requires an overt intellectual effort. Reason is a two sided sword; it can be used to create or destroy. The choice is ours. 


John Edser  

Independent Researcher 

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