Shedding Light in the Darkness

Warlike Behavior Isn’t Necessarily Preprogramed in Humans

Discover magazine has published a fascinating article on human remains from prehistoric Japan which challenges the idea that engaging in warfare is deeply embedded in human nature.

Prehistoric Japan was a pretty peaceful place, according to a recent study of prehistoric remains from around the country. That could mean that, despite evidence of early warfare from other sites around the world, early Holocene hunter-gatherers weren’t innately warlike. The study was published in the journal Biology Letters.

From 14,000 BC to 300 BC, the islands of Japan were home to a hunter-gatherer culture known as the Jomon. Archaeology professor Hisashi Nakao and colleagues looked for evidence of fatal injuries in skeletons from Jomon sites around Japan, and they found surprisingly few. The Jomon Period had a violent death rate of 1.82 percent. Even during what’s considered the most bloody phase of the period had a violent death rate under 3.5 percent.

They also looked for “hot spots” of violence, clusters of fatal injuries in time or space. A large number of violent deaths in one place, or a higher violent death rate in one period of time, could be a sign of large-scale violence. But that didn’t show up in the data. The violent deaths were scattered sparsely in time and space, which suggests organized  warfare wasn’t common in Japan during this time.

The implication is that if the hunter-gatherers of prehistoric Japan weren’t prone to war, then warlike behavior isn’t necessarily preprogramed in humans.

The Jomon culture is noted for having produced the earliest pottery in the world. Archeologists were astonished to discover that the world’s oldest known pottery was made in Japan 12,700 years ago. They were a hunting-gathering-fishing tribal culture that existed roughly around the times of ancient civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Nile and the Indus Valley.

Archaeological discoveries have suggested they had a rich culture where jewelry made from stone, bone, shells and antlers were worn. Intricate figurines made from pottery have also been unearthed.

Writing in the journal Biology Letters, the authors noted: “Our results suggest that violence and thus warfare were not common in prehistoric Japan. We have found no injured individuals in the Initial Jomon period, lasting for 5,000 years or more, though non-injured individuals were discovered for the period. Some scholars have claimed that warfare “is found throughout prehistory” and that warfare was significantly common among hunter-gatherer populations to have affected social evolution by promoting intra-group altruism.”

Japanese Hunter-Gatherers Defy Notions About Prehistoric Violence

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