Beyond War

by Steve Taylor Ph.D., Guest, Waking Times

Read any book about the history of the World and it’s likely that you’ll be left with one overriding impression: that human beings find it impossible to live in harmony with one another. Books on world history usually begin with the ‘first’ civilisations of Sumeria and Egypt, which arose at around 3000 BC, and from that point until the present day, history is little more than a catalogue of endless wars.

According to one famous statistic, for every one year of peace in human history there have been 14 years of war. Think back to your history lessons at school – if they were anything like mine, all you can probably remember of them are the names of Kings and Queens and the names of the wars which were fought during their reigns (here’s a few just off the top of my head: the War of the Roses, the English Civil War, the Seven Years War, the Hundred Years War, the War of the Spanish Succession etc.) ‘Just think how lucky you are,’ I remember a teacher telling my class once. ‘If you’d been born at any other time in history you’d all be sent off to fight in some foreign country and the chances are you wouldn’t come back.’

War seems to be natural to human beings – or at least to male human beings, since war has always been an almost exclusively male occupation. There seems to be something wrong with us, a kind of restlessness and constant dissatisfaction which means that we have to create conflict. Most modern scientists would probably agree with this, and suggest that there’s a strong genetic and biological basis for war. They would point to the fact that the purpose of life is genetic survival, and that this means competing with other living beings for food and territory. Or they might point to the theories of the zoologist Konrad Lorenz, who showed that all animals have an instinct to establish an area that belongs to their family or tribe, and to stop any other animals encroaching on it. In human terms this would mean that wars occur when groups are struggling against each other to establish territory for themselves, or when ‘invaders’ encroach upon a group’s established territory.

Before War

However, there’s a major problem with the view that war is natural: the fact that human beings haven’t always waged war against each other. On the contrary, there’s a lot of evidence which suggests that war is only a fairly recent historical development.

Most pre-historians (that is, historians who investigate the centuries before the civilisations of Sumeria and Egypt) and archaelogists agree that the ‘age of war’ only actually began around 5,000 years ago. Before then, it seems, human beings did live in a kind of harmony with each other. Until around 10,000 BC all human beings lived as hunter-gatherers, and all the evidence we have suggests that, as the Anthroplogist Robert Lawlor writes, ‘the so-called primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle did not include the activity of warfare as we know it.’

One way to verify this is to look at the peoples in the world who lived as hunter-gatherers until very recently. The different tribes of the Australian aborigines, for example, very rarely fought against each other, and even when they did it was common to ‘ritualise’ the conflict into a fight between two individuals. A representative of each tribe would be chosen, and the two men would stand motionless, about 25 metres apart, and throw spears at each other. When one of them was wounded the ‘war’ would be over.

The Native Americans became much more war-like as a result of their conflicts with European colonists, and certain tribes (like the Aztecs and the Sioux) were always aggressive, but in general war was a much less prominent part of life for them than for Europeans. For them ‘war’ usually only meant short sporadic raids, in order to find slaves or victims for sacrifice, and attacking sides would usually stop fighting as soon as they suffered casualties, believing that nothing was worth the loss of their own people. They never fought long battles, and very rarely invaded other tribes’ territory and tried to conquer them.

At around 10,000 BC the agricultural revolution began – people started to ‘settle down’ into villages and townships, where they cultivated crops and domesticated animals. Some historians see this as the beginning of the ‘age of war’, but the historical evidence doesn’t support this. The period of history from 10,000 BC until 3000 BC was also, it seems, a time of peace. Archaelogist’s diggings from this period show, as the historian Lewis Mumford wrote, ‘the complete absence of weapons.’ Villages were built in easily accessible areas, and didn’t have walls around them, which suggests that there was no threat from invaders. The cave and vase drawings which have survived from this period show no weapons or scenes of fighting. But perhaps most impressively, some Neolithic cultures existed for thousands of years, and show no sign of being damaged or disrupted by war. This is true of the ancient town of Catal Huyuk in Turkey, for example, and of the neolithic civilisations of Malta and Crete (at least until their ultimate destruction by Indo-European invaders). As the archaelogist J.D. Evans writes of the neolithic cultures of Malta, for example, ‘No more peaceable society seems ever to have existed.’

The Age of War

But this age came to a very abrupt end. During the third millenium BC the whole of Europe and much of the rest of the world erupted with war.

A people who archaelogists now call the ‘Indo-Europeans’ were largely responsible for this – they branched out from their homeland in the steppes of Southern Russia and waged war against the peaceful neolithic tribes, gradually conquering the whole of Europe and beyond. But there were other war-like peoples too, all of them based around central Europe and Northern Africa: the Egyptians, the Mesopotanians and the Semitic peoples. As Ken Wilber writes in Up From Eden, ‘The simple fact is that, around the 3rd millenium BC, especially in Sumer…modern massive warfare of one state against another was born.’…


About the author:
Steve Taylor Ph.D is a senior lecturer in Psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University, UK. He is the author of Back to Sanity: Healing the Madness of Our Minds and The Fall: The Insanity of the Ego in Human History and the Dawning of A New Era.
Steve’s books have been published in 16 languages and his research has appeared in The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, The Journal of Consciousness Studies, The Transpersonal Psychology Review, The International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, as well as the popular media in the UK, including on BBC World TV, The Guardian, and The Independent.
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