How Peaceful Was Life in the Past?


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What was the quality of life for people living in historical and prehistoric societies? One particularly important dimension of quality of life is freedom from violent death. How high was the probability of being murdered by another person? Modern statistics that express violent death rates per 100,000 people per year don’t extend very far back in time. Obtaining good numbers for even well-known historical societies, such as Medieval European ones, or Classical Rome and Athens, is very hard. Once we get into prehistory, it becomes even more difficult.

Social scientists of various kinds have very different opinions about whether life in the past was more violent or more peaceful than today. My favorite example of what the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley calls the “pacification of the past” is early Mayan archaeology. The first archaeologists who studied the Maya imagined them as peaceful and wise farmers practicing low-intensity agriculture in the “jungle”, ruled by priestly elites. At particular seasons, early scholars thought, these people would congregate around the temples and perform solemn rites to express their awe of the mysterious universe.

The reality is shockingly different. Maya lowlands were densely settled (only now are we learning just how densely, thanks to new technologies employed by archaeologists). They were ruled by a warlike and rather bloodthirsty elite who fought incessant wars against each other (and were often killed or captured and then sacrificed by the victors). The peaceful Maya of the Classic Period are a fantasy.

A reconstruction of a Maya painted mural from the late 8th-century CE Temple of the Murals at Bonampak, Mexico (Room 2). Detail showing a battle scene. © Heather Hurst, Bonampak Documentation Project, Yale University / Bridgeman Images.

Lawrence Keeley’s book War Before Civilization was very important in turning the tide. Suddenly archaeologists started to see evidence of violence where previously their eyes slid over it (or at least, they didn’t deem it worthwhile to publish such data). An arrowhead embedded in a rib here, a massacre site there—the evidence piles up.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker popularized this new willingness among scholars to study violence in the past. He proposed that the past was extremely violent, but that as civilization evolved (most importantly, as the ideas associated with the Enlightenment emerged), violence declined.

Unlike Keeley’s book, which was “broadly known in narrow circles,” Pinker’s message resonated with the general public, but also triggered a violent reaction from many anthropologists. I’ve written about this before (see The War over War).

So who is right? Now, thanks to a new project that the Seshat Databank has begun with the Institute for Economics and Peace (see here), we will be able to answer questions like this.

Archaeologists and historians have collected a lot of information about violence in past societies, but it is very patchy. These bits of data are small islands of light floating in a dark ocean. The general idea of the approach we use is to collect as many different kinds of knowledge as possible and use them in statistical analyses that utilize what data are available, without being hampered by the gaps.

The variables that we are interested in coding come in two clusters. First, there are direct measures (e.g., battle casualty statistics) and indirect proxies (e.g., skeletal trauma) for death rates. Second, there are predictor variables that may have explanatory power to indicate which societies are more violent and which are less. One hypothesis with a good chance of yielding reasonable predictive power is that various aspects of social complexity affect rates of violence. For example, larger societies (with large populations and territories) may have a lower death rate due to interstate warfare simply because they remove most of such conflicts to the frontiers. Or better governed societies (higher on the Seshat governance sophistication scale) may have lower violence rates because they more effectively maintain internal peace and order.

British soldier on the Western Front, France, during the First World War, surrounded by mountains of empty shell cases. Taken by Tom Aitken in 1917. © National Library of Scotland.

Because different kinds of violence—due to interpersonal conflict, political violence and internal warfare, or interstate warfare—have different drivers, our approach will investigate them separately.

Ideally we aim to estimate the overall violent death rate resulting from all the different kinds of violence. This includes many types and causes of violence: from inter-polity warfare to the homicide rate from interpersonal conflict. Following the usual approach to quantifying homicide rate, we define the main variable of interest as the number of people killed by other people per year per 100,000 population. It is understood that because our knowledge about past societies has many gaps, any estimates we obtain will have much uncertainty associated with them. Thus, the secondary goal of the analysis is to quantify this uncertainty so that we can answer the question: how well do we know what we think we know?

We already started data collection last fall and plan to analyze the results in late spring–summer. So we should have interesting results to report by this fall.

This blog post was originally published on Peter’s blog Cliodynamica

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