Anthropologist compares tribal warfare to modern violence

Assistant professor Robert Walker said he has seen a decrease in violence.
Courtesy of Robert Walker

In 2002, the Ache tribe lined up its bowmen to defend territory against landless peasants armed with pistols and old shotguns.

Outnumbered, the peasants fled.

“It was scary,” assistant professor of anthropology Robert Walker said. “It was really intense.”

Walker said he researches why violence happens, and the Ache tribe, located in Paraguay, is one of his subjects. Discovered in the 1960s, the tribe provides a window into some of the more tribal behavior in modern society and even on college campuses, he said.

“All the same aspects that are in this tribal warfare I kind of see in the (college) fraternity competition,” said Walker. “There’s competition over women. There’s something to do with territories - like, this place is ours. And, if you can expand or somehow get something away from another fraternity, do it.”

Walker said he began researching the Ache with Arizona State University anthropology professors Kim Hill and Ana Magdalena Hurtado, who first made contact with the tribe.

Using previous studies, Walker examined more than a thousand deaths in 44 societies around the Amazon River basin of South America, according to an MU news release. He analyzed the deaths on a case-by-case basis to determine what cultural factors influenced the body counts.

“Language and other cultural differences play a role in the ‘clash of civilizations’ that resulted in recent violence, such as the deadly attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya and the continuing war in Afghanistan,” Walker said in the release. “Working to develop a shared sense of humanity for all the Earth’s people could help reduce major episodes of violence by encouraging people to view each other as one unified group working towards common global goals.”

Citing psychologist Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of our Nature,” Walker said violence in general has drastically decreased.

“Believe it or not - and I know that most people do not - violence has declined over long stretches of time, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence,” Pinker said in the book.

Even though there were millions of deaths in World War I and World War II, the proportion of people dying from violence was considerably less than in most traditional populations, Walker said.

“But if you compare that to say the violence that I’m seeing in these Amazonian groups traditionally, it’s not even close,” he said.

Humanity is doing something right, Walker said.

“We’re much more global-thinking," he said. "We have the Internet and TV. It helps you think about the other world from other peoples’ perspective.”

As Amazonian tribes such as the Ache modernize, Walker said he has seen a decrease in violence.

“Some Ache are even on Facebook now,” he said.

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