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The Wars That Really Ended All Wars

What happens when a premodern society swaps axes for semiautomatic weapons?

“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” philosopher George Santayana wrote in 1905. We may be living in the most peaceful epoch of human history, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has argued, free from the quotidian violence of pre-modern society, but the road to pacifism is incomplete.

No one has traveled this road faster than the Enga of Papua New Guinea. An isolated population of subsistence growers and pig farmers living in the island’s mountainous interior, the Enga made the transition from simple, tribal society to mechanized warfare in the space of 70 years. And now, argues University of Utah anthropologist Polly Wiessner, in an article appearing in Science, they’re laying down their arms in favor of a more durable future—offering a compelling look at the “evolution” of violence in pre-modern culture.

The Enga are a something of a living fossil, preserved by geography and chance. They discovered the sweet potato and pig husbandry some 350 years ago but didn’t make contact with Westerners until the late 1930s. Missionaries and colonial administrators from Australia arrived after World War II. When Wiessner first visited Papua New Guinea in 1985, many of the clan elders were old enough to recall the first time they’d ever seen a white face. “They thought they were the first ancestors, descended from the sky,” she says.

Wiessner lived with the Enga for three years and was working on a book of their oral histories when, in 1990, a new technology arrived: M-16s, shotguns, and semiautomatic rifles. “Runaway warfare” is never a hopeful phrase, but by the mid-90s, that was the only way to describe it. A population bulge of young, uneducated men coincided with the influx of weapons, and clan warfare—a regular occurrence among the population of 400,000—took on a new dimension. Where rival clans once fought ritualistically with bows and arrows, seeking to settle trade differences and balance power, they now traded machine gun fire. Groups of mercenaries, or “Rambos,” fought across clan lines, not unlike inner-city gangs.

“Men who had never cooperated before were bonded through oaths of loyalty, rituals of confession, traditional fight magic, and victory celebrations,” writes Wiessner. Death tolls soared. Communities were displaced, the environment ravaged, and families destroyed. Eventually, even the national police withdrew.

By the middle of the last decade, however, the Enga had begun to push back against the internecine conflicts, and by 2010-2011, the number of wars fought had fallen from a peak of 149 to 28. It was a dramatic turn of events—but what made it possible?

One was simple economics: constant warfare was leaving the Enga poorer. Not only did the Rambos disrupt trade, but they turned entire clans into refugees. At the same time, education—and its attendant wealth—promised an alternative to young men who eschewed a life of the sword. Church custom and community played a part, too, “disrupting cycles of vengeance and preparing the emotional landscape for peace.”

Perhaps the most important tool, however, were village courts—known as “O.M.S.” in local parlance—in which Enga elders served as judges. By the late aughts, Wiessner writes, “people had to turn to OMS to contain wars knowing that no outside force would intervene.” The courts, which operated the country’s official legal channels, could dispense tribal justice unhindered by bureaucracy or a Western code of law. Magistrates, Wiessner reports, liked to say that they “speak the language, know the hearts of people, and do not just read from some law book,” even as they weathered “the rain, the sun, and the occasional raucous drunk or pig while people air complaints in public and the crowd responds.”

Incredibly, 98 percent of cases “reached or approached resolution” without jail time, instead calling for reparations, mediation, and other forms of “restorative justice.” In 26 percent of cases, Wiessner notes, the parties were ordered to go home, drink some Coca-Cola, and try to find a resolution themselves. The death rate fell nearly four-fold between 2000 and 2011.

When we spoke, Wiessner compared the Enga’s tribal courts to the American legal system. “This dual justice system is really very effective,” she said, “because our formal justice system does not restore community relations. It does not consider politics, and it does not consider future relations. It just puts someone away.” Humans have a deep need for acceptance of liability and apology, not simply punishment, “and I think, emotionally, our justice system doesn’t satisfy us.”

Justice was expensive for the Enga. Because entire clans were called on to pay the reparations of one Rambo’s actions, young fighters who repeatedly cost the clan money were known as “rubbish men”—they were ostracized for disrupting the social fabric.

Wiessner was witnessing social evolution in action. When guns were first introduced to the Enga, clans lived in fear, and Rambos were celebrated for protecting their families. As the clans’ values changed, however, there was no longer a benefit to being a hot-head with a machine gun. “I feel that these mechanisms, which must be very deep in our evolutionary past, probably selected for a lot of our cognitive dispositions: responsibility, respect, restraint. That’s one of my big arguments in the paper: through social selection, people with these qualities did better than those without.”

Wiessner doesn’t dispute Pinker’s assertion that modern societies are less violent than simple ones, but adds that premodern death rates may not have been as high as some scholars suggest. “I don’t think people could have lived under this stress for long periods of time,” she says. “We must realize that there’s a lot of variation, and that simple societies do have sophisticated means to tame violence.

“Ways of keeping peace,” she continued, “are old.”