Are humans inherently violent? This ancient Japanese society says no

Susanna Pilny

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JomonA reconstruction of a Jomon period village. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
For hundreds of years, it has been argued that violence and warfare are an inherent part of the human experience—but now, a study of ancient Japanese human remains could turn this theory on its head.

If violence is part of our psyche, then there should be evidence of it in humans thousands of years removed from the present—and recent ethnographic and archaeological discoveries seemed to support this. For example, in what was seen as the earliest example of warfare, a 10,000-year-old massacre was recently found in Turkana, Kenya. There was even a reasonable evolutionary explanation for why we fight: Violence with outsiders increases cooperation between group members, which makes the group more successful and thus more likely to survive.

Could we ever just get along?

But this theory can be disproven in a simple way: By finding evidence of a society with little to no warfare or violence.

Japanese and English researchers turned to a likely group of such humans-- hunter-gatherers who lived during the Jomon period.

The Jomon period was a Japanese prehistoric period dating from 13,000 to 800 BCE. Humans in this period were hunter-gatherers, and archaeologists have long argued that war was rare for them. The team studied the remains of 2,500 people from this time period, searching for evidence of violence like damaged bones, according to the study in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters. What they found is actually quite hopeful.

12-14 percent of the remains of other hunter-gatherers from the same time period as the Jomon show evidence of possible violence. But for the hunter-gatherers in Japan, only 0.89 percent of all bones showed such evidence—and it's very possible that much of this bone damage didn't come from violent attacks.

Furthermore, signs of violence aren't always clues pointing towards war. The signs of violence did not cluster into “hot spots” on a map of Japan, but instead were spread out fairly evenly—lending weight to the idea that there was no warfare at the time. 

From this, the researchers believe that the humans of the Jomon period lived peacefully with each other. And if that’s true, then humans may not be as predisposed to violence as others have led us to believe.