The History of the Culture of War
Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness 5,000 years of monopolization of the culture of war by the state

The History of the Culture of War

What is culture and how does it evolve?

Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness

The culture of war in prehistory

Data from prehistory before the Neolithic

Enemy images: culture or biology

War and the culture of war at the dawn of history

--Ancient Mesopotamia

--Ancient Egypt

--Ancient China

--Ancient Greece and Rome

--Ancient Crete

--Ancient Indus civilizations

--Ancient Hebrew civilization

--Ancient Central American civilization

Warfare and the origin of the State

Religion and the origin of the State

A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history

The internal culture of war: a taboo topic

The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: its increasing monopolization by the state

--1.Armies and armaments

--2.External conquest and exploitation: Colonialism and Neocolonialism

--3.The internal culture of war and economies based on exploitation of workers and the environment

--4.Prisons and penal systems

--5.The military-industrial complex

--6.The drugs-for-guns trade

--7.Authoritarian control

--8.Control of information

--9.Identification of an "enemy"

--10.Education for the culture of war

--11.Male domination

--12.Religion and the culture of war

--13.The arts and the culture of war



Summary of the history of the culture of war


Continued from previous page

The ethnographic accounts of non-state societies in modern times include many descriptions of their warfare. It may be assumed that the warfare described in these contemporary ethnographic accounts is similar to that of prehistory, and that one can draw inferences from these accounts about the prehistoric culture of war.

An especially detailed analysis of warfare was conducted by a team of anthropologists investigating a village of the Dani in the mountains of New Guinea, a tribe that was relatively uninfluenced by modern civilization. In addition to a monograph by Karl Heider (1979), the expedition produced a remarkable film, Dead Birds, which I used to show regularly in my university teaching. As Heider says, "War was an immediate part of Dani life. Every Dani alliance was constantly at war with at least one of its neighboring alliances."

Most of the warfare observed among the Dani did not occur under "raid or starve" conditions, but was instead a kind of ritual warfare. This ritual warfare can be interpreted as practice that keeps the warriors prepared in the case that "raid or starve" conditions should arrive, although this is not perceived as the reason by the participants. Instead, they rationalize warfare in terms of their religious mythology, "to appease the spirits of the ghosts", i.e. their ancestors who have died.

"The real clue to understanding Dani warfare was the realization that it occurs cyclically in two forms. A brief outburst of violence, the secular phase, sets the political stage for the years-long duration of the routine of the ritual phase of war. We saw only a few months of one ritual phase. The rest of this analysis is reconstruction ?"

"The Ritual Phase of Warfare

For the five and a half months from early April to mid-September 1961, we were able to observe Dani warfare on the southern front of the Gutelu Alliance where they were engaged with the enemy Widaia. During this time there were nine battles (although two of them never freally got going) and nine raids. Six men and boys were killed in the raids. No one was killed in the battles ? the Dani say that war is necessary to placate the ghosts ?"


Battles are formal events involving hundreds of men which take place for a few hours at midday on one of the battlefields in non-man's-land.

Each battle is sponsored by a Big Man in a confederation. He takes major responsibility for what will occur ? The evening before, a Big Man holds a ceremony for his men to prepare for the battle ?"

"By noon the battle is under way, and it will continue in fits and starts for several hours, or until rain has driven the men to cover. At first a few men run toward the enemy, who are still far beyond arrow range. For a few minutes they shout taunts, whoop the jokoik cry, wave their weapons and their feather whisks, and then retire. Some of the enemy reciprocate. Gradually the lines get closer together and soon they are within firing range of each other ?"

"Action in battle is constrained in many ways ? Now, I am not suggesting that Dani leaders once sat together in council and forbade fletched arrows, shooting in vollies, tight formations, or guns. Yet if the sole aim of war was killing enemy expeditiously, the Dani could not be considered very skillful. We need to consider war as having many functions, and killing is only one of them.


"? A raiding party is more often made up of a dozen men from one neighborhood organized by a rising young leader. The men go into raids with no ornaments, moving unseen across the no-man's-land to the edge of enemy territory. They hope to find a careless person alone in a garden or someone coming to the river for a drink, or even to trap a man in a watchtower ? Although the goal of raids is death by surprise, even they are limited by implicit norms. No raids occurred at night ? I think there are no raids at night not because of fear of ghosts but because there are limits to Dani warfare.

The Role of the Ghosts

"? it is the Dani belief in ghosts which keeps warfare going. At the time, when I asked the Dani why they fought, they always said "because of the ghosts." If a man was killed by the enemy, his ghost would lurk around causing various sorts of misfortunes until the people managed to kill one of the enemy in return. Thus, the killing in war, once begun, developed its own internal energy.

The Secular Phase of War

The cycle of Dani warfare is a years-long series of battles and raids between alliances of confederation, broken by a brief outburst of fighting which splits alliances and rearranges the constituent confederations into new alliances, setting the stage for a new series of battles and raids.

During the early 1960's the Gutelu alliance had shown signs of internal stress ? The break finally came in 1966. Before the mists rose on the morning of June 4, hundreds of men of the northern Gutelu made a surprise attack on the nearer compounds of the Wilihiman-Walalua. In an hour they had killed about 125 people and burned many of the compounds?"

"The secular phase of war differs from the ritual phase in many respects: it is rare, it is short, it is very bloody; women and children, as well as men, are killed; property is destroyed and plundered; and it is done for motives of secular revenge."

Although Heider and his colleagues did not observe the Dani under conditions that had deteriorated to the point where they needed to "raid or starve", the 1966 secular phase of war described above corresponds to what one would expect under starvation conditions.

As mentioned, the ritual phases of warfare, battles and raids, are not explained by the Dani as "practice," but instead, they are explained in terms of their beliefs about the role of ghosts. As one watches the filmed accounts of ritual battles the viewer is reminded of modern-day combative sports which have been shown to serve as practice for warfare. Raids are similar to feuding which will be discussed later one as another form of practice.

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To take part in a discussion about this page, click below on the Culture of Peace Dialogues:

discussion board

World Peace through the Town Hall


1) The difference between "peace" and "culture of peace" and a brief history of the culture of war

2) The role of the individual in culture of war and culture of peace

3) Why the state cannot create a culture of peace

4) The important role of civil society in creating a culture of peace

--Peace and disarmament movements

--Ecology movement

--Movements for human rights

--Democracy movements

--Women's movement

--International understanding, tolerance and solidarity

--Movements for free flow of information

--The strengths and weaknesses of civil society

5) The basic and essential role of local government in culture of peace

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality


--Transparency and the free flow of information

--Education for a culture of peace

--Security and public safety

--Some ongoing initiatives

6) Assessing progress toward a culture of peace at the local level

--Culture of peace measurement at the level of the state

7) Going global: networking of city culture of peace commissions

8) The future transition of the United Nations from control by states to popular control through local governmental representatives

9) What would a culture of peace be like?