Image: Douglas Fry Enlarge

Given the long, awful history of violence between groups of people, it’s easy to think that humans are predisposed to war. But a new study of violence in modern hunter-gatherer societies, which may hold clues to prehistoric human life, suggests that warlike behavior is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Sure, humans are violent, the researchers say — but most hunter-gatherer killing results from flared tempers and personal feuds rather than group conflicts.

The findings contradict the notion “that humans have an evolved tendency to form coalitions to kill members of neighboring groups,” wrote anthropologists Douglas Fry and Patrik Soderberg in their July 18 Science paper.

“The vast majority of us assume that war is ancient, that it’s part and parcel of human nature,” said Fry. “These types of perceptions have very strong influences on what goes on in current-day society.”

Fry and Soderberg hope to illuminate an era stretching from roughly 10,000 years ago, when metal tools appear in the archaeological record, to about 2.5 million years ago, when stone tool use became widespread. This period looms in our anthropological self-regard as humanity’s adolescence, an evolutionary crucible that would shape our species.

One view, reinforced by studies of conflict in chimpanzees and scattered archaeological evidence of violent deaths in prehistoric humans, holds that group-on-group violence was common and constant, both reflecting and influencing human nature.

A few other researchers consider that view unjustifiably dark, a sort of scientific version of original sin. They say collective human violence was an aberration, not a basic feature of life. In this camp is Fry, who in 2007′s Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace argued that archaeological evidence of prehistoric warfare was often misinterpreted, and modern hunter-gatherer violence exaggerated.

More of the story, click image