Modern Civilization Hasn’t Made Humans Any Less Violent Than ‘Barbaric’ Ancient Times

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Movies and stories depicting ancient times may make humans out to be more barbaric in early eras, but a new study finds we’re actually not any less violent than our ancestors.

As humankind has evolved, the species has become more organized into large societies and civilizations. On the surface, living in an organized society has advantages over smaller hunter-gatherer tribes that used to roam the earth: larger numbers in one concentrated place means better protection from rival tribes or wild animals. For years, anthropologists have theorized that larger civilizations have pacified the violence that characterized early humans.

Medieval knights hold a sword fight reenactment
Movies and stories depicting ancient times may make humans out to be more barbaric in early eras, but a new study finds we’re actually not any less violent than our ancestors.

But according to new research led by Dean Falk, an anthropology professor at Florida State University, modern civilization has not made humans any less violent.

“Rather than being more violent, people who live in small-scale societies are more vulnerable to a significant portion of their community being killed in warfare than those living in states because, as the old saying goes, ‘there is safety in numbers,'” Falk explains in a university release. “We recognize, of course, that people living in all types of societies have the potential not only for violence — but also for peace.”

Falk and co-lead researcher Charles Hildebolt from Washington University, found that while large-scale wars have taken more lives in modern times, a lower percentage of the total population is killed in those wars. So while we may not be any more peaceful than we were as a species in early history, we are less likely to die in a conflict now than ever before.

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Falk and Hildebolt analyzed data from population sizes and deaths from inter-group conflict in 24 human nonstates, 19 countries that fought in World War I, 22 countries that fought in World War II, and 11 chimpanzee communities in the wild. The researchers included the chimp communities because they attack other groups and kill individuals.

Overall, they found that the chimp communities were less violent than human communities, suggesting that humans quickly developed more sophisticated methods of warfare than chimps early on. As a whole, for each human and chimp community, the overall annual percentage of deaths decreased as total population increased, while smaller societies grew more vulnerable to losing significant portions of their numbers to warfare.

The study was published in the Dec. 2017 edition of the journal Current Anthropology.

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