This acclaimed book by Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct and The
Blank Slate, argues that, contrary to popular belief, humankind has become progressively
less violent, over millenia and decades. Can violence really have declined? The images of
conflict we see daily on our screens from around the world suggest this is an almost obscene
claim to be making. Extraordinarily, however, Steven Pinker shows violence within and
between societies - both murder and warfare - really has declined from prehistory to today.
We are much less likely to die at someone else's hands than ever before. Even the horrific
carnage of the last century, when compared to the dangers of pre-state societies, is part
of this trend. Debunking both the idea of the 'noble savage' and an over-simplistic
Hobbesian notion of a 'nasty, brutish and short' life, Steven Pinker argues that modernity
and its cultural institutions are actually making us better people.
A FOREIGN COUNTRY
The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.
L. P. Hartley
If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget
how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into
the fabric of daily existence. Cultural memory pacifies the past, leaving us
with pale souvenirs whose bloody origins have been bleached away. A woman
donning a cross seldom reflects that this instrument of torture was a common
punishment in the ancient world; nor does a person who speaks of a whipping
boy ponder the old practice of flogging an innocent child in place of a misbehaving
prince. We are surrounded by signs of the depravity of our ancestors’
way of life, but we are barely aware of them. Just as travel broadens the mind,
a literal- minded tour of our cultural heritage can awaken us to how differently
they did things in the past.
In a century that began with 9/ 11, Iraq, and Darfur, the claim that we are
living in an unusually peaceful time may strike you as somewhere between
hallucinatory and obscene. I know from conversations and survey data that
most people refuse to believe it. In succeeding chapters I will make the case
with dates and data. But first I want to soften you up by reminding you of
incriminating facts about the past that you have known all along. This is not
just an exercise in persuasion. Scientists often probe their conclusions with a
sanity check, a sampling of real- world phenomena to reassure themselves
they haven’t overlooked some flaw in their methods and wandered into a
preposterous conclusion. The vignettes in this chapter are a sanity check on
the data to come.
What follows is a tour of the foreign country called the past, from 8000 BCE
to the 1970s. It is not a grand tour of the wars and atrocities that we already
commemorate for their violence, but rather a series of glimpses behind deceptively
familiar landmarks to remind us of the viciousness they conceal. The
past, of course, is not a single country, but encompasses a vast diversity of
cultures and customs. What they have in common is the shock of the old: a
backdrop of violence that was endured, and often embraced, in ways that
startle the sensibilities of a 21st- century Westerner.
In 1991 two hikers stumbled upon a corpse poking out of a melting glacier in
the Tyrolean Alps. Thinking that it was the victim of a skiing accident, rescue
workers jackhammered the body out of the ice, damaging his thigh and his
backpack in the process. Only when an archaeologist spotted a Neolithic copper
ax did people realize that the man was five thousand years old.
Ötzi the Iceman, as he is now called, became a celebrity. He appeared on
the cover of Time magazine and has been the subject of many books, documentaries,
and articles. Not since Mel Brooks’s 2000 Year Old Man (“I have
more than 42,000 children and not one comes to visit me”) has a kilogenarian
had so much to tell us about the past. Ötzi lived during the crucial transition
in human prehistory when agriculture was replacing hunting and gathering,
and tools were first made of metal rather than stone. Together with his ax and
backpack, he carried a quiver of fl etched arrows, a wood- handled dagger, and
an ember wrapped in bark, part of an elaborate fire- starting kit. He wore a
bearskin cap with a leather chinstrap, leggings sewn from animal hide, and
waterproof snowshoes made from leather and twine and insulated with
grass. He had tattoos on his arthritic joints, possibly a sign of acupuncture,
and carried mushrooms with medicinal properties.
Ten years after the Iceman was discovered, a team of radiologists made a
startling discovery: Ötzi had an arrowhead embedded in his shoulder. He had
not fallen in a crevasse and frozen to death, as scientists had originally surmised;
he had been murdered. As his body was examined by the the CSI
Neolithic team, the outlines of the crime came into view. Ötzi had unhealed
cuts on his hands and wounds on his head and chest. DNA analyses found
traces of blood from two other people on one of his arrowheads, blood from
a third on his dagger, and blood from a fourth on his cape. According to one
reconstruction, Ötzi belonged to a raiding party that clashed with a neighboring
tribe. He killed a man with an arrow, retrieved it, killed another man,
retrieved the arrow again, and carried a wounded comrade on his back before
fending off an attack and being felled by an arrow himself.
Ötzi is not the only millennia- old man who became a scientific celebrity at
the end of the 20th century. In 1996 spectators at a hydroplane race in Kennewick,
Washington, noticed some bones poking out of a bank of the Columbia
River. Archaeologists soon recovered the skeleton of a man who had
lived 9,400 years ago. Kennewick Man quickly became the object of highly
publicized legal and scientific battles. Several Native American tribes fought
for custody of the skeleton and the right to bury it according to their traditions,
but a federal court rejected their claims, noting that no human culture has
ever been in continuous existence for nine millennia. When the scientific studies
resumed, anthropologists were intrigued to learn that Kennewick Man
was anatomically very different from today’s Native Americans. One report
argued that he had European features; another that he matched the Ainu, the
aboriginal inhabitants of Japan. Either possibility would imply that the Americas
had been peopled by several independent migrations, contradicting DNA
evidence suggesting that Native Americans are descendants of a single group
of migrants from Siberia.
For plenty of reasons, then, Kennewick Man has become an object of fascination
among the scientifically curious. And here is one more. Lodged in
Kennewick Man’s pelvis is a stone projectile. Though the bone had partially
healed, indicating that he didn’t die from the wound, the forensic evidence is
unmistakable: Kennewick Man had been shot.
These are just two examples of famous prehistoric remains that have
yielded grisly news about how their owners met their ends. Many visitors to
the British Museum have been captivated by Lindow Man, an almost perfectly
preserved two- thousand- year- old body discovered in an English peat bog in
1984. We don’t know how many of his children visited him, but we do know
how he died. His skull had been fractured with a blunt object; his neck had
been broken by a twisted cord; and for good measure his throat had been cut.
Lindow Man may have been a Druid who was ritually sacrificed in three ways
to satisfy three gods. Many other bog men and women from northern Europe
show signs of having been strangled, bludgeoned, stabbed, or tortured.
In a single month while researching this book, I came across two new stories
about remarkably preserved human remains. One is a two- thousand- year old
skull dug out of a muddy pit in northern England. The archaeologist who
was cleaning the skull felt something move, looked through the opening at
the base, and saw a yellow substance inside, which turned out to be a preserved
brain. Once again, the unusual state of preservation was not the only
noteworthy feature about the find. The skull had been deliberately severed
from the body, suggesting to the archaeologist that it was a victim of human
sacrifice. The other discovery was of a 4, 600- year- old grave in Germany that
held the remains of a man, a woman, and two boys. DNA analyses showed
that they were members of a single nuclear family, the oldest known to science.
The foursome had been buried at the same time— signs, the archaeologists
said, that they had been killed in a raid.
What is it about the ancients that they couldn’t leave us an interesting corpse
without resorting to foul play? Some cases may have an innocent explanation
based in taphonomy, the processes by which bodies are preserved over long
spans of time. Perhaps at the turn of the first millennium the only bodies that
got dumped into bogs, there to be pickled for posterity, were those that had
been ritually sacrificed. But with most of the bodies, we have no reason to
think that they were preserved only because they had been murdered. Later
we will look at the results of forensic investigations that can distinguish how
an ancient body met its end from how it came down to us. For now, prehistoric
remains convey the distinct impression that The Past is a place where a person
had a high chance of coming to bodily harm.