The Wars That Really Ended All Wars: What happens when a premodern society swaps axes for semiautomatic weapons?
“Only the dead have seen the end of war,” philosopher George Santayana wrote in 1905. We may be living in the most peaceful epoch of human history, as Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has argued, free from the quotidian violence of pre-modern society, but the road to pacifism is incomplete.
No one has traveled this road faster than the Enga of Papua New Guinea. An isolated population of subsistence growers and pig farmers living in the island’s mountainous interior, the Enga made the transition from simple, tribal society to mechanized warfare in the space of 70 years. And now, argues University of Utah anthropologist Polly Wiessner, in an article appearing in Science, they’re laying down their arms in favor of a more durable future—offering a compelling look at the “evolution” of violence in pre-modern culture.
The Enga are a something of a living fossil, preserved by geography and chance. They discovered the sweet potato and pig husbandry some 350 years ago but didn’t make contact with Westerners until the late 1930s. Missionaries and colonial administrators from Australia arrived after World War II. When Wiessner first visited Papua New Guinea in 1985, many of the clan elders were old enough to recall the first time they’d ever seen a white face. “They thought they were the first ancestors, descended from the sky,” she says.
Wiessner lived with the Enga for three years and was working on a book of their oral histories when, in 1990, a new technology arrived: M-16s, shotguns, and semiautomatic rifles. “Runaway warfare” is never a hopeful phrase, but by the mid-90s, that was the only way to describe it. A population bulge of young, uneducated men coincided with the influx of weapons, and clan warfare—a regular occurrence among the population of 400,000—took on a new dimension. Where rival clans once fought ritualistically with bows and arrows, seeking to settle trade differences and balance power, they now traded machine gun fire. Groups of mercenaries, or “Rambos,” fought across clan lines, not unlike inner-city gangs.