Linguistics 320
The Origin and Evolution of Human Language
Prof. Suzanne Kemmer
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Hominid Violence

by Suzanne Kemmer

Homo Sapiens Sapiens is a creature with great capacity for violence against its own conspecifics. Humans have the social concepts and practice of altruism, compassion and empathy, on the one hand, but on the other, also cruelty and violence.

Violence in the form of hurting and killing prey is an inherent behavior in a predatory or hunting creature. Violence turned on conspecifics, on the other hand, is typically found in territorial species, independently of whether they are predators. Territoriality is widespread among all kinds of vertebrate species. Among non-human primates, the combination of territoriality and violence against conspecifics is found only with chimpanzees. Interestingly, chimps, although they are omnivores like humans, are not hunters to any great extent. The majority of their diet is vegetarian, although they get meat opportunistically. Other pongids are not predatory at all, e.g. gorillas, which are vegetarian.

Chimps in the wild have been observed by Goodall and others to go on cooperative raiding forays, attacking other groups of chimps and killing conspecifics in those groups. Many people have viewed this behavior as representing something like the seeds of war in humans, because of the social organization involved and the group-on-group nature of the interaction, rare in the animal world. (The only other case I can think of might be ants.) Chimps do show some antagonistic throwing behavior in these forays, suggesting the seeds of weapon use. The relation of violence and territoriality to the male of the species in both species is strongly marked, but not exclusive.

We don't have access to whether the empathy hierarchy found to be universal in humans has any analogue in chimps. But there is no question that violence on conspecifics in humans is often associated with antagonism to particular groups based on perceived 'outgroup' characteristics. The outgroup or "other" is seen as lower on the hierarchy of "us-ness", and this is strongly associated with a propensity to attack. In human societies, the attacks might be physical, but also come in the form of suspension of social rights to protection, food, property, and other rights, so often seen in human history.

Has violence against conspecifics always been a part of the hominid behavior? Or could it have come to the fore only in certain hominid species? Chimps are apparently the only violent pongids; perhaps H. sapiens sapiens is and was the only violent hominid.

Interestingly, it is hard to find any skeletal evidence of hominids that met violent ends from one of their own species until H. sapiens sapiens. I have not seen any reference at all to early species like H. habilis or H. Erectus meeting violent ends from weapons.

This article, BBC News report, makes the claim that Neanderthals were killers (with the headline "New Evidence of Neanderthal Violence" making the claim very explicit), but the actual evidence cited in the article itself, a total of only two possible cases of Neanderthal injury inflicted by weapon, is scanty.

There has been some suggestion that Neanderthals sometimes practiced cannibalism, but this does not necessarily mean they killed the victims themselves.

I am not aware of any systematic study of evidence of early violence in H. sapiens sapiens. But it would be interesting to investigate how far back evidence can be found that humans have killed each other. Early sapiens had hunting weapons (ca. 230,000 years B.P.), as did Neanderthals (ca. 200,000 years B.P.). Yet as mentioned above, violence in non-human primates does not seem to relate directly to hunting prey for food.

Could earlier hominids have been predatory hunters, yet not attackers of their own conspecifics? At what stage did one or both Sapiens subspecies get the idea of turning a weapon used to get food by hunting, on other Sapiens? The two subspecies co-existed for at least a few tens of thousands of years roughly the same geographic region in Europe. Many people assume that competition for resources was the reason that Neanderthals did not survive past about 29,000 years ago. Was there actual violence between the groups? Did killing with weapons play a part in it?

An imaginative story of an encounter between H. Sapiens Neanderthalensis and H. Sapiens Sapiens was written by William Golding, in his 1955 novel The Inheritors. The story is mostly told from the perspective of the Neanderthals (specifically, from the point of view of various characters in a band of Neanderthals, in turn). The Sapiens Sapiens group (apparently based on archaelogical findings of Cro Magnons of the European paleolithic) are portrayed as interlopers, who view the Neanderthals as savages and quasi-animals, but are themselves far more violent and destructive, not to mention drunken and misled by phony shamans. The Neanderthals are portrayed as peaceable, friendly (their innocent attempts to communicate with the Cro Magnons lead to the latter trying to kill them), and as worshippers of an earth-goddess.

A more recent creative treatment of the hypothesized situation of contact between the subspecies is found in Jean Auel's Earth's Children series, which starts with her most famous book, Clan of the Cave Bear, published in 1980. This time the perspective taken is that of a Cro-Magnon girl. The story describes her rescue as a small child by Neanderthals, and her experiences living as part of their clan (and learning their language, which is a gestural language because they do not have the developed vocal tract of the Cro-Magnons). The series has four other books (the sixth and final one of the series in still being written), in which the main character, Ayla, seeks out and finds other members of her own type (the Cro-Magnons) and has to re-learn how to fit in with their culture. As in Golding's treatment, the Neanderthals are portrayed as honest and guileless. The Cro-Magnons, who are anatomically and culturally modern humans, show a wider and darker range of personality types which includes violent and dishonest individuals.

There is no actual evidence for violent encounters between the subspecies, but the question of the relation between them during their spatio-temporal overlap in Europe has tantalized many people. The idea of what it must have been like to encounter another group of people who would have been like us, but more different than any human culture we know, has awakened a deep curiosity about Neanderthal sapiens ever since people began to recognize the significance of the Neanderthal remains early in the 20th century.