Academic journal article Journal of Anthropology

Violence and Warfare in Precontact Melanesia

Academic journal article Journal of Anthropology

Violence and Warfare in Precontact Melanesia

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

Cross cultural studies of violence and warfare in indigenous cultures have revealed a number of general trends that appear to be independent of specific social contexts. Keeley [1] has examined a large number of small societies and has concluded that violence was more the rule than the exception in preindustrial societies. However, Loftin [2] found that the nature of violence changed with population, from a fight between individuals associated with distinct groups who knew one another to an impersonal collision of groups spurred into action by strong leaders. Ember et al. [3, 4] found that the degree of participation in governance was an important factor in the frequency of warfare among a wide range of societies. Indeed, leadership appears to have played a role in both interpersonal violence and warfare, occasionally suppressing the former to retain the social cohesion necessary to carry out the latter.

Precontact Oceania offers a unique laboratory for the study of human behaviors, including leadership, violence, and warfare. Island populations varied from a few hundred--just sufficient to maintain a sustainable gene pool--to many tens of thousands. Social structures ranged from egalitarian bands to hierarchical systems with many of the aspects of nation states. In previous studies I examined the influence of leadership upon violence and warfare in Polynesia [5] and Micronesia [6]. In this paper I extend the same type of analysis to the third major cultural region in Oceania: Melanesia.

Violence and warfare in Melanesia have been the subject of a number of studies, including Camilla Wedgwood's [7] early paper "Some Aspects of Warfare in Melanesia." More recently, Knauft [8] has surveyed violence in the context of evolving sociological and anthropological theory, with particular attention given to Papua New Guinea. He writes that ([8]: 225) "the dominant sense one gets from available accounts, primary ones as well as contemporary reconstructions, is that warfare was indeed quite prominent if not endemic in most coastal and insular areas of Melanesia at the time these regions were first regularly contacted by Europeans." However, Douglas [9] questioned the view that Melanesians were "constantly at war" and Chowning [10] suggested that they may have been no more violent than other Oceanians.

This paper focuses on lethal physical violence (rather than sorcery, wife beating, fighting for sport, etc.) in 30 Melanesian societies prior to significant European contact. Most of the analysis is dedicated to islands, although four cultures from Papua New Guinea are described both to complement the island cultures and because of the excellent documentation available for these societies. The method used is one of controlled comparison [11], in which a similar analytical technique is applied to a set of cultures within a defined area.

I divide lethal violence into two categories: interpersonal violence and warfare. Interpersonal violence is defined as occurring in a dyadic relationship between two or more individuals where the target of the violence is a specific person. Assassinations, revenge attacks, and murders committed in the act of theft fall into this category. I use Tefft and Reinhardt's ([12]: 154) definition of warfare as "an armed aggression between political communities or alliances of political communities" Such communities can be kin groups, clans, villages, or coalitions of regional polities.

Raiding was a common form of warfare in much of Melanesia. In most cases a raid would consist of a few individuals who would enter an opponent's territory by stealth with the intention of killing one or a few people. More substantial raids, such as when a group would infiltrate a village before dawn to attack its sleeping residents, were also common. Here the attacking party had to be careful not to stay too long in the enemy camp for fear of being overwhelmed. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.