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How Warrior Societies Changed Human History

Before warrior societies dominated, humans lived in more egalitarian groups.

Key points

  • Pre-agricultural societies were largely nomadic, egalitarian, and grounded in kinship, cooperation, and reciprocity.
  • Post-agriculture warrior societies came into being in response to the accumulation of wealth and the need to protect it.
  • Warrior societies rewarded hierarchy and male aggression, which flooded into the behavior of our species.
  • Early literary works like "Beowulf" glorified warrior heroes, but we have a lot to learn from hunter-gatherer societies.

I've been reading the Seamus Heaney translation of "Beowulf." As a young graduate student in English, I thought I might become a medievalist, so I took a course in Old English and read some of "Beowulf" in the original. Beowulf, like Achilles, was a great hero in a warrior society. Beowulf’s violent, graphic battles with the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, caught my imagination and invaded my fantasies. Reading the poem was like watching a gruesome horror film.

Re-reading it many years later, after learning something about human evolution and the communities that preceded the emergence of warrior societies, has given me a different perspective. The thrill of battle and the appeal of the triumphant hero have diminished. For many years my interest has been focused on something less thrilling than Beowulf ripping Grendel’s arm off but perhaps more useful: the pre-agricultural world and the hunter-gatherer bands in which our species evolved.

These societies were nomadic, largely egalitarian, and grounded in kinship, cooperation, and reciprocity. They lacked hereditary leaders, titles, castes or classes; respect and status were given to those who did things that benefited the group, not to heroes and hotheads. Their values and virtues are more in tune with the older, more mellow me.

The Rise of Warrior Societies

Post-agriculture warrior societies came into being in response to the accumulation of wealth and the need to protect it—and the land that produced it—from other warrior societies. Indeed, post-agricultural human history is in large part the story of one warrior society taking over another and then being supplanted by yet another. In what eventually became England, the Romans conquered the Britons and established a colony. When the Romans left, the Britons invited the Angles and Saxons to help them fight the fierce Scots and Picts who were invading from the north. Once the invaders were driven off, the Anglo-Saxons took over from the Britons. Then the Danes, led by Canute, invaded and held large tracts of land in England until they were driven off by the rejuvenated Anglo-Saxons who were led by Alfred the Great. But then, in 1066, the Normans crossed the channel under yet another hero, William the Conqueror, and defeated the Anglo-Saxons. After agriculture, human history became tales of heroes, conquerors and war: Alexander the Great, Alfred the Great, William the Conqueror, Peter the Great.

Warrior societies were the gateway through which pre-human primate hierarchy and male aggression came flooding back into the behavior of our species. With the advent of the societies like those of Achilles and Beowulf, the primal primate was released, rewarded, and accorded high status.

The primal primate is with us still. In spite of the development of democracy, the rule of law, and the extension of rights to many, warrior societies persist throughout the world, and wannabe “greats” lead their followers to war. Tales of warrior heroes are still stirring, even mesmerizing, especially for young men. Think of all the war and superhero movies that have been made, all the cop shows on TV, the parades, the medals, and so forth. As a boy and a young man I ate it all up and dreamed of battlefield glory. But the older me thinks we have a lot to learn from hunter-gatherers.

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