Scholarly articles that compare nonviolent peoples with violent ones can be among the most fascinating works about peaceful societies. These kinds of articles provide mirror images of peacefulness and violence that often foster reflections on the causes of peace.

A 1992 article by Clayton and Carole Robarchek, added to the Archive of this website this week, falls into that category. While it focuses on comparing the peaceful Semai with the violent Waorani, it includes some important insights into the processes of forming peacefulness and violence in societies.

A similar article by the Robarcheks published in 1998, added to the website on January 12, compares the same two societies but it focuses on economic exchanges and norms of reciprocity. This 1992 piece, about twice the length of the 1998 work, emphasizes the very significant differences in the worldviews of the two societies and how those differences foster violence or peacefulness.

This article is very broad in scope. It provides a thorough overview of the two societies—one of the most peaceful in existence and one of the most violent ever known. The authors carefully describe the many remarkable similarities between the two. Their natural environments are similar, their modes of economic sustenance are similar, they even grow similar foods. They fish and hunt game in similar fashions.

A number of their social structures are also quite similar, though of course some are different. Even in some relatively minor matters, such as avoiding the use of alcohol, the two societies are quite similar. The authors pile up the factual similarities between the two societies, and as the facts keep building their case grows ever stronger.

The Robarcheks present a convincing case that the major difference between the two is that they view the surrounding world differently. The Semai, of Peninsular Malaysia, see themselves as helpless in the face of a surrounding environment that is dangerous and hostile; their only security and safety comes from their peaceful affiliation with their own bands.

The Waorani, on the other hand, have a confidant, pragmatic, independent view of the surrounding environment, within which individuals are normally quite self-reliant. They have little social need for group solidarity or cohesiveness, and they have not developed structures that promote control of conflict. Because of their different ways of looking at things, the one society is highly peaceful while in the other, until recently, people had a very hard time avoiding killing one another.

The Robarcheks explain that the societies that surround the Waorani, in the western Amazon basin near the base of the Andes, have had a very long tradition of warfare and hostilities. Among all of them, however, the Waorani reigned supreme for the intensity of their violence. In this situation, according to the authors, “where groups seldom had the absolute superiority in technological or other resources to defeat conclusively both the forest and their enemies—to kill their men, kidnap their women, capture their children, and occupy their territory—the result is predictable: a more or less stable balance of terror with constant raiding among the various social groups” (p.197).

Anyone who has followed the news about global terrorism in recent years can only appreciate the prescient analysis of the Robarcheks 14 years ago about an un-winnable balance of terror in the Amazon basin.

This article is filled with numerous insights, such as an analysis of how and why the Waorani gave up their raiding and spearing lifestyle in the late 1950s. Several Waorani women had left their bands to live with other, Quichua speaking, peoples. On the suggestion of several women missionaries, they were induced to return to their bands to see if they could gain permission for the outsider women to live with them.

Seeing the women as non-threatening, the bands agreed. Then, with all the talk from the Waorani women and the missionary women, the men began to realize that there were alternatives to their prevailing lifestyle—better ways to live than constant blood-feuds, raids, fear, hatred of outsiders, and spearing.

While Christian beliefs may have helped foster the change, the major factor that prompted the Waorani to give up their violent ways was that they themselves really wanted to end their violence. They had apparently tried on their own to foster peace at various times earlier, but they lacked the social and cultural structures to make the peace processes stick.

The outsiders, and the returned Waorani women, provided ample evidence that less violent conditions could and did prevail elsewhere. Confronted with the new information, as the Robarchek’s explain, “once the bands became convinced that the feuding could stop, their commitment to ending the killing … became a goal in its own right, one which superseded the desire for revenge” (p.205).

A strong commitment to ending the killing quickly took hold—there were many other benefits to ending violence, as they all soon perceived—and the Waorani themselves made the effort to contact additional bands and convince them that they were ending the age-old cycle of violence. In a few months, the pattern of violence had largely (though not entirely) ceased. The Robarcheks explain this process, and give a lot more detailed information about the Waorani, in their book Waorani: The Contexts of Violence and War (1998).

Comparisons between highly peaceful and highly violent societies cannot, of course, be applied directly to the problems of today’s world. But many of the broader themes that emerge in an article like this should provoke readers to think about several important issues. The basic worldviews of societies—including such topics as how people view the nature of peacefulness and violence—can have a profound effect on how peaceful they really are. Furthermore, a violent society that is able to see for itself that less violent alternatives are possible and even desirable may be able to change its ways. Robarchek and Robarchek (1992) is a profoundly important work.