Thousands of people will converge on Washington this weekend to mark the fourth anniversary of the American invasion of Iraq. Most will question why the United States, among other countries, launches wars so often. Some of the demonstrators may do more than protest. They may also discuss the value of peacemaking and decide to investigate the research being done on international peace. Works on inter-society peacefulness in the anthropology and sociology literature could help these protesters ask better questions and promote sharper thinking.

Materials about peaceful societies, on this website and elsewhere, provide clues about the social, economic, cultural, and psychological conditions that promote inter-state harmony. Many societies appear to rely on their myths, beliefs, and understandings of themselves and others to develop a state of peace—and an appreciation for the horrors of warfare.

Some societies, such as the Chewong [1], the Yanadi [2], and the Ju/’hoansi [3] don’t even have legends of battles, wars, or mythic warrior heroes. Some do. Take Ifaluk Island, for instance. In one of their myths [4], an Ifaluk chief had a fight on Woleai, a nearby island, over a woman. He returned to his own island and gave an angry speech. When he dropped his loincloth, he declared, if his penis should come up and point toward the island where he had just been beaten, they should all go to war.

Whereupon, he dropped his loincloth and immediately had an erection that pointed toward the guilty island. The men sailed over, went to war, and killed everyone. A large wooden phallus on the front porch of a major canoe house on Ifaluk, pointing toward Woleai of course, commemorates the myth, and it doubtless reminds the people that warfare is something they abandoned long ago. To this day, the Ifaluk people are appalled at the thought of violence.

The Fipa of southwestern Tanzania overcame a violent history of warfare that lasted until the 19th century, before European contact. They abandoned the war-making and organized a highly peaceful society instead [5]. The Norwegians were famed seafarers one thousand years ago, raiding and waging wars on many coastal communities. Today they have a peaceful country which is well known for promoting mediation efforts to end wars around the world [6].

The lesson from these examples should inspire the thinking of the peace activists this weekend. Even though Americans established their nation after a bloody revolutionary war, expanded it with several additional wars, and celebrate the glories of past conflicts on numerous national holidays, that does not mean they are locked into that pattern forever. The peaceful societies grew to cherish peace: Americans and other warring peoples are just as capable of change as the Ifaluk, the Fipa or the Norwegians.

But simply believing in peace may not be enough. In his book The Human Potential for Peace, Douglas Fry advocates the study of what he calls “peace systems,” groups of societies that may or may not be completely nonviolent internally, but which do not go to war with one another. They find that fighting wars with their neighbors is counter-productive.

Fry describes in some detail [7] the peace system of the Upper Xingu River valley in Brazil, where a number of distinct ethnic groups, several of which speak mutually unintelligible languages, manage to avoid fighting with one another. They base their success, in part, on their trading relationships. Each village produces specialized trade goods that the others could probably fabricate but don’t, in favor of fostering a healthy peace system. The Mehinaku produce salt, for instance, from a water hyacinth plant while the Wauja specialize in pottery. The trade among the villages fosters enduring, stable social relationships.

The Xinguano societies also build their peace system through widespread intermarriages among the different peoples. Furthermore, they jointly participate in rituals and ceremonies, some of which openly disparage violence. They are quite conscious of their inter-village peace system and their shared values opposing warfare with one another.

Another good example of a peace system exists on the Nilgiri-Wynaad Plateau of South India, according to an article by Bird-David [8]. She compares the societies on that plateau and those in a nearby, more violent, area, confusingly known as the Nilgiri Plateau. On the Nilgiri Plateau, the Kota, Badagga, and Toda peoples have fought numerous wars with one another over the past couple hundred years, and frequently murdered the Kurumbas since they feared their sorcery. In the Nilgiri-Wynaad region, in contrast, there are no reports of inter-tribal warfare. Bird-David suggests several possible reasons why the Nilgiri-Wynaad area appears to have a successful peace system and the Nilgiri Plateau does not.

One factor may be the differences between the social and economic inter-relationships among villages in the two adjoining areas. On the Nilgiri Plateau, the different societies tend to keep to themselves, in isolated villages without too much exposure to the other, different groups. There is minimal mixing. The different societies celebrate their religious festivals in their own temples. In contrast, there is a lot of mixing on the Nilgiri-Wynaad Plateau. The people there trade firewood, bamboo, honey, spices, knives, tobacco, clothes, and rice. People work for individuals in other societies for either monetary payments or trade. Peoples from the different societies hold common celebrations in the community temples.

These examples of peace systems, and others that Fry presented recently, may suggest possible ways of fostering international peace in today’s world. For instance, the apparent success of some of the regional free trade associations suggests that regional peace systems could also succeed. The Nordic countries, it can be argued [9], have already established a peace system. The peaceful societies, and the communities within the small-scale peace systems, are not necessarily perfectly peaceful, but at least they have overcome their mythic fantasies and histories of warfare. They avoid war. Will the peace advocates this weekend be able to convince their chiefs to let go of their myths and histories of war, to forgive the Woleai Islanders, and point themselves instead toward peace?


[1] Howell, Signe.1988. “From Child to Human: Chewong Concepts of Self.” In Acquiring Culture: Cross Cultural Studies in Child Development, edited by Gustav Jahoda and I. M. Lewis, p.149-153. London: Croom Helm

[2] Raghaviah, V. 1962. The Yanadis, p.32. New Delhi: Bharatiya Adimjati Sevak Sangh

[3] Marshall,Lorna. 1960. “!Kung Bushmen Bands.” Africa 30(4): 336

[4] Burrows, Edwin G. and Melford E. Spiro. 1970. An Atoll Culture: Ethnography of Ifaluk in the Central Carolines, p.10-13. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press

[5] Willis, Roy. 1989. “The Peace Puzzle in Ufipa.” In Societies at Peace: Anthropological Perspectives, edited by Signe Howell and Roy Willis, p.133-145. London: Routledge (PDF available in this website)

[6] Dobinson, Kristin. 2004. “A Model of Peacefulness: Rethinking Peace and Conflict in Norway.” In Keeping the Peace: Conflict Resolution and Peaceful Societies around the World, edited by Graham Kemp and Douglas P. Fry, p.149-166. New York: Routledge

[7] Fry, Douglas P. 2006. The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence, p.13-21. New York: Oxford University Press

[8] Bird-David, Nurit. 1997. “The Nilgiri Tribal Systems: A View from Below.” In Blue Mountains Revisited: Cultural Studies on the Nilgiri Hills, edited by Paul Hockings, p.5-22. Delhi: Oxford University Press

[9] Archer, Clive. 1996. “The Nordic Area as a ‘Zone of Peace.’” Journal of Peace Research 33(4): 451-467