A research report by Stephen M. Younger, published in Current Anthropology last fall, provides an intriguing analysis of some of the conditions that may foster peacefulness in human societies. Younger acknowledges broader literature that demonstrates the ability of people to live together peacefully, but his research allows him to go deeper into the mechanisms and conditions that may inhibit violence and warfare.

He has studied the literature on warfare and peacefulness among Polynesian peoples in order to compare levels and types of violence in large and small scale societies. He analyses population densities and a variety of environmental conditions in the societies he works with. His table 1, “Violence and Warfare on Selected Islands of Polynesia,” lists 35 atolls and volcanic islands with populations ranging from Nukuoro, 124 people at the time of contact, up to Hawaii, with an estimate of 100,000 when Europeans first arrived.

The article distinguishes between two types of violence—interpersonal and warfare. The author defines the former as “dyadic action between two or a few individuals” and warfare as “an armed aggression between political communities or alliances of political communities (p.927).” The report includes a brief review of the issues identified by anthropologists that may help promote violence: conflicts over women, drives for status, competition for resources, and control of political power, among others. More to the point, Younger also mentions some of the literature which relates to peace and peacefulness, which is the focus of his report.

He is careful to not suggest that the factors he identifies in Polynesia are causes of peace—evidently warfare and violence can be caused, but not peacefulness. Instead, he maintains he is finding “conditions and mechanisms for peace.” He defines “conditions” as factors that are correlates or are associated with peacefulness, and “mechanisms” as behavioral patterns that tend to minimize violence. His basic question is that if demographic and geographical conditions can stimulate violence, can they also foster peacefulness? His answer is yes.

A number of his conclusions are most interesting. Younger finds that there is a positive correlation between interpersonal violence and warfare. Societies that have a lot of the one tend to have a lot of the other, and conversely, those that have a high degree of interpersonal harmony also tend to be the ones that do not fight wars.

The author also shows that islands with less than 1,000 people are, overall, much less likely to experience violence than larger ones. Intriguingly, he found that the more densely populated islands—the smaller, more crowded ones—experienced a lower level of violence than the less densely populated, larger islands. This result might seem counterintuitive. He also found that islands with a strongly egalitarian ethos, with chiefs who were relatively weak, were more likely to be peaceful than more hierarchical communities.

Another interesting result of his analysis is that small islands which are relatively more isolated from their nearest inhabited neighbors experience less violence than the ones that are closer to their neighboring peoples. He emphasizes that if all the islands in his sample are included, that conclusion does not apply. Larger islands that are relatively isolated from their neighbors still experience a lot of violence and warfare. But when he looks only at isolated islands with populations of less than 1,000, they have much less violence than the others. Seven of the eight small islands in his sample that are more than 100 km away from neighbors are relatively peaceful, in contrast to small islands with relatively close neighbors.

The distance is critical. While 100 km is well within the navigating capabilities of Polynesian canoeists—a day’s canoeing distance away—such distance severely limits the ability of islanders to initiate inter-island warfare. However, distance from neighboring islands was relatively less important for people on the larger islands, where communities can easily fight with others on the same island.

Younger concludes from his review of the literature that competition for resources, particularly food, often produced conflict in Polynesia. But an even more significant cause of violence was competition for status and power. On large islands, people fought over resources from different parts of the island that had varying amounts of food. On the smaller atolls, however, resources are more evenly distributed, and on many of them, the authority of the chiefs was often quite circumcised. His basic point is that small islands lacked the social stratification and resource asymmetry of the larger islands, which, on them, led to competition and war.

Also, on the smaller islands people handled problems themselves. They tended to be peaceful because they did not have leaders able to resolve their difficulties. People developed what he calls normative controls over their behavior to preserve interpersonal harmony.

Younger’s Polynesian data suggest that socialization for violence begins with warfare, a finding that is consistent with other research. He also indicates that human sacrifice, a custom in the Marquesas, may have contributed to violence there, but none of the small island societies appear to have developed that practice.

The author disagrees with the widely held supposition that warfare was ubiquitous in Polynesia. Perhaps it was on the larger islands, but not on the smaller ones. He concludes that his data disproves the frequently held proposition that violence is normative for human societies. “In precontact Polynesia, violence appears to have been realized or not realized as a result of the physical and social fabric in which the population found itself (p.932).”

He does not consider other values that, in some peaceful societies, appear to help develop and maintain peacefulness. He does not deal with the ethical structures of societies, their child-raising strategies, religious beliefs, values placed on gender equality, approaches to respect, and other elements of their worldviews that can contribute to interpersonal harmony. But criticizing what is not in the article begs the question: he contributes a lot of very useful ideas about the causes of peacefulness.

Younger, Stephen M. 2008. “Conditions and Mechanisms for Peace in Precontact Polynesia.” Current Anthropology 49(5): p.927-934