What was (or is) the most violent society on Earth?

Can anyone tell me what society we have any record of that most casually accepted physical assault and killing? Societies where if two people mutually decided that the world wasn’t big enough for the both of them, they could do their best to kill one another and no one would think much of it? I’ve heard apocryphal claims for:[ul]
[li]some tribe in the Amazon, can’t think of the name[/li][li]the Vikings[/li][li]various central Asian nomadic tribes[/li][li]the buccaneers of the Caribbean[/li][li]the Hells Angels motorcycle club (ok, that was a joke)[/ul][/li]
Note that I’m not asking about societies (ancient Romans, medeival Europe, etc.) where the official punishment for crimes was notably cruel or bloodthirsty; but rather where there was little notion that hurting or killing people was particularly wrong.

The Yanomami. Many of the stories about their culture deal with the frequent inter-village battles that are very bloody. There is disagreement as to how violent they really are, though, with some sides saying the original research was flawed, others saying it was accurate, and others saying it was accurate but the mass media distorted it to make a better story.

You of course meant ‘HUMAN’ society…?

Depending on how you look at it, you could make a case for the Vikings: I strongly doubt we can assign any absolute numbers to the actual deaths. Murder in that society was not unacceptable, unless you didn’t pay the fine. :slight_smile: And you had to serve the other’s familyin a similar role or provide for it somehow.

I guess it depends what your definition of “people” is. I don’t know of any society where the murder of your own family or neighbors was easily tolerated. But it was perfectly ok to kill the folks in the next village, or the next valley. There is some question in many of these cases whether they the considered the “others” as people.

Would the behavior of the Spanish Conquistadores in Latin America count? Or the Nazis in Poland or the Ukraine?

Well, we got some hills and hollers round here you might want to observe… Bwhahahaha

aka Yanonmamo, for anyone who wants to read more into this. Chagnon’s scholarly work has come under fire, as cmburns alludes, largely by way of Patrick Tierney’s book Darkness in El Dorado, which claims that Chagnon incited the warfare he documented (and brought measles to the tribe via sloppy innoculations, among other things). My understanding is that a select few of Tierney’s points may be valid, but the violent nature of the Yanomamo had been documented long before Chagnon ever arrived in the 1960s.

That said, at least 30% of male Yanomamo die due to their ritualized warfare.

What about the ancient Spartans? Weren’t they all raised from babyhood as soldiers?

I’d say the one that feeds violence to it’s children as entertainment, doesn’t have a very high gun safety education, that has a huge influence on other nations due to it’s military might alone, that invented the nuclear weapon, that has a HUGE stockpile of nuclear/biological weapons, that has gun shows, first person shooter games, high crime rates, etc…

I’ll just get out of here before it goes to the pits.

The Vikings weren’t really all that extraordinarily violent, historically speaking. The early Greeks were arguably just as bloodthirsty, for example. Try reading the Illiad some time.

Wergeld (atoning for murder by paying a fine) was by no means unique to the Vikings, and indeed was found in just about every human society on Earth at some time or another.

In history, there have been societies where the punishment for murder was greater or lesser (and many, many societies which simply lacked the ability to effectively punish killers.) There have been plenty of societies which sanctioned killing outsiders or enemies, and societies that engaged in ritual human sacrifice. However, I can’t think of any society that didn’t think that the random killing of a fellow society member was wrong.

Think Genghis Khan…Mongolia, “the Barbarians”.

If I remember my history right, they were so bloodthirsty much of Asia was terrorized by them. Think I’ll go study it for awhile.


Among candidates for the most violent societies in history you would have to include the Maoris of New Zealand in the 17th-18th century, who had a lot of warfare because they were coming under severe resource restrictions. They are some documented (but controversial) suggestions that some Maoris would undertake raid to kill/capture neighbours for food. (You can read about this in Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters, chapter 23.)

Another possible candidate would be certain peoples of the slopes adjacent to the New Guinea highlands (for example the Minyamin), who were certainly still raiding their neighbours to kill and eat (and to adopt the orphans (!)) as late as the early 1970s. For that matter the system of feud that made early mediaeval Scandinavia supposed so dangerous is still so prevalent in Papua New Guinea that injuries received in ‘payback’ are the leading public health concern, even in a country with endemic malaria and other tropical diseases. (You can read a little about this in Tim Flannery’s The Future Eaters, chapter 26, and more in his memoir Throwim Way Leg.)


Wumpus: What societies lacked effective means to deal with murderers?

The payback for the guy that ran over your friend/family member is to burn them alive in their own car.

Some people say that Chagnon thought the Yanomani were mean-spirited because they simply didn’t like him. Well, I’ve met Chagnon many times and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were the case. I read another book by an anthropologist who was originally studying under Chagnon - sorry I don’t remember the name. He also said that the characterization was utter BS.

I’d like a cite for the 30% figure.

Ask, and ye shall receive (warning, PDF). On page 3 of this interview with Chagnon:

I had remembered that percentage from my undergraduate studies years ago, so I can’t tell you which of Chagnon’s endless publications it originally came from; but in this linked interview you get it straight from his mouth.

Societies where there isn’t any real organization beyond the family/clan/tribe level, and where your protection comes from your association with that unit. Let’s say, in one of those societies, I kill you. Then, I have to worry about your family/clan/tribe killing me, so there’s deterrance there. However, lets say you’re a stranger, foreigner, outcast, or clanless, and I kill you. There’s no one to avenge your murder, and I’ve therefore gotten away with it.

On the Isle of Caprona, neighbouring tribes would routinely kill interlopers. Travelling from North To South would mean a quasi-automatic death sentence.
Tyler, Billings et al., as reported to Burroughs: The Land That Time Forgot

Changnon certainly witnessed some violence after he distributed guns and durable goods haphazardly in return for favors. Idiot. It’s not like he hiding behind 2-way glass observing a pristine and untouched human culture. He was interacting in a very negative way, but at least his sensational findings made him famous and rich.

Darkness in El Dorado is highly recommended.

Can I recommend modern American society? Nixon and Kissinger bombing the crap out of North Vietnam for leverage in the Paris Peace talks: casually murderous. 100,000 people dead in Iraq in the Gulf War and America barely bats an eye. We have strange views on murder: one cute blonde girl elicits outrage but thousands bombed in “war” is perfectly acceptable.

Gotta be the Mongols. When the Mongolian Hordes were at their peak they were perhaps the most efficient and ruthless fighting force in history. They came within a whicker of overrunning western Europe. Frankly they would have but I believe they had to stop to go home and appoint a new Khan thus sparing Europe. There certainly wasn’t an armed force in that day to seriously oppose them. (Ironically the Poles thought they had defeated the Mongols when in fact they had got their butts throughly whooped…the day is still celebrated in Poland I believe).

What really gets them ranking up there however is there sheer ruthlessness. IIRC they killed several MILLION people in the course of one summer (if not a month…I forget the specific numbers but they are astounding especially considering the times). Not even in WWII with all our modern and efficient killing machines were such numbers achieved. I’m reasonably certain the Mongols still hold the record for the most poeple killed in the shortest amount of time (a month or three).