In New Guinea, peace comes with a price

Local restitution rulings quelled years of warfare in a nonstate society

After 15 years of intense warfare, Papua New Guinea’s Enga society recently gave peace a fighting chance. Outdoor village courts, which had formerly settled local disputes, resolved many bloody conflicts between Enga clans by determining how much communities should compensate one another for murders and other offenses.

PIGGY PAYBACK Enga villagers gather in 2010 for a village court compensation ceremony intended to settle a murder case and avoid clan warfare. The offender’s clan forked over pigs to the victim’s clan as compensation for the crime. P. Wiessner, Univ. of Utah

The Enga demonstrate that small-scale societies can devise effective, sophisticated means for peacemaking, say anthropologist Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and Nitze Pupu, a lawyer and researcher at the Enga Tradition and Transition Center in Papua New Guinea. Their analysis appears in the Sept. 28 Science.

Researchers have documented higher rates of murder and warfare in many hunter-gatherer groups and village-based societies than in modern nations (SN: 2/6/88, p. 90). The new work underscores an often overlooked tension in nonstate societies between the constant danger of violence, particularly from young men, and efforts to restrain lethal conflicts, usually organized by women and older men, says Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker.

“These homegrown peacemaking measures are not sufficient to maintain law and order in complex societies, where the might of a state is needed,” Pinker says. “And the Enga, even at their most peaceable, have homicide rates several times higher than those of modern Western nations.”

Enga villagers grow sweet potatoes and raise pigs in highland Papua New Guinea. The researchers consulted historical accounts of 84 Enga wars going back 350 years. Village court data on 501 clan wars that took place between 1991 and 2010, records from 129 village court sessions and national census data were also analyzed.

Wars among bow-and-arrow–wielding Enga clans broke out shortly after sweet potatoes reached their island 350 years ago. Around 1850, clans began making peace with enemies via payments of pigs and other valuables.

Village courts were established in 1974 to rule on local disputes and expanded in 1982 to handle clan conflicts.

In 1990, young Enga males aligned with hired mercenaries began using guns to conduct ambushes and raids on various clans, causing a spike in warfare. Clan wars killed 4,816 people between 1991 and 2010, about 1 percent of the Enga population. Today, Enga clans consist of 350 to more than 1,000 people.

Starting in 2005, the number of killings and the length of wars declined steadily. Clan and church leaders, exhausted by years of carnage, turned to village courts as peacemakers. Armed with cell phones and vehicles to reach trouble spots quickly, village court magistrates handed down rulings on how much one clan should compensate another for various offenses.

The Enga’s style of peacemaking represents one way in which small-scale societies tamp down feuds, characterized by members of rival groups committing revenge killings out of a sense of honor, remarks anthropologist Christopher Boehm of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

Hunter-gatherer populations also use restitution and other strategies to defuse revenge killings, and have probably done so for at least the past 45,000 years, Boehm adds.

Contrary to their reputation as cauldrons of endless revenge killings, small-scale societies frequently reward adept conflict mediators with perks that include arranging high-status marriages for peacemakers’ children, Wiessner says. State societies were built on peacemaking tendencies honed in small-scale societies, she proposes.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Humans