First of all I must state that I am not a student of ethnology, nor have I been following
some special course on this discipline. As a consequence my knowledge in the field of primitive
societies is limited and fair. Nonetheless, in my readings of several anthropologists, and especially
that of Pierre Clastres, I found the issue interesting and I hope that I will be able to treat it clearly
and in an understandable way.
If we consider societies from the beginning of the history up to today, we must notice
that war is a phenomenon that follows the development of each of them. When student I used to
follow history classes, I was very impressed by the fact that it was somehow marked by the
frequency of wars. Frequency that becomes less dense in the last century, the XXth.
The more time passes the more civil war is a phenomenon that doesn’t follow the same
course as states. Where state structures grow stronger, the civil war gets weaker. In our state
societies, the power to decide on war questions depends on the governments and not in societies.
The initial contractual theories on state influenced by the discovery of the savage life are those of
Hobbes and Spinoza. Hobbes decides to deprive his citizen from all of his rights in order to build
up a state. In his fictional State of Nature he sees war of everyone against everyone and the
absence of society as a consequence of this war. We must not forget the influence of the English
civil war in the development of his political philosophy.
The state in itself is one organisation Spinoza sees as the institution in which we transfer
only the right to defend ourselves: meaning to decide about warfare, here we can easily
distinguish that he shares the same fear regarding civil war with Hobbes. Both these great
philosophers acknowledged the style of life of the savage tribes in South America, as the reports
from the missionaries, traffickers of time etc. were numerous. These tribes were in a constant war
between them, deprived of any form of political structure, social stratification, without a religious
cult: their own religion was not considered as such by the missionaries and the colonists of this
period. Both Spinoza and Hobbes were able to distinguish the reason of the absence of state
organisation in the primitive tribes. Even if the result of their reasoning is different, they both
understood that state and war are exclusive of each other. Here we notice the first error of
Hobbes; he saw war and society exclusives of each other. He does not hide his depreciation for
the way of living of primitives. As for Spinoza a society can very well exist outside a state
structure. The state in itself is not a natural institution but an established one. Spinoza’s State of
Nature is real and a very precise moment in history. This moment for him is the moment of
liberation of Jews from the Egyptian slavery. This moment is a peaceful one, but each individual
feels a great fear at this point of absolute freedom. We must not forget that this starting point is
not the initial one, simply because the Jews found themselves in the desert after that they had
lived under the rule of a state structure, even if this was the slavery.
Today the situation has changed – from the primitive tribes that used to occupy the
whole South American continent, remain very few ones that have very few members, and they
are in an impressive way different from the starting tribes. The war is not as present anymore, to
the point that several contemporary ethnologists affirm that the savages are peaceful. As I
mentioned in the beginning there’s particularly one ethnologist that has consecrated an important
role in his work to this change in the tribes that still exist and especially to the war in the
primitive societies, thinker on which we will be referring quite often. In one of his late works, he
describes in details one myth that explains the beginning of war. The myth was found in one of
the primitive tribes in South America the Chulupi. This myth explains the origins of war with the
tribe of Toba. I will briefly try to bring the essence of this myth. The two tribes in question have
been in a kind of permanent war that ended only during the years 1945-1950.
At the beginning, according to the myth, they were members of the same tribe: they
spoke the same language; there were only little differences between them. But the youth did not
want to be equal amongst them, everyone trying to show he was stronger than the others.
Everything started with the hostility between two young people belonging to each tribe. One day
their fighting game took a bad turn. One hits the other a bit too hard; the second one revenges.
When they went to meet their respective families, the Toba declared that the Chulupi
young started first: when it was he in fact that had started! Before that, there had never existed a disagreement between Indians. Following the event, one feast was prepared, one big drinking of
fermented honey. During the feast, the father of the Toba youth got up and declared: “Now, I
rethink of my son who was wounded!” And after speaking, he starts shooting arrows to the
parents and friends of his son’s adversary. The fight grows; women joined it taking position sideby-
side their husbands. The war stops for a while; the two groups negotiated and decided to meet
again the next day to continue the war.
The morning after at dawn everything was ready. Groups considerable in number
represent both tribes. The Chulupi began to dominate. There are too many dead, but less on the
side of Chulupi, the Toba’s ran abandoning many of their people mostly children and infants.
Chulupi women breastfed the infants as many of their mothers were killed during the war. The
men consecrated the whole day scalping the toba dead fighters.
Everything took place right after the appearance of night. On the times of the eternal day,
Chulupi and Toba lived together.”1
There are several interesting moments in this story:
First there was the union, first there was THE ONE. One tribe, only eternal day. There’s a
very important and interesting issue here, first because the separation is not even included in
the perception of the unity, even when it comes to natural phenomena, and at the same time
this same fact might imply the non-existence of such an event. The society as one is the most
important characteristics of the primitive societies. There’s only one “body” of this society
and it effectuates all the necessary activities and functions of the tribe. Even the day and night
no not exist as two entities, but as one only – in the form of day. This could mean two
possible things: that the war is as immanent to the society as the separation day-night in the
earth, or, that the myth is only a tale and that to look for the origins of war is as useless as to
look for the establishment of this natural system in earth. In both cases war is part of the
natural system that exists outside any human control. So if in our societies state is an
established institution, for the primitives war is a natural institution. And as Clastres himself
defines it, it is a structure of these societies, without which they wouldn’t exist as primitives
anymore. In similarity with the thinking of the creation of the society: the indigenous society
is not self-created. It was created by “those that anticipated men”, “the indigenous thinking
[…] sees the rapport between society and its foundation as e relations of exteriority”2 which
is the reason for which we cannot change the society. The men cannot change a society that
is not a result of the men’s work. The way society functions in these tribes is quite particular.
The chief has the right to speech, but he can only express the will of the society and repeat
the sayings of the ancients of the tribe. If he does not obey to this rule, he is no longer chief;
he is ignored and/or abandoned, in the worst scenarios he is killed.
The moment of separation comes as a result of the young people’s behaviour. The
phenomenon of the youth bringing corruption in a society is not new. We are obliged to
notice the similarity with the occidental culture (unfortunately I am not an expert of the
oriental culture and the literature I have consulted so far deals primarily with the South
American tribes). What is the first basis for this corruption? The appearance of the inequality.
The denial of equality between all the members of the tribe is the initial cause of the birth of
the war. Another reason that drives young people towards war is the search for glory and
their vanity; they want to show that they are better than the others. Clastres himself sees also
the element of youth as being-for-war in these societies. Old men in these same tribes used to
declare that war was made for the youth and not for them. Being a warrior implied almost
always dying young, because the title was to be defended in each single combat. Even if the
warrior remained alive but captive of the enemy, for his own tribe he was considered dead.
Most of these warriors that were not killed afterwards by the enemy, starved to death in the
forests. Participating in combats didn’t imply being a warrior, for that you had to be
recognised as such. A warrior would always scalp his victims, non-warriors never did. The
search for glory it’s a very important element as in the societies this is the only recompense
for the warriors together with an incredible respect for them. But this same society,
contemporaneously with this recognition, makes fun of its own warriors for the same reasons
that it respects them. There exist myths that mock warriors for their vanity and their pride.
The war starts in a moment of drinking… men are not sober and they do not reason… as we
see in the description of Clastres, since men used to drink too much during these feasts,
women used to hide the weapons so that they could not have violent fights among them. So
the war starts in a Dionysian moment. We cannot not think of the birth of tragedy at
Nietzsche. Greeks used to drink before their performances, this way they would perform
better their role. There are several theatrical elements in many of their small wars. War is a
great moment of entertainment amongst the savages. The way the tribe is prepared for a war
is very interesting; men wake up before dawn and attack a tribe that is not expecting it.
Afterwards they would hide in the woods and wait for their reaction. Sometimes the fights
were purely theatrical, they would just be armed to their teeth and starts arguing with the men
of the other tribe and leave the same way as they came. So we see the escalation of the
phenomenon: first there’s the fighting game, after the Dionysian moment there’s the real war.
The difference between the primitives and us is very clear, for them the war is a tragedy
played very often, the warrior is like an actor that performs up to the moment of his death.
And he is at the same time honoured and mocked by his tribe. But this is not the moment to
go more in depth as this is topic of our discussion.
The young men that lied were a member of the other tribe and not of the tribe that has
created the myth. So the origin of the war is situated on the other side of the fight. Even
though it seems a bit difficult to believe, the war is not an element that expresses the
aggressiveness of the primitives. They are not aggressive by nature, they like war but for other
reasons, which are those is not yet clear to us. The causality that provoked war is very
unimportant in this myth. Nonetheless during the negotiations (in fact no information is
given about what exactly was discussed) we can notice the absence of peace negotiations. The
result of these “negotiations” is the fixing of a new moment to continue the combat. Why is
it so? Because right in the middle of the war, Indians were happy! The words used by the old
man that tells the myth are: “It was difficult to stop the fighters as the war was ardent”. So
negotiations are not there to stop the war, but only to interrupt it the necessary time to relax
and prepare for its continuation. Besides this is not a destruction war. The primitive wars are
not exterminating, and this not only because of their weapons. In these tribes, when football
was discovered, the two teams would go on playing, up to the moment when there was
equality between them. They were not able to finish the game with a difference in the result.
What is the role of this omnipresent war at the primitive societies? “To assure the
permanence of the dispersion, the fragmentation of the atomisation of groups. The primitive
war, is the work of a centrifugal logic, a separation logic, that is expressed time and time again in
the armed conflict.”3 Why do primitive societies need this atomisation? According to Clastres,
this is their only way to preserve their individual freedom, the equality between all the
members of the society and the non-existence of a separated political body. The same way
defined by the myth tribes continued to separate from each other. The smaller the tribes, the
easier for the society to ensure equality between its members and to avoid the creation of
differentiations. The only tribe in South-America that shows similarities in their political
scheme with the “developed societies” are the Tupi-Guarani. They were extended in several
villages and elements of social structure and religion similar to occidental societies were
1 P.Clastres, Research on political anthropology, Paris, Seuil 1980 p. 243-44 (non-official translation, made by
2 P.Clastres, Research on political anthropology, Paris, Seuil 1980 p. 78 (non-official translation, made by G.M.)
3 P. Clastres, The archaeology of violence, pg. 83, Editions de L’aube, 1997 (non-official translation, made by