Who dies in war? It isn’t always men. Overwhelmingly often, but not always.
A recurring theme in gender discussions is female mortality in war, “….women are the primary victims of war…” and similar claims. The fact is that men, combatant or non-combatant, are overwhelmingly the victims of war and of violence in general. This is true despite fact that these war victims are usually erased as male in news reporting.This doesn’t fit the chivalrous narratives that inform so much feminist historical analysis, but it is nonetheless true.
However there is more detail to the picture than just “men killed/women raped and force-married into the winners’ tribe”. Admittedly that type of warfare has occurred – that type of modified total war was what the English encountered during contact with the Eastern Woodland cultures.
But that is not the only kind of war. The conduct of the war depends on the objective of that war. You make these modified total war kind of wars when you want to kidnap women to build your population up. But when your population is large enough that you need more land for it, you don’t want fertile females, you want empty land. So you find some to empty, and you don’t take captives. The Eastern Woodland nations should know; they were on the receiving end of that kind of war.
Here’s another data point, from a long time ago. Dienekes has a post up discussing a paper in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology reporting results of a study of 378 Neolithic skulls from Denmark and Sweden. The Neolithic lasted in that area from 3,900 to 1,700 BC. The population appears to be directly ancestral to modern people in the area, with a wave of settlement associate with the onset of the Neolithic but no similar replacement of population in subsequent changes to bronze or iron technologies. Subsequently there was a change of culture associated with the language shift to an Indo-European (Germanic) language and cattle-raising.
The abstract of the base article states:
“Significantly more males are affected by healed injuries but perimortem injuries affect males and females equally. These results suggest habitual male involvement in nonfatal violence but similar risks for both sexes for sustaining fatal injuries.”
“I would be interested to know how this Neolithic sample might differ from more recent ones. My limited understanding suggests that between-male violence often has a signalling component whereby an individual’s or group’s dominance over another is asserted, so the fight often does not go all the way to death, but only until the status quo is manifested by the controlling party or toppled by a challenger.
This type of “signalling” aspect of violent behavior does not apply to male-to-female violence because of the physical strength inequality between the sexes. Indeed, as with violence towards children or the elderly, male-to-female violence may have a “reverse signalling” effect, because it suggests that the perpetrator is unable to fight with “the strong” and is only able to assert physical dominance in “easy fights”. On the other hand, such “easy fights” might be more abundant if perpetrators tend to enter fights they can win.
Fight-to-the-death, on the other hand, may occur either by accident (e.g., when the aim is to assert dominance, but the killer underestimates the tolerance of the victim), or by intent (when the aim is physical annihilation, either because reconciliation with the victim is perceived to be impossible, or because the victim’s death may help keep other challengers in check).”
The signaling violence he refers to is probably associated with status struggles within a group. A group lived and died by the number of labor-worthy and war-worthy men it had, so however much in-group status fighting strengthened a group, actual deaths of those striving for power were not in the group’s interest.
The lethal, gender-equal violence probably has other explanations. For one thing it is not at all clear, especially at this distance in time, how many of these lethal head injuries came out of fight-to-the-death situations. There may have been very little fighting and a lot of executing.
Scandinavia has historically been a source of migration rather than a destination. In other words, arable land has been at a premium for a long time. What kind of warfare would that produce – wars for more population or for more land? And what traces would a war for land leave? Probably bashed in skulls of the entire population on the losing side, everybody without regard for gender. That’s what this evidence suggests to me. In this kind of situation, men and women died in equal numbers.
“There may be lots to learn about gender roles and social hierarchy from large palaeoanthropological samples. For example, how much did ideology affect secular patterns of interpersonal violence, and how much did changes in weapon technology (e.g., from Neolithic to Bronze, Iron, and more recently firearms).”
I think the motivation for the violence, a desire for land to till clear of previous inhabitants would have a lot more effect on the pattern of violence than the methodology of that violence, as in what weapons are used.
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