Postcolonial Aspirations and Intimacies of Violence Among Gebusi of the Nomad Area, Papua New Guinea
The Role of Culture in the Early Evolution of Human Violence

Bruce M. Knauft, History, Emory University

Research Grant, 1993, 1998

My HFG-supported research has included (1) analysis of information concerning homicide among the Gebusi—a rainforest people of Papua New Guinea who have had one of the highest rates of homicide yet documented; (2) comparative understanding of Gebusi violence in relation to simple human societies and in relation to human evolution more generally; and (3) field research concerning dramatic changes in the rate of Gebusi violence and killing in recent years.

The first dimension of my HFG-supported research considered the striking fact that though the Gebusi rate of killing was historically higher than that in Europe during World War II, this violence was seen as acceptable and appropriate. Gebusi killings typically took place after someone died of natural causes. In this circumstance, another Gebusi within the community was typically accused of having used sorcery to send lethal sickness. The person accused of sorcery was him- or herself considered to be a murderer. Frequently he or she was executed with the support of the general community, that is, in retribution for the life of the person they had allegedly killed by sending sickness. Despite the fact that few if any Gebusi actually attempted to practice sorcery in fact, the belief that they did led to a very high rate of killing. Most of these killings were of older persons and/or those perceived as irritable and antagonistic to others in the community. Because the size of communities was small, however, the killing of one or more members over the course of several years was not perceived by Gebusi to be a particularly great problem even though, statistically, this resulted in an extraordinarily high rate of homicide when figured on a per capita basis per annum.

Cases of sorcery were seldom avenged or were brought to the police by Gebusi themselves for conflict resolution; traditional patterns of sorcery inquest and divination were largely defunct.

The second dimension of my HFG research viewed patterns of Gebusi killing comparatively against those in other simple societies. Simple human societies often have a statistically high rate of killing though these deaths are often individualistic and infrequently constitute collective armed conflict such as warfare. The general tenor of social life in many such simple societies is one of friendly harmony most of the time despite occasional killings that may actually be quite high when calculated as a homicide rate per capita per year. This helps explain the apparent paradox by which the simplest human societies observed by researchers have often seemed socially harmonious despite the fact that they may have a statistical rate of killing comparable to that of more complex societies that practice frequent or virulent warfare.

The third dimension of my HFG-funded research considered dramatic changes in Gebusi homicide and violence between the early 1980s and the late 1990s. By the latter period, most Gebusi in my communities of study had been converted to Christianity, participated in market activity, and lived near the local government station and its airstrip. Beliefs in sorcery were now part of a Christian cosmology in which God was deemed responsible for taking action against evil persons such as sorcerers. Cases of sorcery were seldom avenged or were brought to the police by Gebusi themselves for conflict resolution; traditional patterns of sorcery inquest and divination were largely defunct.

Correspondingly, the homicide rate had dropped precipitously—to virtually zero during the 1990s. This dramatic change illustrates how changes in cultural norms, values, and social conditions can have a powerful impact on the rate of human violence. This finding lends credence to the notion that human violence is a solvable problem and is not an intrinsic or preordained feature of humanity.

Welcome to the website of The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation

Sign up here for Foundation news and updates on our programs and research.