Two New Guinea men, Henep Isum Mandingo and Hup Daniel Wemp, have filed a $10 million defamation  suit against the New Yorker and Jared Diamond for a story the New Yorker printed called “Annals of Anthropology: Vengeance Is Ours: What can tribal societies tell us about our need to get even?“, that recounts a series of revenge killings committed by Wemp:

In 1992, when Daniel Wemp was about twenty-two years old, his beloved paternal uncle Soll was killed in a battle against the neighboring Ombal clan… And Soll had been very good to Daniel, who recalled him as a tall and handsome man, destined to become a leader. Soll’s death demanded vengeance… As it turned out, it took three years, twenty-nine more killings, and the sacrifice of three hundred pigs before Daniel succeeded in discharging this responsibility.

The two men dispute Diamonds account and say they’ve never been involved in any revenge killings.


Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer prize winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, has written extensively on the reasons he believes some societies have grown rich over the centuries (like the Europeans and their descendants) and others have not (like the tribal peoples of New Guinea).

His goal has been to make the subject of History more scientific.  In the introduction to a talk with Jared Diamond, John Brockman said:

Historians don’t get training in the scientific methods; they don’t get training in statistics; they don’t get training in the experimental method or problems of doing experiments on historical subjects; and they’ll often say that history is not a science, history is closer to an art.

Jared comes to this question as one who is accomplished in two scientific areas: physiology and evolutionary biology. The first is a laboratory science; the second, is never far from history. “Biology is the science,” he says. “Evolution is the concept that makes biology unique.”

But, did Diamond tell the truth?  The New Yorker is standing by him.  I think a more important question is not whether he got his facts exactly right, whether the two men are simply embarrassed to be known worldwide as killers, or whether Diamond simply made the whole thing up; rather the more important question is whether his story rings true to anthropologists who work with tribal societies, and other scientists who look for evidence of the origins of war

There is a tendency among educated people to presume that war is a modern invention, that it’s the fault of religion, capitalism, oppression, etc.  The tendency is to believe that somewhere in our distant past our ancestors were “noble savages”, living in a Garden of Eden, at peace with the land, and at peace with each other.

That view is a fantasy.  Of course, the proximate causes for violence and warfare are always things we can easily point our fingers at like the above mentioned religion, economics, oppression, etc.  But, the ultimate causes are far more innately human.

There is ample research (see here, herehere, here, and here to start) showing that tribal societies, both current and in the past, engaged massive violence (whether we choose to call it war or not).   Where these tendencies came from is a hot topic of research as well.   Professor Napoleon Chagnon, of UC Santa Barbara, wrote of the Yanomamö Indians of the Amazon:

Demographic data indicate that men who have killed have more wives and offspring than men who have not killed.

So was war/violence beneficial?  Did those groups that engaged in war out-compete those that didn’t?  Did sexual selection promote war?  Is the data on war over hyped?  These are among the interesting questions that need answering.

I don’t think Jared Diamond lied.  He may have gotten his facts wrong.  Even more likely, he just angered some people who would have prefered to not have their stories told to the world.  But, his story fits the evidence in the broader sense:  We humans have always been violent and prone to revenge and tribal societies are not immune to the pull of human nature.