The challenge of genocide

THE HOLOCAUST CONTINUES to pose a challenge to history. In History, Memory and Mass Atrocity (Vallentine Mitchell, 2006), Holocaust historian Dan Stone argues against approaches that suggest the mass murder of the Jews was carried out in a bureaucratic spirit without passion or emotion, thus distinguishing it from other mass killings; or that the Nazis were bestial and psychopathic in a way that set them apart from those who inhabit modern, rational, liberal postwar societies. Stone observes there is a false distinction between the modern and the pre-modern. Because of this, he contends, we have failed to recognise that the perpetrators of the Holocaust, even in the use of technology for mass killing, acted primarily with their hearts, through passion and emotion.

In this failure to recognise our common humanity, we have tried to "conceal from view the unnerving similarity of the perpetrators to ourselves". We should not treat the Holocaust as unique, but rather relate it – in the spirit of comparative study – to other modern genocides: as Stone points out, "it quickly becomes apparent that the murder of the Jews shares many features with many other of the twentieth century's most gruesome events".

Intergroup violence, like genocide, recurs in the common history of humanity – a history shared in its early stages between humans and other primates, and which includes the coming of agricultural societies and their impact on hunter-gatherer communities worldwide.

Raphaël Lemkin considered human history the history of genocide and his originating definition of genocide was wide-ranging. I stress this because many later definitions of genocide, in the light of the horror of the Holocaust as it was recognised in the 1960s and 1970s, narrow "genocide" down to state-directed mass killing. Lemkin conceived his definition, expressed most fully in the now famous chapter nine of Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (Columbia University Press, 1944), during World War II, when he fled Poland and most of his European family died. Lemkin arrived as an exile in the United States in 1941, and revealed remarkable energy and dedication in writing and agitating in fledgling United Nation committees to have the notion of genocide legally recognised and proscribed; he was the prime mover in the discussions that led to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This Convention, while it narrowed Lemkin's definition, was still wide-ranging and certainly not confined to mass murder.

When Lemkin proposed his new concept of "genocide", deriving the term from the Greek word genos (tribe, race) and Latin cide (as in tyrannicide, homicide, fratricide), he took great care to define it as composite and manifold. Not only is genocide, for Lemkin, not confined to mass killing – though it certainly may include mass killing – it is not necessarily directed by a state body or power. In his view, genocide signifies a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of the life of a group. These involve cultural, political, social, legal, intellectual, spiritual, economic, biological, physiological, religious, psychological and moral considerations, and impact on health, food, and nourishment, family life, care of children, and births as well as deaths. Such actions involve consideration of the honour and dignity of peoples, and the future of humanity as a world community.[i]

In the 1940s and 1950s, Lemkin wrote many essays in manuscript form, and kept research notes and cards, for a book he was writing on the history of genocide. It was a project that kept expanding, taking in examples from antiquity to modernity, and sadly remained unpublished when he died in 1959. Along with Ann Curthoys, I had the melancholy pleasure of reading this archival material at the American Jewish Historical Society in New York in December 2003.[ii] What stood out were the many ways Lemkin was expanding the linking of genocide and colonisation. He deploys genocide as a framework to understand and illuminate European colonisation – including the Americas – by the Spanish from 1492 and later in North America by the English, French and post-independence Americans. He is highly critical of Columbus as an "egregious genocidist" who set the historical example for the future of Spanish colonisation in the Americas, instituting slavery and catastrophic loss of life. He develops a sophisticated methodology which permits multifaceted analyses of settler-colonial histories in relation to genocide: in Lemkin's formulations, "genocide" as concept and method is certainly not, as it was often thought to be, merely a blunt instrument. He carefully distinguishes between cultural change and cultural genocide, and believes cultural genocide to be important in the processes of genocide. He points out that the relationship between oppressor and victim in history is always unstable, and that in world history there are many examples of genocidal victims transforming into genocidists, the formerly persecuted becoming the persecutors of others. He outlines recurring features in historical genocides: mass mutilations; deportations under harsh conditions often involving forced marches; attacks on family life, with separation of males and females and taking away of the opportunity of procreation; removal and transfer of children; destruction of political leadership; death from illness, hunger and disease through overcrowding on reserves and in concentration camps.[iii]

Lemkin's views on humanity and violence were double-edged, both pessimistic and optimistic. He did not regard human history as a narrative of progress; he saw genocide following humanity through history. Yet he also hoped that international law could restrain or prevent it. The key clauses of the 1948 United Nations Convention definition, set out in Article II, narrow Lemkin's definition:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as:

  • Killing members of the group;
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. [iv]

Genocide, the concept unhappily conceived by Lemkin as necessary to comprehend the wide sweep of human history, and in the hope of international agreement to prevent or at least punish its occurrence, has proven increasingly influential as a perspective and frame story for our species from its beginnings; it is a concept that inspires thought at the limits of what humanity is and might become.


LEMKIN'S INSIGHT INTO human history – that genocide between groups, as with homicide between individuals, has always occurred and will probably keep occurring – finds support in primatology, with its interest in shared ancestors between humans and other primates. The celebrated text of primatology, Jane Goodall's The Chimpanzees of Gombe (Belknap Press, 1986), at one point mentions genocide – though Goodall seems unaware of Lemkin's definition. Goodall doesn't define what she means by genocide, and is more interested in the question of warfare and its relation to the activities and thinking of chimpanzees and humans.

The Chimpanzees of Gombe is an engaging and beautifully written study, not least because Goodall conversationally introduces her own life story, research experience, and uncertainties and speculations as vital to her analyses of chimpanzee behaviour. Goodall tells how she came to be in Tanzania on the forested shores of Lake Tanganyika for twenty-five years studying the chimpanzees of the Kasakela Valley. It had, she confides, been a childhood dream to study animals in Africa, and she finally was enabled to do so when the legendary Louis Leakey found funding for her expedition: "And so it was that in July 1960 (accompanied by my mother and an African cook) I set foot, for the first time, on the sandy beach of Gombe on Lake Tanganyika." Leakey was interested in her research because he was curious about chimpanzees, our closest living relatives in terms of biochemistry, brain anatomy and uncanny similarities in social behaviour. Leakey asked Goodall to consider the evolutionary argument that since "man" and chimpanzee once diverged from common stock, behaviour patterns in modern humans and modern chimpanzees were probably present in that common ancestor, and in "early man". Goodall believes that this argument can be taken a step further, particularly if we are to understand the place of aggression in both chimpanzees and humans.

In their decades-long research, Goodall and her fellow field observers have documented many remarkable things about chimpanzees: enduring, affectionate, sometimes lifelong bonds between family members; close kin aid and support each other; adult males cooperate in hunting, patrolling territorial boundaries, and protecting their females and young. The chimpanzees have advanced cognitive abilities accompanied by sophisticated social interactions, the development of cultural traditions and individuality.

Yet sustained longitudinal study has also revealed disturbing aspects of chimpanzee behaviour in terms of relations between groups, including the "violent aggression" that broke out when the Kasakela community, the social group Goodall was studying (who were habituated to human presence), divided into two groups: "We discovered that in certain circumstances the chimpanzees may kill and even cannibalize individuals of their own kind." Chapter seventeen, "Territoriality", is devoted to the aggression and violence that occurred when a group from the Kasakela community split away and began to live in another valley, raising issues of desire for land and territory, genocide, warfare, and violence towards stranger females and sometimes their infants. Goodall regards certain facets of chimpanzee social organisation as relevant to what occurred when the group divided, with the Kasakela community retaining more warrior males, while the new Kahama community to the south had fewer males. Unlike many primate groups (such as the baboons of Gombe), chimpanzees do not travel in stable groups, nor do they follow predictable paths, so a lone male may suddenly encounter several males of a neighbouring group, or a party of males may surprise a single female. While male chimpanzees remain in their natal group, females may transfer out, though young immigrant females may face violent hostility. Females may travel in the overlap zones between communities, where there are no well-defined boundaries. In general, Goodall feels that observation has established that interactions between males of neighbouring communities are typically hostile and also observed – and remains puzzled by – severe attacks on older females, leaving them badly injured, to the point where they disappear and presumably die. Male and female chimpanzees may hunt and join in attacks on stranger females, and cause considerable injury.

In 1974 the Kasakela males initiated a southward movement of violent aggression that culminated in 1977 in the complete destruction of the Kahama community and annexation of its community range. The Kasakela community then began to sleep as well as feed in what had been Kahama territory. In pondering the meaning and possible purposes of such aggressive intergroup violence, Goodall is especially puzzled by assaults on older stranger females at times accompanied by the death of their infants, including by being cannibalistically eaten or partially eaten. Goodall observes, however, that the aggression was clearly directed at the mothers, not the infants, who at other times were not harmed; infanticide was not the object of the assaults. It is noteworthy, Goodall suggests, given chimpanzees' characteristic aversion to strangers that the victims were all members of neighbouring communities, usually encountered in overlap zones where the chimpanzees, aware that neighbouring males might be nearby, were nervous. She wonders whether those older females who are travelling with daughters are attacked as a way of weakening strong mother-daughter bonds, so that the daughters can be recruited into the community. Nevertheless, Goodall remains unsure of the adequacy of these explanations: "For the present, this whole area must remain speculative. More facts are badly needed."


CHIMPANZEE VIOLENCE TOWARDS older stranger females may recall aspects of the dreadful history – also problematic to explain – of torture and killing of witches in European Christian history, given blunt biblical warrant in Exodus xxii, 18: "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." In an eerily resonant analysis, Lyndal Roper writes in Witch Craze: Terror and Fantasy in Baroque Germany (Yale University Press, 2004), her study of witches in sixteenth and seventeenth century southern Germany, that the "cruelty shown to older women is one of the more disturbing aspects of early-modern German culture". Predominantly, older women were accused of being witches.

What notions of territory, Goodall asks, do chimpanzees seem to work on? She notes that chimpanzee behaviour differs in important ways from classical territoriality based on bird behaviour, which is relatively peaceful and ritualised. For chimpanzees, it is often the size of the patrol that determines an encounter, not the possession of territory. Chimpanzees are (like hyenas and lions) violently hostile towards neighbours to a degree that differs from traditional territory owners of the animal kingdom. Chimpanzees don't simply chase trespassers away, they assault them and leave them to die; and may mount aggressive raids into the core area of a neighbouring group. In their long-range studies, Goodall and others observed three major invasions during which adult males, and some females, were killed or disappeared.

Goodall poses a question highly relevant to the study of genocide: do chimpanzees show intent to kill? She first declares that "we can tell nothing about the 'intentions' of the aggressors" but notes that the "observers, all thoroughly experienced in chimpanzee behaviour, believed that the aggressors were trying to kill their victims". She asks the field assistants why they think this, and they reply that the attacks revealed patterns also evident during the killing of large prey, assaults continued until the victims were incapacitated; this pattern was not characteristic of intracommunity fighting. If the Kasakela males had had "firearms and had been taught to use them, I suspect they would have used them to kill".

Mention of firearms leads Goodall to another speculative question: can such intergroup aggressive violence in chimpanzees be seen as a precursor to warfare? War, she notes, is usually defined as uniquely human behaviour, a universal characteristic of human groups involving organised armed conflict. Here she introduces the term "genocide": because war amongst humans has involved genocidal destruction of certain groups and not others, genocide is a part of evolution, of "group selection". Goodall also refers to the speculative literature which postulates early forms of warfare in hominids, sometimes referred to as dawn warriors, as important in developing valued human qualities – altruism, courage, intelligence and increasingly sophisticated cooperation among group members: qualities which would have to be answered by other groups if they wished to survive. Warfare may have been the principal evolutionary pressure that created the huge gap between the human brain and that of our closest living relatives, the anthropoid apes.[v]

Goodall complicates the notion of warfare as unique to humans. She points out that destructive warfare amongst humans required "pre-adaptations" also possessed by chimpanzees: not only an inherent fear of, or aversion to, strangers revealed in aggressive attacks, but also group living, territoriality, cooperative hunting skills, weapon use, and the ability to make cooperative plans. Chimpanzees also reveal other "inherent characteristics" useful for the "dawn warriors in their primitive battles" – the young male chimpanzee, for example, is "inherently disposed to find aggression attractive", to the extent of risking approaching potentially dangerous neighbours alone.

In similar terms, Goodall suggests, early human males may have been inherently disposed to anticipate or enjoy aggression, a shared trait that may have "provided a biological basis for the cultural training of warriors" and the subsequent glorification of the soldier, condemnation of cowardice, rewards for bravery and battlefield skill, and so-called manly sports in childhood. Chimpanzees develop a strong sense of group identity, differentiating between those who belong and those who don't. If chimpanzees – adult and infant – are recognised as not belonging, they may be attacked as prey, as if they are no longer considered fellow chimpanzees – or, as she wryly puts it, they are dechimpised.


GOODALL REMINDS US that it used to be thought that human destructiveness and cruelty – especially the acts of great cruelty shown in warfare – distinguished humans from other animals; in this view, only humans were capable of cruelty because only humans had the intellectual sophistication, in terms of understanding what pain is and empathising with the victim, to enjoy or be indifferent to another's pain. Such a distinction between humans and other primates is not certain, Goodall reflects, because chimpanzees perform cruel acts and are capable to some extent of imputing desires and feelings to others and of feelings akin to sympathy. Nevertheless, Goodall readily concedes, chimpanzees are "intellectually incapable of creating the horrifying tortures that human ingenuity has devised for the deliberate infliction of suffering".

This chapter of The Chimpanzees of Gombe closes on a perturbed and pensive note. Goodall observes that when humanity's remote ancestors acquired language, they could expand intergroup conflicts into the organised, armed conflict that defines warfare. Nonetheless chimpanzees have reached a stage where they "stand at the very threshold of human achievement in destruction, cruelty, and planned intergroup conflict" and, given that the chimpanzee is close to learning language, she wonders whether they are also close to waging war "with the best of us".

For a genocide scholar, reading Goodall's evocation of the violence of the Gombe chimpanzees is particularly interesting. Her analysis is consonant with Lemkin arguing that genocide signifies a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of the essential foundations of life of a group. In terms of Lemkin's observations of recurring features of genocide, there was mutilation of the victims, and an attack on family life, taking away continuing opportunities of procreation. Lemkin also writes that victims and the persecuted may turn around if given historical opportunity to become the genocidal persecutors of others; from Goodall's analysis, it is clear that the breakaway Kahama group, if it had been stronger, may have genocidally attacked the Kasakela.

There is another resonance with genocide theory – perpetrator enjoyment of violence and the lure of risk, even extreme risk. Goodall observes that when the Kasakela males attacked the Kahama male Sniff, they were in a "state of considerable excitement". In the attack on the Kahama male Goliath, they became "incredibly excited". Most adult male chimpanzees, particularly young prime individuals, appear strongly motivated to travel to peripheral areas, finding encounters with strangers highly attractive, not least the "frenzied rush" towards stranger females. Chimpanzees, she notes, actually go out of their way to create opportunities by visiting peripheral areas (on average, once every four days) in order to encounter intruders at close range. In History, Memory and Mass Atrocity, Dan Stone proposes that modern genocides and massacres – as in Cambodia and Rwanda, the Rape of Nanjing and My Lai – share, in anthropological terms, this transgressive violence: enjoyment of violence, including killing and anticipation of killing, and the theatre of violence itself.

Goodall's evocation of the combination of contradictory qualities of Gombe chimpanzee society, frequently affectionate and caring within the circle of those who belong, violently aggressive towards those perceived as not belonging, is intriguing in terms of a shared history between chimpanzees, "early man" and continuing human history. We can think immediately here not only of Walter Benjamin's familiar proverb suggesting the permanent co-presence within human history of the civilised and barbarous ("There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism"), or the great historian of the Middle East, Maxime Rodinson, reflecting that all peoples "have been victims and executioners by turns, and all peoples count among their number both victims and executioners".[vi]

In terms of long-running debates about biological determinism in primates, including human behaviour, the sophisticated anti-determinism of Hilary Rose and Steven Rose allows a powerful space for plasticity of brain and mind, the capacity not to be predetermined, the talent to be transformative, to be able to change and reverse and invert, to be unpredictable.[vii] In these terms, while there may be shared characteristics between chimpanzees and early humans, these may act in human history as potentialities, as possibilities, rather than as inevitable or binding; and they may not be carried through at all.


LEMKIN'S INSIGHT INTO genocide as a permanent aspect of human history finds support in a well-known text of "world history" scientific writing, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee (Vintage, 1991), by the ornithologist Jared Diamond, though he also seems unaware of Lemkin's definition. Nevertheless, genocide features in his pessimistic narrative, and he devotes chapter sixteen, "In Black and White", to its persistence and pervasiveness – not least in the colonial genocides of Aboriginal peoples in Tasmania and Australia generally, and of Native Americans in the United States. In an appendix, Diamond assembles some chilling quotes from famous Americans enthusing about the desirability of extermination of the Native Americans: including presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, and Benjamin Franklin and ends with a quote from General Philip Sheridan: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead."

Diamond argues that genocide amongst human groups probably began millions of years ago, when humans were just another big mammal. He believes that perhaps the most common motive for genocide occurs in disputes over lebensraum, when a "militarily stronger people attempt to occupy the land of a weaker people, who resist".

Genocide, he also notes, is quite common among animal groups – especially in social carnivorous species like lions, wolves, hyenas and ants, taking the form of coordinated attacks by members of one troop on a neighbouring troop. What interests Diamond in Goodall's evocation of the chimpanzee genocide is that the Gombe chimpanzees are, compared with humans, inefficient killers. Diamond refers to how, by contrast, Australia's highly armed settlers "often succeeded in eliminating a band of Aborigines in a single dawn attack". Diamond suggests that human group living probably evolved defensively. The main danger to human life comes from other humans.

Diamond questions the conventional view that situates agriculture as a sacred milestone in humanity's march towards civilisation. On the contrary, he argues, agricultural society has meant gains and losses. Agriculture began to emerge only relatively recently, because of its practical advantages. For most of human history, humans were – in Diamond's view, quite sensibly – hunters and gatherers, and they did not take to agriculture, from its origins in the Near East around 8000 BC, with any noticeable alacrity or enthusiasm. Agriculture reached Greece around 6000 BC and Britain and Scandinavia some two and a half thousand years later. Even in the nineteenth century, he is interested to observe, the Californian Indians preferred to hunt and gather, though they knew of agriculture through trade with farming Indians in Arizona.

Archaeology, Diamond contends, is helping to demolish the view that hunter-gatherers in the pre-agricultural past were worse off in terms of diet and heath, or inferior in art and culture, to those who lived in agricultural societies, which brought increased food production and storage, but also introduced many features that are the "curse" of modern human existence. The coming of agricultural society was, Diamond argues, ruinous to human health. When paleopathologists studied Native American skeletons in the Illinois and Ohio River valleys, they realised that the introduction of corn there, around 1000 AD, had led to tooth cavities, tooth loss and abscesses; enamel defects in children's milk teeth suggested that the mothers were severely undernourished; people lived shorter lives, suffered more from anaemia, and tuberculosis became established as an epidemic; half the population of these valleys suffered from yaws or syphilis, and two-thirds from osteoarthritis and other degenerative diseases. Malnutrition and infectious diseases killed off almost one-fifth of children under four. Diamond tells us that in the transition from hunter-gathering to farming elsewhere, evidence from studies of skeletons emerges of similar public health disasters, intensified by a major feature of agriculture: living together in crowded, sedentary populations which can constantly reinfect one another. Diseases like cholera and measles could not survive and persist in small, scattered bands of hunters and gatherers who often shifted camp. Such "crowd epidemics" coincide with the rise of agriculture: "Tuberculosis, leprosy, and cholera had to await the rise of farming, while smallpox, bubonic plague, and measles appeared only in the past few thousand years with the rise of cities."

Diamond believes farming, and the storage of food which accompanies it, introduced more curses for humanity, breaking the patterns of egalitarianism that generally characterise hunter-gatherer societies. Who could appropriate stored food, who could control it, led in farming societies to class divisions. Sexual inequality may have intensified as well, with women's health drained by frequent pregnancies. Farming permitted full-time craftsmen and artists yet, for all the great art and architecture that has been achieved in the last few thousand years, we should also recall, Diamond observes, the great paintings and sculptures – if on a smaller scale – of the hunter-gatherers of Cro-Magnon times and the work of Eskimos and Pacific Northwest Indians in the present era. Furthermore, the specialisation of agricultural societies also introduced "standing armies of professional killers". Agricultural societies have brought humanity "starvation, warfare, and tyranny".

Diamond concludes his reflections in this chapter by suggesting that at the end of the Ice Age, the choice by some hunter-gatherer groups to adopt agriculture, even if they were in no position to anticipate the "evils of farming", led to a new global force for destruction. Such farming bands, now sedentary, outbred and then drove off the bands that had chosen to remain hunter-gatherers, and were able to do so because "ten malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter". Hunter-gatherers were forced out of all areas of the world that farmers wanted, and persist now only in the Arctic, deserts, and some rainforests. In Guns, Germs and Steel (W.W. Norton, 1997) Diamond amplifies on the dubious benefits of agricultural society in terms of health. Many germs that afflict modern humanity were transferred from livestock to people living in crowded conditions. Smallpox, flu, tuberculosis, malaria, plague, measles and cholera are infectious human diseases that evolved from diseases of animals.

Furthermore, such diseases played a major role in the colonisation of the Americas that began with Columbus's voyage of 1492. Diamond's observations of the dangers and deleterious aspects of the coming of agricultural societies remain pertinent and disturbing. In terms of agricultural society and animal-human transfer of germs in the past, John M. Wilkins and Shaun Hill note in Food in the Ancient World ( Blackwell, 2006) that recent studies of Minoan Crete of the late Minoan III period (fourteenth century BCE) suggest the presence of infectious diseases in the population, including "osteomyelitis, brucellosis (transferred to humans from infected cow's milk), tuberculosis (transferred from infected cow's milk), and nutritional diseases such as osteoporosis, scurvy, rickets and iron-deficiency anaemia". The danger of avian flu and other possible animal-human transfers in an overpopulated world – brought directly on by the coming of agricultural society – continues to be a frightening possibility.


IN 1997, ANN CURTHOYS and I were fortunate to attend a speech given by the central Australian Aboriginal leader, Galarrwuy Yunupingu, to the National Press Club in Canberra. Yunupingu said he was continually astonished by the way the European colonists of Aboriginal lands always referred to themselves as the settlers while designating his people by contrast as nomads. Such a characterisation was historically preposterous. The European colonists and migrants, he pointed out, were the inveterate wanderers on the face of the earth; they travelled to distant places, across oceans and far from their own homes, and roamed within the Australian continent. European politicians in the Northern Territory, where his people lived, boasted that they were the settlers and belonged to the Territory. Yet, he noted with irony, those same white politicians some years later could be observed living elsewhere in Australia. Meanwhile, the Aboriginal peoples, who stayed on their own lands as far as they were permitted to do so, to look after their country and because they belonged to it, were always referred to as nomads.

We discussed Yunupingu's speech many times afterwards, for it changed much of our thinking about colonisation, migration and world history, in particular his highlighting of such pervasive coloniser and migrant reverse narratives.

A number of years after hearing Yunupingu's questioning of a key Western mythology, I was fortunate to learn of Hugh Brody's The Other Side of Eden: Hunter-Gatherers, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World (Faber and Faber, 2000), and immediately recognised a convergence in hunter-gatherer perceptions of world history between Australian Aboriginal peoples and the peoples of the Canadian Arctic.[viii] As Brody says:

a crucial difference between hunter-gatherers and farmers is that one society is highly mobile, with a strong tendency to both small– and large-scale nomadism, whereas the other is highly settled, tending to stay firmly in one particular area or territory. This difference is established in stereotypes of "nomadic" hunters and "settled" farmers. However, the stereotype has it the wrong way round. It is agricultural societies that tend to be on the move; hunting peoples are far more firmly settled. This fact is evident when we look at these two ways of being in the world over a long time span ...

Brody shares an interest with Diamond in the shaping force of genocide in history. When agricultural societies meet hunter-gatherer societies, a clear pattern emerges: "One kind of economy and culture overwhelms another." Above all, in this "genocidal" process, the new settlers from Europe wanted for their own purposes the land the hunter-gatherers occupied: "Any opposition to farming had to be checked, made impossible. The enemies of settlement had to be silenced or removed. This is the story of the United States, Canada, Australia and much of southern Africa." Such genocide by incoming settlers primarily involves land, but is also associated with other kinds of dispossession and suppression of hunter-gatherer peoples and their culture.

In effect, Brody is arguing that a major force for genocide, violence, destruction and cultural loss in world history is the relentless movement of agricultural-pastoral societies, so recent in their appearance, into the areas of the world where hunter-gatherer groups had lived for many thousands of years. His emphasis that the primary desire of agricultural societies as they spread across the globe was the taking of land accords with contemporary thinking in genocide studies concerning the vexed question of intent. The 1948 UN Convention specifies intent explicitly, mentioning intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group. Lemkin considered intent was difficult to establish in settler colonial situations, because while the far-off metropolitan authorities might call for protection of those being colonised, settlers in the colonies might still pursue destructive violence against them.[ix]

A breakthrough in genocide studies was made by Tony Barta when he wrote that, while a state or bureaucratic apparatus might be directed to protect the indigenous people of a land or continent (like Australia), genocidal intent inhered in the fatal and absolute policy of the colonisers, from metropolitan authorities to local government officials to settlers, to take the land, and even when the terrible human effects of taking the land became clear, at no stage did government authorities or the settlers ever consider withdrawing.[x] Barta's position is becoming increasingly influential.

To conclude, primates such as chimpanzees and humans have always practised intergroup violence, including genocide, so that intergroup violence and genocide remain permanent possibilities. In human history, such violence and genocide were immensely and disastrously intensified with the coming of agricultural societies. Such has been the nature of the world in which we have lived for the past six thousand years.


[i] See Ann Curthoys and John Docker, Is History Fiction? (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2005), pp. 111-14; also A. Curthoys and J. Docker, "Defining Genocide", in Dan Stone (ed.), The Historiography of Genocide (Palgrave, London, 2007).

[ii] For my first report on this research, see my talk, "Raphaël Lemkin's History of Genocide and Colonialism", for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, Washington DC, 26 February 2004, on their website,

[iii] See John Docker, "Are Settler-Colonies Inherently Genocidal? Re-reading Lemkin", in Dirk Moses (ed.), Genocide and Colonialism (Berghahn, New York, 2007).

[iv] See Samantha Power, "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (Perennial/HarperCollins, New York, 2003), pp. 62-63; also

[v] Concerning Darwin and genocide, see Tony Barta, "Mr Darwin's Shooters: On Natural Selection and the Naturalizing of Genocide", Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 39, no. 2, 2005, pp. 116-37, also published in Dirk Moses and Dan Stone (eds), Colonialism and Genocide (Routledge, London, 2007).

[vi] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. and introd. Hannah Arendt (Fontana, London, 1992), p. 248, and Maxime Rodinson, Cult, Ghetto, and State: The Persistence of the Jewish Question (Al Saqi Books, London, 1983), p. 182. Cf. John Docker, 1492: The Poetics of Diaspora (Continuum, London, 2001), p.130.

[vii] Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology (Harmony Books, New York, 2000), esp. the chapters by Hilary Rose, "Colonizing the Social Sciences", pp. 127-53, and Steven Rose, "Escaping Evolutionary Psychology", pp. 299-318.

[viii] In Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 39, no. 2, June 2005, p. 247, Mark Levene, opening a review of A. Dirk Moses' collection Genocide and Settler Society (2004), writes as his first sentence: "Coincidentally, while reviewing this volume, I also happened to be reading The Other Side of Eden (2000), Hugh Brody's wonderful evocation of hunter-gatherer peoples in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions of Canada." Levene then goes on to point out what Yunupingu had argued: that it is those who come from an agriculturalist-pastoral tradition who are the wanderers, not the Aborigines. I was so struck by this resonance with Yunupingu and what Ann Curthoys and I had been suggesting for a number of years that I immediately emailed my favourite bookshop in all the world, Gleebooks in Sydney, to send a copy of Brody's book, just in time to include it in a footnote to our analysis of Herodotus's Histories and the Scythians: see Is History Fiction? p. 241, note 21.

[ix] See Ann Curthoys, "Raphaël Lemkin's 'Tasmania': An Introduction", and Raphaël Lemkin, "Tasmania", edited by Ann Curthoys, Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 39, no. 2, June 2005, pp. 162-96, and Docker, "Are Settler-Colonies Inherently Genocidal? Re-reading Lemkin"

[x] Tony Barta, "Relations of Genocide: Land and Lives in the Colonization of Australia", in Isidor Wallimann and Michael N. Dobkowski (eds), Genocide and the Modern Age: Etiology and Case Studies of Mass Death (Greenwood Press, New York, 1987), pp. 242-43, 246-49.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review