Between Clans and Cattle: Third-party Peacemakers Among the Hamar Agro-pastoralists

Photo credit: Zachary Garfield. Hamar women gather for a community meeting

– by Zachary Garfield

How do we resolve conflicts? Who helps resolve conflicts and why? To answer these questions, my colleague Luke Glowacki and I analyzed data from ongoing long-term fieldwork among Hamar pastoralists in Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, now published in Evolution and Human Behavior.

The Hamar are an interesting ethnographic case study for conflicts and their mediation. They live in the culturally diverse Omo Valley, home to over a dozen distinct ethnic groups, most of which practice pastoralism to some degree. There’s also much history of inter-group conflict, warfare, and large-scale cattle raids between these groups. So, ethnic identity is powerful. Most men over 50 have fired rifles at neighboring groups when herding cattle, and several have killed other men in the context of inter-group raids. Inter-group threats are assumed to help sustain within-group cooperation and, by extension, theoretically, limit within-group conflicts. Alternatively, it could be argued that cultural values favoring warriors and ferocity could lead to elevated potential for aspiring or well-known warriors to increase or maintain their status through competitive displays, creating additional opportunities for within-group conflicts.

Hamar society, like most East African pastoralists, is clan-based, and birthright membership in a patrilineal clan is a salient feature of one’s social identity. This is part of what makes what is called a kinship-intensive society. Clan-based societies have long been thought to be more likely to experience large-scale conflicts (and this has been recently demonstrated empirically), given that disputes between individuals from different clans or social groups can move up the social levels, recruiting substantially more significant numbers of engaged individuals with every ratchet up. “Me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the world,” the old proverb goes. This might be somewhat equivalent to, say, if, during a friendly football match between RasenBallsport Leipzig and Toulouse Football Club, an overly enthusiastic Toulousian and Leipziger got into a drunken brawl, which, if left unresolved, was likely to lead to a more significant conflict between the Saxony and Occitanie regions, and then an all-out war between Germany and France. Thankfully, as we all know, this is extremely unlikely to happen (especially in post-industrialized and Western cultural contexts). In kinship-intensive societies, however – which were probably the norm throughout our evolutionary history and remain common in many parts of the world today –  an open question is, how do clan-based social structures promote or inhibit conflicts between individuals?

Our study asked 99 adults, all willing participants in one Hamar community, to report on conflicts they had experienced with other adults, disputes between different community members they were aware of, or which they had been involved in as a third-party mediator. We also asked each participant to report on the nature and cause of the conflict, who was involved and their relationships, how relatively severe the conflict was, and the outcomes of the conflict, i.e., was it resolved and do the people in conflict get along today. Based on these data, we could analytically explore the socio-ecology of disputes and their mediation in this particular Hamar society.

A first and intriguing result: we observed that 54% of conflicts reported involved the intervention of a third-party mediator. This figure intriguingly aligns with findings from other autonomous, subsistence-based societies worldwide. For instance, von Rueden’s 2022 research with the Tsimane horticulturalists in the Bolivian Amazon demonstrated that, across four villages and seven observations, men reported the involvement of a third-party mediator in 56% of conflicts. Likewise, Singh and Garfield’s 2022 study with the Mentawai horticulturalists in Indonesia revealed that, out of 217 disputes, nearly half (49.8%) involved third-party mediation. These parallel findings across varied cultures and methods—from self-reports to observations—underscore a common thread: almost half of all interpersonal conflicts within these communities see the peacemaking hand of a third-party mediator.

We also found that pastoralists’ economic systems powerfully shape inter-individual conflicts. More than half of all reported conflicts were related to livestock grazing in someone’s agricultural plots or due to some other livestock management issue. Social disputes, such as those that arise from intoxication, quarreling children, or personal insults, were relatively more common among women, which we interpret as a consequence of gendered divisions of labor, more significant social interactions among women, and demographic patterns of greater mobility among younger adult men. Overall, these results paint a picture of a society where economic, social, and personal dimensions strongly interlace in the emergence of conflicts.

One of the most striking findings was the active involvement of both men and women in conflicts and their resolution, albeit in varying capacities. Men were more likely to be involved in economic and resource-based disputes, whereas women were more likely to be involved in resolving social conflicts. Furthermore, men are typically the mediators of disputes between other men; the same goes for women. However, conflicts between a man and a woman were equally likely to be mediated by a woman or a man. This highlights not only the significance of gender dynamics in conflict resolution but also the nuanced roles women play in these processes, even in a predominantly patriarchal society.

We also found that third-party mediation is more likely for social conflicts and when conflicts emerge between clan members but less likely for disputes between blood relatives. Surprisingly, more severe conflicts were not more likely to involve third-party mediation once other factors were considered. This emphasizes the importance of maintaining social cohesion within clans and suggests blood relatives may more easily be able to resolve conflicts on their own.

This study is just one small piece of the puzzle of human conflicts and resolution. Our results suggest that social structures can be designed to help limit and effectively mediate interpersonal disputes and that we should consider the social, economic, and cultural contexts of human groups and societies to understand what drives conflicts’ emergence and facilitates their resolution.

Read the original article here: Garfield, Z.H., & Glowacki, L. (2023). Interpersonal conflicts and third-party mediation in a pastoralist society. Evolution and Human Behavior, 44(6), 613-623.

To learn more about our work, our nonprofit, and philanthropy in Southwest Ethiopia, see The Omo Valley Research Project.