From spears to M-16s: Testing the imbalance of power hypothesis among the Enga

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24 Scopus citations


Major works on warfare in noncentralized societies have suggested that warfare is spurred by imbalances of power. Intergroup aggression is seen as predatory and aimed at dominance and acquisition (Chagnon 1988; Manson and Wrangham 1991; Meggitt 1977), that is, total warfare conducted with limited means (Keeley 1996). Here it is argued that the imbalance of power hypothesis overlooks the importance of intergroup ties for human production, reproduction, and exchange. An alternate "balance of power" hypothesis is presented: that warfare in simple societies is largely about retaliation to establish a balance of power with allies and enemies so that intergroup social and economic exchange can flow. Data from the Enga of Papua New Guinea are used to examine both hypotheses, concentrating on the motives behind warfare, male coalitionary dynamics, and the outcomes of warfare among the Enga during a 300-year period of rapid change from the introduction of the sweet potato until the adoption of modern high-powered weapons.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)165-191
Number of pages27
JournalJournal of Anthropological Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes


  • Balance of power hypothesis
  • Enga
  • Exchange
  • Intergroup aggression
  • Male coalitions
  • Papua New Guinea
  • Reciprocity
  • Warfare

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Anthropology
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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