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A journey into conflicts and cooperation in humanity's past

Prof. Nam Kim engaged in three public gatherings during his visit to Guam in August. Photo courtesy of Philharmonic Foundation

By Louella Losinio

Nearly five decades after arriving in Guam as a Vietnamese refugee following the Fall of Saigon, Nam Kim returned to the island to share his insights about conflict and warfare through several presentations organized by the Guam Philharmonic Foundation Inc.

Nam Kim, now a professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, engaged in three public gatherings. At one of his lectures at the Nieves M. Flores Memorial Library in Hagatna, he delivered a thought-provoking talk on "Plumbing Nebulous Depths: Exploring Violence and Warfare in Humanity's Past."

The lecture provided a glimpse into the extensive research that archaeologists have undertaken on this complex topic.


His personal journey is woven with a tapestry of mixed ancestry, marked by a fortuitous evacuation from Saigon in April 1975 during Operation Frequent Wind. This escape, culminating in his arrival in Guam, played a pivotal role in shaping his academic and intellectual pursuits. With a persistent interest in matters of conflict and warfare, he embarked on an exploration into the origins of these phenomena.

During his presentation, Kim embarked on a journey through time, offering insights into the earliest records that showcase forms of conflict within the material record. He drew upon cases and studies from around the world, spanning from the Ice Age to the Modern Day. The heart of his discussion delved into the complex realm of anthropological perspectives on warfare, revealing that there is no simple answer to questions about the origins and nature of conflict.


“For those who are familiar with this topic, from an anthropological perspective, there is no simple answer,” he said. “Everybody has an opinion of how old war is and what is defined as warfare. All of us have an experience with conflict, whether directly or indirectly.”

Kim also discussed the intricate web of motivations behind conflict, ranging from the protection of resources and boundaries to ideas and ideologies. He posed compelling questions about the dawn of warfare and its potential ties to human evolution, using evidence from symbolic artifacts, intricate tools, and cave paintings that spanned vast stretches of time.

Through his research, he challenged conventional notions, suggesting that war and peace are not stark opposites but rather sophisticated expressions of cooperation and identity. He explored how cognitive capabilities, symbolic thinking, and abstract thought have influenced the emergence of complex communication, shared goals, and planned strategies.

“A lot of people say it is peace and cooperation or violence and war,” he said. “Those are dichotomies. Those are two ends, but what I would argue is warfare is actually a sophisticated, informed cooperation. It is a group of people working together for a common perspective or goal. And you have to be able to work together in order to be successful.”

By analyzing artifacts, such as intricate daggers made from bones, and examining behaviors that date back tens of thousands of years, Kim uncovered clues to our shared humanity. He highlighted that while the origins of warfare remain complex and multifaceted, the same cognitive abilities that allowed for peace and cooperation also paved the way for conflict and war.


In his journey through human history, Kim emphasized that the origins of conflict and cooperation are deeply entwined, bound by the intricate threads of human behavior, identity, and the pursuit of common goals.

“There are all kinds of meanings and rituals attached to war. Whether you are talking about societies of the distant past or the modern day. For those who have served in the military, you see elements of the rituals, the elements of certain kinds of practice that are still part of convention and culture,” he said.

He said the transition to behavioral modernity marked a turning point in human history. This marked the emergence of behaviors that necessitated intricate cooperation. He said it's important to note that this didn't imply a shift toward warlike tendencies; rather, it paved the way for what can be described as "super-cooperation."

During this period, humanity's toolkit of behaviors was fully accessible. This meant that the choices weren't limited to conflict alone. Individuals and groups had the capacity to actively pursue paths of peace. The options weren't mutually exclusive—both conflict and cooperation could be embraced, leading to a cyclic interplay between them.

His key argument is that complex cooperation is central not only to the emergence of warfare but also to the rise of "peace fare." These two seemingly opposing concepts developed in tandem. The cognitive ability to work together, coupled with the wide range of behavioral flexibility inherent in humans, lies at the core of these dynamics.

When delving into questions about human behavior, it becomes imperative to study both violence and peacemaking, according to Kim. These aspects are inherently connected. This also means that investigations into reconciliation, altruism, empathy, and their origins are intricately tied to the broader topic of the origins of warfare.

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