“The Semai are among the most peaceful people known,” wrote Clayton A. Robarchek and Carole J. Robarchek in a 1998 article just added to the Archive of this website. The authors analyze the nature of the Semai beliefs that foster their peacefulness, and, equally as intriguing, they compare those beliefs with a South American society, the Waorani, that in many ways is quite similar. However, until fairly recently the Waorani may have been “the most warlike society known.”
The similarities between the two societies are startling. Both the Semai and the Waorani fish, hunt, gather, and maintain swidden gardens in equatorial rain forest environments, and both have similar levels of technologies. The social organizations of both groups are similar—they live in kin-based residence groupings of normally less than 100 people. Children are socialized in both societies in an indulgent, non-punishing manner, and parents are affectionate and warm with their children.
While the peacefulness of the Semai may already be familiar to frequent visitors to this website, the violence of the Waorani may not be. Until the 1960s, when most of them were converted to Christianity by several women missionaries, violence was a regular part of their lives. Over 40 percent of their deaths were the result of raiding among different Waorani bands, and 20 percent more were due to clashes with outsiders. They first came to the attention of the outside world in 1957 when they speared 5 missionaries, an action that drew worldwide attention. While they are much less violent now, spearings and raids still occur from time to time.
The startling difference between the two groups is in their worldviews. The Semai values lead them to have normally peaceful interpersonal relations, while the Waorani views led them to frequent violence.
The Semai see the surrounding world as essentially dangerous and hostile; the forest is a place of malevolence where animals and spirits wait to prey on people. As a result, the only safety for the Semai, they believe, is to always maintain close ties to the group, which provides security to the individual. The Semai express their interdependence symbolically by exchanging food constantly, a reciprocity that they think must be without calculation of loss or gain.
The introduction of the money economy over the past 30 years has prompted them to deal with cash purchases in novel ways. When someone wants to buy something from another, the buyer approaches the potential seller with a lengthy, cordial conversation, before edging into the subject of the purchase. The buyer offers much more money than the object is worth, whereupon the seller refuses and pushes most of it back, protesting that too much has been offered. The buyer protests that much more must be paid and pushes money back at the seller. This reverse marketplace behavior continues, though each time less and less money is pushed back and forth, until a fair price is negotiated and the transaction is finished. The fiction of unrestrained sharing is maintained.
The Waorani have a much more restricted view of reciprocity than the Semai do. They exchange food only with the extended bilateral family. Beyond that, they have no belief in sharing. In the larger, aggregated settlements established by the Ecuadorian government, when numerous peccaries are killed the meat is not shared generally with the rest of the settlement.
The Waorani view people as completely autonomous individuals who are independently capable of providing for themselves. Except for immediate family members, they do not expect assistance in their activities. Women give birth alone, and during a spearing raid everyone abandons others, even close family members, to flee. In the past, on occasion, when elderly persons became a burden, they might have been speared to death by members of their own families. But the Waorani are not at all frightened of their surrounding environment. The forest poses no physical or magical terrors for them.
In sum, since the Semai see the world as violent, their safety is only assured by the peaceful harmony of the group. As a result, interpersonal conflict and violence must be avoided if at all possible. The Waorani see the world as benign. People should be independent, capable, and self-sufficient, and should have few expectations and few obligations with others. To them, conflict and aggression are normal. The contrasting worldviews foster societies that are, on the one hand, constantly concerned about avoiding violence and promoting peaceful relationships, and on the other, tolerant of anger, hostility, and violence.