The Prehistoric origins of International Relations

by Eugenio V Garcia

512px-spreading homo sapiens
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The spread of homo sapiens: Altaileopard via Wikimedia Commons

Trying to make sense of global politics in the twenty-first century has been no easy task. Polarisation and great-power rivalry are looming large, whereas traditional polarities (unipolar, bipolar, multipolar) matter little in a fragmented, messy and contested world order. International Relations (IR) students are struggling to keep up with contending theories that compete for an audience.

Now ask yourself: what is the subject matter of IR and when did it first emerge? Incredibly enough, scholars have not reached a common understanding on this key aspect of the discipline. If you still believe that it all began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, think again. You are missing many thousands of years of historical evolution.

The nomadic life of our hunter-gatherer ancestors encompasses at least 90% of all Homo sapiens history. We badly need fresh narratives that transcend limiting cultural borders, whilst embracing the integral development of the human species in all its pre-Westphalian ways of political and social organisation. But how much further back in time should we look for the origins of the ‘international’? If not in 1648, when exactly did it start?

Nowadays, it is highly anachronistic to confine IR exclusively to the realm of nations/interstate relations. Although useful, state-centred narratives do not exhaust all possible approaches and are in many cases too narrow to elude criticism. Historians could come to the rescue.

Take, for instance, World History and its transnational, cross-civilisational and multidimensional perspective of long-term patterns of analysis and research. Global interconnectedness may seem to many a contemporary phenomenon, but encounters between different groups have always shaped the way we see and interact with strangers, outsiders, fellow members of our own society and ourselves.

The ‘international’ is a historical contingency that may encompass different configurations over time. Wherever interactions occur in or among a plurality of polities, including non-sedentary ones, the question of foreignness comes to the fore. The existence of the Other is thus a prerequisite for any international-like relationship.

For millennia, many different types of interaction have come into play among independent and politically-constituted human communities, even if only in rudimentary form. In a broad sense, ‘foreign’ relations among political units can arguably be traced back to the age of hominids.

There is no need, however, in revisiting seventeenth-century contractualism to imagine yet another ‘state of nature’ like great thinkers such as Hobbes or Rousseau did -- an admittedly abstract, intellectual creation, applied to the pre-social era of humankind. Rather, a reasonable alternative at hand would be searching for a tale of origins inspired by historical, real-life conditions.

Travelling back in time, one can find examples of ‘pre-international’ relations in several ancient civilisations, the Egyptian diplomatic correspondence known as ‘Amarna letters’ being a case in point. Going even further, the next logical step would be to investigate stateless, prehistoric societies. Are we ready to go the extra mile in reaching beyond the archaeological written record?

If we admit that ideally IR studies should not be hampered by state-centrism and instead include other polities throughout the entire time span of the existence of Homo sapiens on the planet, the Palaeolithic period stands out as a strong candidate for further research. What if international relations had started in the first contact between hunter-gatherer bands, approximately 100,000–150,000 years ago, even before the advent of agriculture and the transition from nomadism to Neolithic sedentary societies? Is it high time to embrace a new founding myth for IR?

Bands of hunter-gatherers are the most basic form of political organisation. They are mobile, nomadic units based upon kinship in relatively self-sufficient groups of 25–50 individuals. As the smallest social community beyond the nuclear family, the way the band interacts with other groups opens an unexpected window into the distant past offering a glimpse of the inception of the Us–Them dichotomy.

What might have happened during a first prehistoric encounter among total strangers? As the outcome of this ‘original interaction’ was not predetermined, at least four scenarios may be considered: 1) the absence of relations through retreat, isolation or withdrawal into indifference; 2) hostile relations taking the form of conflict triggered by self-preservation (the birth of war); 3) cooperation, barter or other types of friendly exchange; and 4) merging together (subjugation by conquest or assimilation). How would these elements play out in a ‘pre-international’ Palaeolithic system?

The story takes a new turn in the post-contact period. Following the initial engagement suggested above, interband relations would have become much more intertwined. Over time, the level of external interaction grew, otherness developed and contact zones between bands spread considerably. Once the stranger was no longer unknown, the archetypal distinction between Us and Them began to fade away. The ensuing relationship shaped their co-constructed social reality, in a long process of extending trust beyond the family circle. Growing imbrication would have eventually resulted in the relative enlargement and reshaping of foreignness, between what belonged to the domestic realm and what was foreign, strange or different.

Going back to the beginning means going back to basics. If today’s global system seems too complex to grasp properly, perhaps prehistory may help reduce the variables at play, so that we can get the fundamentals right in the first place. Speculating about what happened when the first humans met each other is a good starting point.

These ideas are explored in further detail in an article published in Volume 31, Issue 6 of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs: ‘Back to prehistory: The quest for an alternative IR founding myth’. The article draws inspiration from World History to further examine the hypothesis of a first Palaeolithic encounter and what it means for IR. In an attempt to breach disciplinary barriers, extensive use is made of contributions from other social sciences, notably political anthropology, social psychology and evolutionary approaches. This contribution, it is hoped, might assist in bridging the academic gap between the two disciplines by inviting students to pay more attention to the prehistoric foundations of the ‘international’.

About the author

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Eugenio V. Garcia holds a PhD in History of International Relations from the University of Brasilia and teaches regularly at the Rio Branco Institute, the diplomatic academy of the Brazilian Foreign Service. He is currently a Senior Adviser to the President of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

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