Why we duel

Words by William Buckner
21st April 2022
Issue 7

Duels can be brutal and even lethal. But duels emerged in societies around the world for an important reason: to control and manage violence, not just to celebrate it.


Violence is dramatic: fascinating, horrifying, alluring, upsetting. Individuals or groups come into conflict – interests opposed, incentives misaligned – and the use of physical force is one conceivable response. Because of the consequences it can have, societies have developed traditions to navigate and manage violence and how it is expressed. Cultural norms and institutions often work to constrain antisocial forms of violence within communities while promoting it against adversaries or in other contexts where it is more socially acceptable. Duelling traditions, from the use of wooden clubs to firearms, have historically been one method of managing conflicts between individuals. Duels tend to be regulated affairs, no mere heated displays of aggression. These are contests with established rules and standards of conduct, often discouraging lethality, and with an eye ultimately towards reconciliation and resolution rather than indefinite conflict or the permanent removal of an adversary.

Play fighting with spears

In 1844, a European colonial station head working in southeastern Australia described in his diary the customs of native people living near the Lower Murray river. The man, John T. Hinkins, recounted the significant social response when a man of the Murray river tribe ‘captured’ – although apparently quite with her consent – a young woman from a different tribe living along the Goulburn river.

Among these societies – as is commonly the case across hunter-gatherer societies more generally – marriages were frequently arranged by kin, and thus a young couple absconding to marry on their own was considered by some to be a problem. There was, however, a socially prescribed method for dealing with conflicts of interests such as this. Over 100 people from the two tribes met, and it was decided that the young woman would be forced to return with her family – unless her prospective husband could prove himself in a ritualised duel against six of her nearest male relatives.

Standing at a distance potentially as far as 50 yards, the young man, equipped only with a shield, had to face his adversaries as they, one by one, attempted to wound him by throwing spears, clubs, or boomerangs. ‘A greater sight of agility and cleverness on the part of this young aboriginal I never witnessed’, Hinkins writes. Every weapon was launched towards him with accurate aim, yet he either sidestepped, stooped below, or parried with his shield to avoid them all.

At one point, however, a club (a ‘nulla nulla’) was thrown with such force that it broke the man’s shield. He was immediately supplied with another, as there was apparently little honor to be had in such a contest without the defender being properly equipped. The duel continued until the man had successfully avoided all of the weapons thrown at him. The response of all involved to his successful maneuvering is worth noting: ‘There was a great shout raised for the victor, and he was allowed to carry off his prize, who seemed greatly pleased, for she had evidently been watching the scene anxiously. Indeed, all parties appeared completely satisfied, and her friends returned home’, concludes Hinkins.

While this is a very conspicuous and potentially violent custom, similar methods to manage conflict are very common cross-culturally, and it is not particularly difficult to discern some of the plausible functions which have led many different peoples to converge on them.

For one, they provide a mechanism for resolving an existing conflict. All parties seemed to have accepted the outcome with good cheer in the above case. While the conflict itself was precipitated by a marriage that was initially considered prohibited, the successful outcome of the duel legitimised the union. That the young man had honestly demonstrated to her kin his willingness to face significant costs to be with her only bolsters this perspective on the encounter.

Among the Tiwi of North Australia, where similar spear-throwing duels were practised, the duels often began with an extended ‘harangue’ given by the usually older male accuser against the younger male defender, ‘reminding the young man of his debt to society, and . . . attempting to convey the idea that social life needed mutual aid and trust between all its members’, writes anthropologist C. W. M. Hart, further indicating some of the social functions these customs seem to have.

Even though a duel may offer an imperfect resolution to some conflicts, it has the important contribution of settling the issue formally, which may reduce the likelihood that the situation escalates. Across hunting societies, every man constantly has a lethal weapon near at hand – such as a bow and poisoned arrows – raising the possibility that even minor disputes escalate to fatalities. However, as anthropologist James Woodburn writes of the Hadza hunter-gatherers of East Africa, ‘The possibility of this drastic means of self-help encourages men to fight fairly in the more usual duels which are fought between two men using staves, often bow staves. In these duels, head injuries are common but deaths are very rare’.

Duelling can channel an existing state of conflict in a direction that, while violent, is ideally less ultimately devastating than it could be, and concludes without the risk of being perpetuated indefinitely in cycles of revenge. Anthropologist Reo Fortune described duels among the Kamano horticulturalists of New Guinea involving contestants battering each other’s head and shoulders with strakes of wood: ‘When an argument reached this stage it was normal for the man who drew the first blood on his opponent to claim a victory at law, and it was normal for his opponent to concede the lady, the land, or whatever it might be to his fellow’, Fortune writes.

Punching bags

Some evolutionary biologists have argued that key aspects of the human face evolved through selective pressures related to being punched, and that aspects of the human fist evolved similarly for punching, perhaps projecting the drunken bar fights of Western college students onto all of human history. These scholars propose that the morphology of the human fist evolved to protect the joints of the index finger when punching, that the human jaw and maxilla evolved to handle punches, and even that beards themselves evolved for protection in fistfights.

However, my survey of hunter-gatherer societies indicates that Western-style boxing and fistfighting, with punches repeatedly thrown and focused preferentially on the face, have not been historically common cross-culturally, and instead wrestling matches and duels with weaponry of the kind described above are much more common forms of conflict management. In many of these societies, without court systems and where every man is armed, it should not be surprising that serious disputes are not uncommonly settled with these kinds of formal conventions. It is important to understand how violent conflict actually expresses itself – across hunter-gatherer and other ‘traditional’ societies, among our closest primate relatives, and in the archaeological record – if we really want to understand our evolutionary history and the role violence played in it.

Among male chimpanzees, it is often the most vulnerable parts of the body, such as the eyes, throat, and genitalia, which are preferentially subject to attack. Further, during the course of hominin evolutionary history we have seen a substantial decline in the robusticity of the human skull and mandible, associated with the rise of complex tool use and a decline in the paramount importance of male violence for reproductive success. While bigger, stronger males have greater reproductive success in nonindustrial societies, this relationship is much smaller (r = 0.19) than the pattern found across nonhuman primates (r = 0.80). Humans are a pair-bonded species, with highly helpless infants that require significant investment from adults to survive and thrive. In our lineage provisioning and caregiving by males is much more essential to improve their reproductive success than the patterns found across most other mammals.

Thus there is little reason to think fistfighting in particular (meaning punches targeting the face) was a strong selection pressure at any point during human evolutionary history. Further, much of the size and strength differences we see between males and females in humans reflects an ancestral condition we share with other closely related primates, and doesn’t necessarily require more recent human-specific pressures for male violence during our history.

Even where fistfighting occurs among some hunter-gatherer societies, punching itself doesn’t seem to be particularly consequential or damaging behavior, as among the Kaska of Alaska, where, “While fists are used at first, this form of fighting soon yields to wrestling, the aim being to throw the opponent and then choke him into surrender’. I cannot recall coming across any cases where fistfighting among hunter-gatherers was reported to have caused serious injury or death, in contrast to many of the duelling traditions referred to here.

In recent history, fistfighting has spread to hunter-gatherer societies through colonial or missionary activity. Among the Tiwi, in the 1930s a Catholic missionary intentionally introduced fistfighting as an alternative, and less violent, means of conflict resolution to their traditional spear-throwing duels. Anthropologist Allan Holmberg described a fight among the Sirionó of South America, who traditionally resolved their disputes through wrestling matches, where a man ‘when drunk, struck an opponent with his fists. Everyone began to clamor that he was fighting unfairly, “like a white man”’.

Managing violence

Some hereditarian psychologists and criminologists tend to conceptualise violence largely as the symptom of a lack of self-control, and propose that some groups evolved to be more prone to violence than others. However, the duelling traditions we see across traditional societies often reflect a truly remarkable degree of restraint, to hold off on expressing one’s violent anger until it can be directed in a culturally appropriate duel.

As anthropologists Kim Hill and Ana Magdalena Hurtado write of the Ache hunter-gatherers of Paraguay, ‘Even now, Ache men do not yell at, argue with, or scold each other in a confrontational manner, and they never hit or shove each other. Indeed, we have never observed a scuffle between Ache men in seventeen years of work with them . . . Club fights were the sole allowable form of male confrontation [within the community]’.

Many hunter-gatherer societies do have higher homicide rates than contemporary nation states, sometimes substantially so; however, because of differences in population size such direct comparisons can be misleading. For example, Marlowe reports a homicide rate among the Hadza of 6.6 per 100,000 people, comparable to the rate of 6.5 per 100,000 in the United States in 2020. Yet the Hadza population is only 1,000 people, so this 6.6-per-100,000 rate comes from a total of 2 recorded homicides over the course of 30 years, making it a rare event indeed over that time frame.

At the same time, we should take care not to glamorise or lean entirely on the functional aspects duelling traditions seem to have, as obviously a great deal of harm can still result from them.

Hill and Hurtado note that, ‘In the first few days [after a club fight] some men might die, but most recovered, even if their skulls had been split after a direct hit. Many Ache men have multiple large dents in their skulls, evidence of past fights and their ability to recover’. It’s not uncommon that duelling traditions are taken advantage of strategically by self-interested strong older males to attack weaker younger male competitors. Among the Ache, powerful older men would form coalitions to win group-oriented club fights, oppress their younger male rivals, and try to monopolise access to sexually mature women. Of the Tiwi, if a young man were to try to embarrass an influential older male accuser during a spear-throwing duel, or reject the challenge entirely, he risked being ganged up on and killed by some of the older man’s allies.

Yet such duels can also be a means for someone in a more marginal position to demand better treatment, by demonstrating a willingness to impose or face costs rather than accepting a substandard social position or a personal betrayal or a failure to repay a debt.

Duels among the Ona hunter-gatherers of Tierra del Fuego were used generally for relatively minor social offences, such as rude gossip or slander, and took the form of rough wrestling matches or a running contest involving a bow and arrows with the heads removed and bound with sinew or hide. One man stands with a bow and shoots the headless arrows at the other man, who comes running and dodging toward him from a distance of about 40 to 80 yards. The roles are then reversed, and the contest ideally ends with amicable relations ultimately established or restored.

The duel, it must be remembered, is generally not just a means of resolving interpersonal conflicts, but also a public performance.

Among the Tiwi, spear-throwing duels were often between a polygynous old man and a younger man accused of seducing one of his wives. The young man on the defending side of such a duel needed to walk a delicate balancing act. In many cases, being younger and more athletic, he was easily capable of dodging the throws of his geriatric accuser. If he dodged too easily, however – too dismissive and contemptuous of his ancient rival’s feeble attempts – this elicited some social disapproval for making an esteemed older figure look ridiculous to the community.

Thus, an astute and enterprising young man, with plans of becoming a respected elder with many wives himself someday, would demonstrate his physical skill for a few minutes by dodging and weaving at the last moment, giving the impression of his rival’s near accuracy, and then ultimately show an appropriate moral attitude by very subtly allowing himself to be hit – ideally a superficial wound on the arm or thigh, which bleeds greatly but does no serious damage and can heal quickly.

Hart writes that, ‘when the blood gushed from such a wound the crowd yelled approval and the duel was over. The young man had behaved admirably, the old man had vindicated his honor, the sanctity of marriage and the Tiwi constitution had been upheld, and everybody went home satisfied and full of moral rectitude’.

Even warfare in many traditional societies commonly takes a regulated form to inhibit more extensive casualties.

In Tiwi pitched battles, each side can consist of dozens of men throwing war clubs and spears at their opponents, yet the fighting ceases as soon as someone gets seriously injured. One Tiwi man, noting the contrast between their form of war and that of European warfare, such as during World War I, remarked that, ‘When white feller go to war, he takem rifle, he takem bomb. Some feller must be killed! White feller silly b—!’

Of course, this doesn’t mean killings don’t happen in other ways, and even where war is regulated in this manner deadly ambushes between groups can still occur outside of such formal contests. But these traditions are notable for how they often incentivise modest forms of violence in ways that may reduce the chances of more extensive harm. Although sometimes this works better in theory than in practice. Hill and Hurtado note that while animosities were supposed to be forgotten after club fights, new and stronger resentments could also develop during the fight itself, as when, for example, ‘Men who had no enemies would suddenly find themselves badly disposed towards those they had seen hit their father or brothers’.

War is not a big duel

Violence cross-culturally is often, though of course not always, undertaken by people quite rationally, and in a self-interested and strategic manner. Part of this is because cultural traditions have evolved where violence is incentivised in particular directions: socially appropriate forms of violence are not simply tolerated but lauded, while inappropriate or unchecked expressions of violence are highly disapproved, with offenders risking severe reprisal.

War against hated enemy groups, or regulated violence enacted in duels for conflict resolution and entertainment, can increase one’s status, while rampant violence directed against the community can risk not only serious social reproach but one’s own socially approved execution. A well-known example was documented among the Dobe Ju/’hoansi hunter-gatherers of the Kalahari desert, where a serial murderer named /Twi was ambushed, killed, and symbolically stabbed by every member of the community after his death.

Even Napoleon Chagnon – known for his work among the Yąnomamö showing that men who killed had greater reproductive success than men who did not—emphasised it wasn’t necessarily the most violent men who were most reproductively successful. Instead, he noted that the most frequent killer he was aware of had actually left no children, and that, ‘Being excessively prone to lethal violence may not be an effective route to high reproductive success, but, statistically, men who engage in it with some moderation seem to do better reproductively than men who do not engage in it at all’.

Of course, duelling isn’t just found in hunter-gatherer or ‘traditional’ societies. In 1804, the sitting vice president of the United States, Aaron Burr, famously shot and killed former secretary of the treasury Alexander Hamilton in a duel. Future United States president Andrew Jackson was shot in a duel in 1806. He killed his opponent, Charles Dickinson, in that same duel. After his opponent fired and struck true, with the bullet lodged into his body only an inch or so from his heart, Jackson’s first pull of the trigger came with the hammer half-cocked, and failed to fire. He fully cocked the hammer, aimed again, and fired, killing his opponent. This seems to have hurt Jackson’s reputation at the time, as his accusers argued his second pull of the trigger was unethical.

While the duels described above involving clubs and spears and bows can be fatal, the development of firearms crafted particularly for use in duels by the 18th century added a new element of lethality, and thus both parties firing into the air instead of at each other become an honourable way of ending the conflict in some cases without risking such a result. This kind of parallel, with strategies to compensate for the increased intrinsic lethality of the practice with an option for a less violent potential resolution, makes sense when you think of many forms of duelling as generally being less about eliminating a rival – in contrast with a murder, or many forms of warfare – and instead about resolving conflict and attempting to induce better treatment for oneself from competitors or the community at large.

William Buckner is a student at UC Davis studying evolutionary anthropology. He blogs at Traditions of Conflict and on his newsletter. You can follow him on Twitter here.