Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide – Ancient or Modern?

10th June 2011

Oh impotene of mind!
Shall these, shall these Atrides’ mercy find
Well hast thou known proud Troy’s perfidious land,
And well her natives merit at thy hand!
Not one of all the race, nor sex, nor age,
Shall save a Trojan from our boundless rage:
Her babes, her infants at the breast, shall fall.
Homer, 1813, The Iliad, book IV pp.147-148 line 67-72

The concepts of genocide and ethnic cleansing initially appear straightforward, both in regard to the subject matter and the multitude of examples that can be provided as evidence for the existence of each in the history of mankind. However as both the breadth and depth of study in each of these areas increases, the discussion and the material involved both become more complicated by adding questions of historical relevance to this discussion such as; is such behavior ancient and how might it have changed through periods of tribal conflict into recent times? There are certainly examples that can be given from biblical, Greek and Roman accounts, among others, attesting to its inclusion in human history, both in organized warfare and in what today is termed tribal conflict. Despite the terminologies contemporary origin, in the late 1940s, does the history of both genocide and ethnic cleansing begin and end with the ideas and emergence of modern humans or can a link be made to our ancestral origins?

The 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide stated that “genocide is a crime under international law, contrary to the spirit and aims of the United Nations and condemned by the civilized world”, and that “at all periods of history genocide has inflicted great losses on humanity” (A/RES/260 (III), 1948). Defined as “the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group,” genocide evokes images of the mass killing of people, based on their ethnic or religious backgrounds, during the Holocaust of the Second World War (A/RES/260 (III), 1948). For many people, this single tragic moment in history is what genocide means. Perhaps importantly, by narrow definition, genocide occurs only under the circumstances where there is intent: the intent to completely destroy, in whole or in part an entire group.

Ethnic cleansing, says Bell-Fialkoff “defies easy definition”. At one end it is virtually indistinguishable from forced emigration and population exchange while at the other it merges with deportation and genocide. At the most general level, however, “ethnic cleansing can be understood as the expulsion of an undesirable population from a given territory due to religious or ethnic discrimination, political, strategic or ideological considerations, or a combination of these” (Bell-Fialkoff, 1993, p.110). Terry Martin argued that ethnic cleansing is “the forcible removal of an ethnically defined population from a given territory” and occupied “the central part of a continuum between genocide on one end and nonviolent pressured ethnic emigration on the other end” (Martin, 1998, p.822). This definition is fundamentally broader than that of genocide alone, and could involve death, displacement, or a combination of the two, within a given population identified for removal. At one extreme of the continuum, ethnic cleansing resembles forced deportation or population transfer, centered on the idea of getting people to move, through the use of legal and semi-legal methods. At the other extreme, ethnic cleansing and genocide are distinguishable only by intent. Ethnic cleansing becomes the precursor to genocide, when mass murder is committed in order to dislodge people from the land.

A cautionary note should be added when defining ethnic cleansing since “ethnic cleansing” has also been used to describe groups of people of similar nationality, race, or religion who are experiencing any kind of action which they consider objectionable. Difficulty in relying on the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to be self-explanatory occurs when objection comes after the evacuation has been put into effect for their own safety. Though they may not hold fears for their own safety, some people believe that they are forced from their home countries due to the prejudices designed to make their lives difficult or intolerable. The given definition of ethnic cleansing may include these situations, while simultaneously also detracting from the seriousness often entailed in its usage.

Considering these definitions, most cases of mass killings and forced deportation or population transfer fit into one or both of the two distinct categories presented. There are countless examples of genocide and ethnic cleansing around the world, both in historic and contemporary records, with ample examples of ethnicity, religion, nationality or political belief leading to death and destruction. Common scholarly debate includes the moderninity of both Genocide and ethnic cleansing, and whether it is something that can be traced back to the origins of human history or whether it constitutes the kind of attacks of one nation, religion, or ethnic group on another, belonging strictly to the twentieth century. Examples can be found in historic documents ranging from Homer[Homer, 1813, The Iliad, book IV pp.147-148 line 67-72], between the Greeks and Trojans , to the Bible [2][1 Samuel 27:7-11], where it was King David who practiced tribal slaughter. In the medieval and early modern world, expulsions such as, the Incas and Aztecs of South America, the Jews of Spain [Jews were killed by fourteenth-century Christians as scapegoats for the bubonic plague], the Albigensians [The Albigensian Crusade or Cathar Crusade (1209–1229) was a 20-year military campaign initiated by the Catholic Church to eliminate the Cathar heresy in Languedoc], and the Huguenots [Huguenot was the popular term for French Protestants who formed the French Reformed Church from the mid-sixteenth through eighteenth centuries]; as well as Settler and government attacks on the North American Indians, the Australian aborigines, and the oppression and persecution suffered by the African peoples under their colonial oppressors also could be classified in this way. In this sense, ethnic cleansing can be seen as a constant feature of human history. Although many of these cases have been nominally considered tribal warfare, some have been more recently classified as “genocide,” or “ethnic cleansing,” because they are ethnically delineated. Specific Contemporary acts of genocide, as the more narrowly defined term, have been recognized by the United Nations nine times this century, these include, Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1992-1995 – 200,000 Deaths, Rwanda: 1994 – 800,000 Deaths, Pol Pot in Cambodia: 1975-1979 – 2,000,000 Deaths, Nazi Holocaust: 1938-1945 – 6,000,000 Deaths, Rape of Nanking: 1937-1938 – 300,000 Deaths, Stalin’s Forced Famine: 1932-1933 – 7,000,000 Deaths, Armenians in Turkey: 1915-1918 – 1,500,000 Deaths (Gavin, 2000).

Despite the occurrences of genocide being found throughout history, it was not until Raphael Lemkin coined the term in 1944, firstly from the Greek root génos (γένος) (birth, race, stock, kind, tribe); secondly from Latin -cidium (cutting, killing) via French –cide, that it moved into popular discourse. In 1943, Lemkin wrote,

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups (Lemkin, 2005, p. 79).

Diamond supports Lemkin’s notion of genocide as a permanent aspect of human history and to its consistency and universality in relation to the colonial genocides of Aboriginal peoples, and of Native Americans , arguing that genocide amongst human groups probably began thousands of years ago, when humans were “just one more species of big mammal” (Diamond, 2007, p.19). He believes that “perhaps the commonest motive for genocide occurs [in disputes over territory] when a militarily stronger people attempt to occupy the land of a weaker people, who resist” (Diamond, 2007, Drocker, 2007). Additionally, he notes that genocide, occurs commonly among other animal groups, especially social carnivores such as lions, wolves and hyenas, who form coordinated attacks by members of one group on a neighboring group. Diamond found Goodall’s encapsulation of chimpanzee genocide interesting; however felt that the Gombe chimpanzees are, compared with humans, inefficient killers. Diamond illustrates this by referencing how, Australia’s armed settlers often succeeded in eliminating a band of Aborigines in a single dawn attack. He suggests that human group living probably evolved defensively arguing that the main danger to human life comes from other humans (Diamond, 2007, Drocker, 2007).

The idea that genocide, between groups, has always occurred and will probably continue to occur finds support in areas of primatology interested in defining the shared ancestral traits between humans and other primates. Seemingly unaware of Lemkin’s definition, in her book The Chimpanzees of Gombe, Goodall mentions genocide though fails to really define what it is that she means. Predisposed to the question of warfare and its correlation to the activities and rationalization of chimpanzees and humans, she determined that the relationship between humans and chimpanzees suggests that, like chimpanzees, humans were naturally selected to hate and kill enemies with a lust for rape, torture, mutilation and genocide. Humans, it would appear, have maintained the chimpanzee social structure and behavioral traits, remaining distinguishable only by their higher intelligence. Chimpanzees prepare for war with genocide and the determination of group survival in mind, because a group that can eliminate competition proves evolutionarily superior when resources are scarce. Humans seem to be much the same. Wrangham writes that,

As an emotion promoting intragroup solidarity and intergroup hostility, ingroup-outgroup bias is perfectly expected in a species with a long history of intergroup aggression. Stupid and cruel as it often is, this bias may have evolved as part of the winners’ strategy. Darwin put it this way: ‘A tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes, and this would be natural selection.’ Darwin wrote that passage to show how morality could emerge out of natural selection for solidarity. And, of course, the concept that moral behavior, the ‘ingroup’ half of ingroup-outgroup bias, has roots in evolutionary history is attractive. But from beneath that attractive idea we can also dig out the unattractive one: that morality based on intragroup loyalty worked, in evolutionary history, because it made groups more effectively aggressive (Wrangham, 1996, 196-197).

Humans, research suggests, left Africa about 150,000 years ago meandering into different ecological niches around the globe. Some remained in Africa while others occupied every conceivable niche possible, contending with vastly different climates and living circumstances, ranging from glaciers and sparse population groups in the north, who had to cooperate to warmer weather in the south, with dense population groups, who preferred to kill each. This provides a representative model depicting how changes can occur from differences in ecological niches, and how humans likewise altered their behavior based on the ecology of the area where they live. Sharing similar social structures, as seen by the ethnographic record of tribal genocide, Human behavior correlates closely with that of chimpanzees making it difficult not to examine the probability that differences in population groups are real and genetically based. These behavioral and intelligence differences have been thoroughly documented by many researchers [Rushton, 1995, Race, Evolution, and Behavior documents these differences around the three main population groups Asians, Europeans and Africans]. Louis Leakey, responsible for funding Goodalls expedition, asked her to consider “if, as the evolutionary argument goes, man and chimpanzee once diverged from common stock, then behavior patterns existing in modern humans and modern chimpanzees were probably present also in that common ancestor”, (Goodall, 1986 p.3, Docker, 2008, p.35) Goodall speculated that the argument could be furthered through understanding the function of aggressive behaviors in both chimpanzees and humans. Longitudinal studies of chimpanzee behavior in terms of relations between groups revealed disturbing aspects, Goodalls sample population, the Kasakela community divided into two groups and erupted into violent confrontation between the two communities, “We discovered that in certain circumstances the chimpanzees may kill and even cannibalize individuals of their own kind” (Goodall, 1986 p.4). She remarked that aggression and violence occurred when a group from the Kasakela community split away and began to live in another valley, creating issues of desire for land and territory, genocide, warfare, and violence towards stranger females and sometimes their infants [Also noted in Wrangham, Demonic Males (1996) and Goodall, My life with the Chimpanzees (1988)].

Following this Goodall brought up an important question, in that, in the aggressive conflicts of chimpanzees, is there the intent to kill? She asserts that “we can tell nothing about the intentions of the aggressors” (Goodall, 1986 p.529) but notes that the “observers, all thoroughly experienced in chimpanzee behavior, believed that the aggressors were trying to kill their victims” (Goodall, 1986 p.529). The attacks also revealed patterns evident during the killing of large prey, where assaults continued until the victims were incapacitated, a pattern not characteristic of intercommunity fighting (van der Dennen, 1995, p.182). This could be described as a form of primitive tribal warfare, normally considered a uniquely human behavior involving organized armed conflict. Here Goodall introduces the term “genocide”, “since warfare involves conflict between groups of people rather than individuals, it has, through genocide, played a major role in group selection” (Goodall, 1986, p.530 and Docker, 2008, p.30). “I suspect” she said, “that if the Kasakela males had had firearms and had been taught to use them, … they would have used them to kill” (Goodall, 1986 p.530).

It was believed that human destructive aggression and cruelty, during times of warfare, was what separated humans from other animals. As a result it was perceived that because of their intellectual sophistication, in terms of comprehending the concept of that pain, empathizing with the victim and either displaying pleasure or indifference toward another’s pain, only humans were capable of cruelty. According to Goodalls research, such a distinction remains uncertain because “Chimpanzees appear to possess the cognitive sophistication which is a prerequisite for the genesis of cruelty: they are capable to some extent of imputing desires and feelings to others, and they are almost certainly capable of feelings akin to (human) sympathy and empathy” (van der Dennen, 1995, p.184). Observations suggest that when remote ancestors acquired language, they expanded intergroup conflicts into the organized, armed conflict that defines warfare. Chimpanzees, according to Goodall, have developed to the point where they “stand at the very threshold of human achievement in destruction, cruelty, and planned intergroup conflict” and that, since chimpanzees are nearing the point of learning language, wonders whether they “might not push open the door and wage war with the best of us” (Goodall, 1986 p.534, Goodall in van der Dennen, 1995, p.184).

The inconsistencies in the social behaviors of chimpanzee societies such as, affection and caring within the circle of those who belong and violently aggressive towards those perceived as not belonging, is interesting in terms of a shared history between chimpanzees, “early man” and later human history. Goodall’s description of the violence exhibited by the Gombe chimpanzees is especially interesting since her analysis is consistent with Lemkins argument that genocide displays a coordinated effort, aiming at the destruction of the foundations of life of a group. Lemkin’s observed that several features of genocide frequently reoccurred, these included the mutilation of the victims, attacks on family life, and the removal of opportunities for procreation (Docker, 2008, p.26). Lemkin also proposed that under alternate historical circumstances, the persecuted and victims of genocide might become the genocidal persecutors of others. Goodall’s study supported this, suggesting that following the division in Gombe, had the weaker Kahama group been stronger, they may have victimized the Kasakela group (Docker, 2008, p.44). Modern genocides and massacres such as those in Cambodia and Rwanda as well as the Rape of Nanking, anthropologically share a transgressive violence, similar to the perpetrator enjoyment of violence and the lure of risk, which motivates adult male chimpanzees, particularly young prime individuals, to travel to border areas in search of encounters. Humans and chimpanzees, it appears, actually go out of their way to create opportunities to find conflict.

Although the term genocide is a modern one that evokes images of the mass killing of people based on their ethnic or religious heritage, during the Holocaust and of many other twentieth-century conflicts, the slaughter of enemies has ancient roots. A legacy of human evolution linking mankind’s oldest known ancestors, through tribal conflicts to modern day, for which examination is necessary to understand the historical development of genocide and the meaning of the term itself. Regardless of whether the accounts of genocide are factual, or whether they belong to the human species or a distant cousin, the frequency and manner in which they were reported strongly suggests that genocide was widely practiced, and that awareness of its existence spanned many ancient cultures. Moderninity may have brought new ideologies and technology to genocide but the phenomenon may well be as old as civilization itself.


Diamond lists a number of examples from what he considers the early literate civilizations. These written records he says testify to the frequency of genocide.
1 The wars of the Greeks and the Trojans
2, The wars of Rome and Carthage
3. The wars of the Assyrians and Babylonians and Persians, which proceeded to a common end: the slaughter of the defeated irrespective of sex, or else the killing of the men and enslavement of the women.
4. The biblical account of how the walls of Jericho came tumbling down at the sound of Joshua’s trumpets.
5. The less often quoted is the sequel, Joshua obeyed the Lord’s command to slaughter the inhabitants of Jericho as well as Ai, Makkedeh, Libnah, Hebron, Debir and many other cities (Diamond, 2007).

” And the number of the days that David dwelt in the country of the Philistines was a year and four months. Now David and his men went up, and made raids upon the Geshurites, the Girzites, and the Amalekites; for these were the inhabitants of the land from of old, as far as Shur, to the land of Egypt. And David smote the land, and left neither man nor woman alive, but took away the sheep, the oxen, the asses, the camels, and the garments, and came back to Achish. When Achish asked, ‘Against whom have you made a raid today?’ David would say, ‘Against the Negeb of Judah,’ or ‘Against the Negeb of the Jerahmeelites,’ or, ‘Against the Negeb of the Kenites.’ And David saved neither man nor woman alive, to bring tidings to Gath, thinking, ‘Lest they should tell about us, and say, “‘So David has done.'” Such was his custom all the while he dwelt in the country of the Philistines.”- 1 Samuel 27:7-11

Diamond collates a number of quotes from famous Americans such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, James Monroe, Theodore Roosevelt, and Benjamin Franklin about the extermination of the Native Americans. The final quote is from General Philip Sheridan who said, “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”


Bell-Fialkoff, A., 1993, A Brief History of Ethnic Cleansing, Foreign Affairs Vol. 72 (3) Summer 1993: pp.110-121, Retrieved 20 May 2011.

Destexhe, A., 1995, Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century, New York University Press, New York.

Diamond, J., 2007, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, How Our Animal Heritage Affects the way We Live, Vintage Books, London, UK.

Docker, J., 2007, Perspective, ABC Radio National 4, 6 September 2007, Transcript Document [Online] Accessed 3 June 2011,

Docker, J., 2008, The Origins of Violence: Religion, History and Genocide, Pluto Press, London, UK.

Gavin, P, 2000, Genocide in the 20th Century, The History Place, [Online] Accessed: 3 June 2011,

Goodall, J., 1986, The chimpanzees of Gombe: patterns of behavior, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, USA.

Lemkin, R., 2005, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, Law Book Exchange, Ltd., Clark, New Jersey

Martin, T., 1998, The Origins of Soviet Ethnic Cleansing, The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 70, No. 4. (Dec., 1998), pp. 813-861

Van der Dennen, J., 1995, The Origin of War: The evolution of a Male-Coalition Reproductive Strategy, Origin Press, Groningen, [Online] Accessed: 10 May 2011,

Wrangham R., 1996, Demonic Males, Apes and the Origin of Human Violence, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, New York.

(S/25274) United Nations Security Council: Report (S/25274) p.16 10 February 1993

(A/RES/260 (III)) Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide Adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the United Nations General Assembly 9 December 1948.

Article 2
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (A/RES/260 (III))
Adopted by Resolution 260 (III) A of the United Nations General Assembly
9 December 1948.

Ethnic Cleansing:
“55. The expression `ethnic cleansing’ is relatively new. Considered in the context of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, `ethnic cleansing’ means rendering an area ethnically homogenous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area. `Ethnic cleansing’ is contrary to international law.

“56. Based on the many reports describing the policy and practices conducted in the former Yugoslavia, `ethnic cleansing’ has been carried out by means of murder, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape and sexual assaults, confinement of civilian population in ghetto areas, forcible removal, displacement and deportation of civilian population, deliberate military attacks or threats of attacks on civilians and civilian areas, and wanton destruction of property. Those practices constitute crimes against humanity and can be assimilated to specific war crimes. Furthermore, such acts could also fall within the meaning of the Genocide Convention.

United Nations Security Council: Report (S/25274) p.16
10 February 1993


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