Warriors with akiger scars are highly regarded by both men and women

Monday, May 31st, 2021

Did PTSD and combat stress evolve as a universal human response to danger?

Or are they culturally specific? We addressed this question by interviewing 218 warriors from the Turkana, a non-Western small-scale society, who engage in high-risk lethal cattle raids. We found that symptoms that may have evolved to protect against danger, like flashbacks and startle response, were high in the Turkana and best predicted by combat exposure. However, symptoms that are similar to depression were lower in the Turkana compared to American service members and were better predicted by moral violations. These findings suggest different evolutionary roots for different symptoms which may lead to better diagnosis and treatment.


Turkana warriors are venerated and there is widespread support from their community for going on raids and defending the Turkana from raids. They do not expect to face moral disapproval for participating in combat (although they do face moral disapproval for cowardice and can be blamed for the death of comrades). In fact, those who have killed in combat are often celebrated in Turkana society with many warriors undergoing akiger, a ritual that scars the warrior’s body to mark him as someone who has killed. Warriors with akiger scars are highly regarded by both men and women. Additionally, raid participation is high among Turkana men, so warriors are almost always in the company of other warriors with similar combat experiences. Many women and children too have experienced raids by other groups. As such, combat experiences are a commonly shared and a frequent topic of discussion in Turkana society. There is little to no stigma associated with sharing the details of combat.

By contrast, in the United States and other industrialized nation states, support for war and those who participate in war is often far from universal, and killing, even in combat, is rarely celebrated. American soldiers fight in foreign countries away from the civilian population and, upon returning, they may perceive disapproval of their experiences and actions from friends and family. Additionally, most Americans cannot relate to the experiences of those who have participated in combat. Consequently, warfare presents a moral conflict because what is considered a soldier’s duty in combat can violate prevailing moral norms within the soldier’s society. American soldiers may therefore have a heightened awareness of potential social repercussions especially as they integrate back into civilian life. Veterans’ support groups and group therapy replicate some aspects of Turkana society by allowing veterans to share their experiences with each other, but Turkana warriors receive stronger signals of social support and understanding from all members of their communities.


  1. Adar says:

    In the USA even persons who kill in SELF DEFENSE can end up with mental problems.

    The Turkana, I believe, live in the Afar Triangle — other than the polar regions perhaps the most inhospitable place on the planet to live.

    German medical and legal students at the university level still get the schmiss dueling scar, demonstrating to young women their eligibility for marriage.

    Some medical students in the USA wear green scrubs as an indication to young women also of eligibility for marriage.

  2. Bruce Purcell says:

    “they may perceive disapproval of their experiences and actions from friends and family”

    That heavily euphemises the hatred the old Venona Transript wing of the D party has for US troops.

  3. VXXC says:

    We tell our people it’s wrong to kill so they feel guilt, they are even expected to feel guilt, trauma, PTSD so they do…

    This is NOT to deny trauma, PTSD, or even guilt at killing (it is repulsive) but to say…if we told them they were justified and right and should feel no shame they would indeed suffer less.

    Catholics for millennia were told suicide is the unforgivable sin, Catholic suicide rates less.
    Japanese told opposite, suicide rates higher.

    Human nature being what it is, work with it as it is…

  4. Goober says:

    I wonder how much of it isn’t societal, but rather…habitual? Is that the word I’m looking for?

    Here’s what I mean. If you grew up in combat, and it was a part of your life from your first day on Earth, you’d become accustomed to it, I’d think. It would not stand out in your mind as a particularly horrible thing, or a “special” thing or experience that you should be particularly upset, traumatized, or worried about.

    On the other hand, for people living in modern, western societies, combat is a very unique experience. It is an emphatic punctuation in the life experience of someone who grew up riding bikes with their buddies on summer break in suburbia. It is marked abnormal to that person’s experience.

    Societal pressures aside, combat for almost any western man is going to fill a vanishingly small portion of the time he spends alive, and therefore he is not used to it.

    I also think that there is an aspect of the unexpected. Most of our more recent wars have been asymmetrical, and so the combat in those wars generally came in the form of sudden, unexpected ambushes that had no prelude, no lead up, and no ability for the person in combat to “get his game face” on.

    It would be interesting to see how those two factors effect rates of PTSD — essentially, a study on whether a man can get “used to” combat to a point to where it no longer bothers him as much as it used to, which would lead to a very interesting conclusion, when you think about it: that a possible cure for combat-induced PTSD could actually be more time spent in combat, paradoxically. Join that with a study that somehow determines the effect of unexpectedness in PTSD rates — ie, if you know it’s coming and you have time to prepare, does it effect you less than if you don’t?

  5. Wang Wei Lin says:

    Uncivilized societies celebrate being uncivilized. How well would the Turkana function in the US? Depends. In Chicago or any Democrat urban area they would thrive.

  6. Sam J. says:

    Adar says, “In the USA even persons who kill in SELF DEFENSE can end up with mental problems.”

    I saw this movie the other day that had something about this. It was The Dawn Wall.

    These four climbers went to Kyrgyzstan to climb and while there were taken hostage by rebels.

    Eventually there was only one rebel left holding them and while way up in mountains the lead figure in the film, Tommy Caldwell (a legendary climber), grabbed him and threw him off a cliff. He thought for sure he killed him. It bothered him but he also said that he felt like when called upon to do something in a stressful situation he knew he could act.

    It’s not too bad a movie if you like movies about climbing mountains.

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