Visit 'Prehistory: Origins of diplomacy' page

Part of the Advanced Diplomatic Webinars series.

When did diplomacy start?

The search for the beginning of diplomacy is a search for the emergence of two pillars of diplomacy: empathy (the ability to understand others) and compromise (an acceptable solution for all involved, conditioned by a sense of fairness). There are two different views about the moment defined as the emergence of diplomacy. One view, which is usually labelled Hobbesian, after Thomas Hobbes, starts from the assumption that humans are born with an aggressive drive to search for power and control of others. Homo homini lupus. Only with the advancement of society, and out of necessity, did humans develop empathy, and become ready to compromise. The opposite view, usually labelled Rousseauian, after Jean-Jacques Rousseau, argues that humans are born good, with empathy and readiness to solve problems peacefully. Society suppresses the innate goodness of human beings and makes them aggressive and violent.

Our modern and competitive society is closer to the Hobbesian view, with the main motive to maximise individual interests. The only limits are the strength of others, the market, and the power of the state. Compromise is often seen only as a face-saving technique for losing sides, not as a tool to maximise the interests of society overall. Modern society is also characterised by a deficit of empathy.

Recent research, mainly in the field of animal behaviour, shows that we are not predestined to this role. As an excellent Ted talk experiment shows, chimpanzees have all of the traditional 'diplomatic competences’. They have empathy; they care for other chimpanzees; and they have a strong sense of fairness. These experiments on animals strengthen the Rousseauian view that humans are not aggressive by nature, and that society reduces our empathetic potential and our readiness to compromise.

Social organisation (not necessarily our nature) prompts us to choose either a harmonious life based on compromise, or a more confrontational life based on aggression and combat.

The lesson for our time is that human conditions are not a given. We are not predestined towards conflict and competition by  nature. Human conditions are, to a large extent, socially driven. The conditions for compromise and diplomacy can be fostered by the way society is organised. Empathy plays a highly important role in preparing society for the peaceful solution of conflicts. The first step in negotiating with others is respect for others.

Open questions for our time: How does e-communication affect human empathy? How do we perceive 'others' who are in our e-vicinity, but often physically remote? How can we persuade others online? What is the importance of emotion in e-diplomacy?


Let us leave this discussion on the origins of diplomacy for time being, and focus instead on the first forms of diplomacy.

What were the early forms of diplomacy?

Many anthropological studies show early examples of attempts to solve conflicts peacefully, through negotiations. When it comes to the exact period, there are as many views as scientists working on this issue. Here we are speaking about differences in thousands and  millions of years. Most likely, the main shift, what Jared Diamond calls the 'Great Leap Forward' took place somewhere between Neanderthal man, who inhabited what is now Germany, 100 000 years ago, and Cro-Magnon man, who lived 40 000 years ago in the south of France.[2] The difference between their skeletons, the tools they used, and the arts they created, shows that something significant happened in this period. While there is no consensus about when our predecessors emerged in a similar shape/form to the one we have today, there is consensus that they co-existed; and in addition to war and conflict, they had ways and means for solving conflicts.

Two main developments influenced prehistoric diplomacy. The first was the emergence of language and speech as the main instruments of communication. With increased, and more diverse communication, the likelihood of solving problems without confrontation increased. The second development was the emergence of societal organisation in various forms of cohabitation, such as clans and tribes. Tribes started interacting with other tribes through both conflicts and cooperation. The first negotiations and search for compromise appeared.[3]

Today, we view language as part of our natural make-up. But language emerged at some point in our evolution. The anatomic development of the voice box, and the emergence of the first voice communication, are usually placed in the period between 100 000 and 40 000 years ago.

The emergence of the spoken language opened new ways for innovation and development of human society. Language facilitated communication in early society, and increased potential for empathy and the  peaceful solution of conflicts. 

Even today, language is the key diplomatic tool/technology. We negotiate by using language. We formulate compromise through language. Language, especially written language, has enjoyed a renaissance with social media and e-diplomacy. Unlike predictions presaging the dominance of video and multimedia, it is language, through Twitter and other social media, that has become the dominant mode of communication in our time.

The centrality of language for diplomacy continues throughout the evolution of diplomacy. We will follow it during our journey through the history of diplomacy.

The most visited part of Diplo’s website continues to be one that is dedicated to language and diplomacy

The second major development was the emergence of social and political organisation, which is usually placed in the transition from the nomadic phase (mainly hunting), to the sedentary phase, in the evolution of mankind. The transition to cultivating land required more complex tools, and early forms of irrigation. One of the most important developments was the ability to produce more food than was needed. Food could now be stored and exchanged. Accounting became one of early professions. With extra wealth to be used and controlled, political organisations started to emerge.

During the sedentary phase, our distant predecessors began continuous occupation of particular pieces of land. They acquired neighbours and all that goes with a neighbourhood community. Neighbours migh have more fertile land or a better life. This created the interplay between cooperation and confrontation. The continuum of war and peace started shaping human history, till this day. The main building blocks of diplomacy emerged. Tribes and clans needed representations. They negotiated and co-existed in peaceful and violent ways. 

The institution of privileges and immunities was found among the Australian aborigines as well as in the traditions of the Manu.[4] As Harold Nicholson wrote 'no negotiation could reach a satisfactory conclusion if the emissaries of either party were murdered on arrival. Thus the first principle to become firmly established was that of diplomatic immunity.'[5]

Through intermarriage, intertribal bonds and alliances were created. There are many archeological materials showing the importance of diplomacy in prehistory, principally through the relevance of research on rituals and ceremonies in early diplomatic encounters among tribes and clans. One of the traditions that can be traced back to the Ur[6]-era is the donation of gifts by representatives of one tribe to another, when they entered the territory of the other tribe. 

In summary, while you are looking at the January image on your desk calendar, imagine that the actors from the image were probably the first diplomats. They represented some group, as we do today. They negotiated as we do today, using more-or-less the same techniques of persuasion. They tried to develop bonds beyond the simple truce, in fights, as we do today. They were searching for compromise, often unwillingly, as we are today. They….   as we do today…

E-see you on Tuesday (28th January 2014) for the webinar, where we will discuss diplomacy. In the meantime, please let us know if you have any specific questions. Think also about how it relates to e-diplomacy! Anything in common?


Additional reading and references

If you are interested in a more in-depth study of this topic, you can consult Ragnar Numelin's book The beginnings of diplomacy: a sociological study of intertribal and international Relations[7]. Numelin’s book is the most comprehensive study on the preliterate peoples and the early days of diplomacy. His study is supported by very comprehensive ethnological field research, with many examples of negotiations, selection of messengers, immunities, formalities and rituals. Although it was published in 1950, Numelin’s book is still the main source of knowledge on diplomacy in the pre-historic era. 

[1] Diplo’s 'trinity methodology', which is based on the impact of ICT/Internet on the diplomatic environment, new topics on diplomatic agendas, and new tools for diplomatic activities has been used since 1992. This methodology has been tested and proven by thousands of students involved in Diplo’s courses, tens of international conferences, and numerous publications. The impact of the Internet on the environment focuses on broader conceptual issues (e.g. sovereignty, identity, territoriality, geo-strategy).
The emergence of new topics on diplomatic agendas is covered in Diplo’s Internet governance activities. Lastly, the new tools on diplomatic agendas, deals mainly with e-diplomacy. Currently, the main focus is on social media. But it also includes questions of information management, data-mining, and open data, to name a few aspects of new tools for diplomatic activities.

[2] Diamond J (1998) Guns, Germs and Steal; A short history of everybody for the last 13.000 years. London: Vintage – Random House.

[3] Numelin R (1950) The Beginnings of Diplomacy. A sociological study of intertribal and international relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Copenhagen: Fjnar Munksgaard. Note 15, p. 22.

[4] Van Der Toorn (1995) Migration and the Spread of Local Cults in Immigration and Emigration within the Ancient Near East. Leuven: Festschrift E. Lipinski. p. 365.

[5] Nicolson H (no date) The Evolution of Diplomatic Method, London: Constable & Co Ltd, p. 2.

[6] Referring to the Third Dynasty of Ur, also known as the Neo-Sumerian Empire or the Ur III Empire.

[7] Numelin R (1950) The Beginnings of Diplomacy. A sociological study of intertribal and international relations. Oxford: Oxford University Press;  Copenhagen: Fjnar Munksgaard.


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