“War is hell, whether it is fought with wooden spears or with napalm”…”Our common humanity, viewed realistically, can be as much a source of despair, as hope.”
(Lawrence Keeley 1996: 174, 180)
For centuries, two enlightenment philosophers have framed our thinking on the origin of warfare. Those influenced by Thomas Hobbes saw Stone Age hunter-gatherers as savage, violent, and primitive. The classic line from Hobbes which people always quote is that prehistory was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes held the cartoonish view that a constant state of war and violence- a war of all against all - represents the ‘natural’ state of humankind. At the other end of the spectrum, Jean-Jaques Rousseau was the champion of a prehistoric fall from Eden. Rousseau saw humans as naturally pure, good, and peaceful, until the ills of society and civilization corrupted them. References to our closest living relatives in the great apes just seem to reinforce this divide. If you believe Hobbes, you can reference Chimpanzees, who are patriarchal, violent, territorial, and conduct brutal raids against neighboring troops. If you side with Rousseau, you can look to Bonobos- who are equally closely related to us- to find apes that are characterized as quite peaceful, matriarchal, sexually open, and less hierarchical than chimpanzees.
Today, we actually do have an idea how violent life in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies was, at least in general, and the debate has - largely - been put to bed. So let’s examine the evidence - archaeological, ethnographic, and beyond - to find out what war and violence among Stone Age hunter-gatherers might have looked like.
Archaeological evidence shows interpersonal violence may have taken place deep in our prehistory. At the Middle Paleolithic Sima de los Huesos site, cranium 17 has two perimortem depression fractures on the frontal bone. This individual was a neanderthal, living around 430k years ago (Arsuaga et al. 2014). “The type of injuries, their location, the strong similarity of the fractures in shape and size, and the different orientations and implied trajectories of the two fractures suggest they were produced with the same object in face-to-face interpersonal conflict” (Sala et al. 2015: 1).
In Upper Paleolithic Europe, a variety of sites contain skeletons exhibiting trauma that hint at violence. For example, at Grimaldi in Italy, at the Grottes des Enfants, a projectile point was found embedded in the spinal column of a child (Dustugue and de Lumley 1976). On Sicily, San Teodoro cave contained an adult woman who was found with a flint point embedded in her pelvis (Bachechi et al. 1997). But in a lot of cases distinguishing between violence and things like hunting injuries or other accidents is difficult. One Mesolithic example where the evidence is very clear is Ofnet Cave, in Bavaria. At Ofnet cave two pits contained the skulls and vertebrae of thirty-eight individuals, all stained with red ochre, dating to around 6500 BC. One archaeologist states that “The scale of the massacre suggests an attempt to wipe out a whole community, followed by the ceremonial burial of ‘trophy skulls’” (Thorpe 2003: 157).
Some of the oldest human remains found in late Pleistocene North America also bear evidence of violence. This is the case with burials such as at Grimes Point Cave, Ashworth Shelter, San Miguel Island, and many others. One study observes that skeletal trauma consistent with interpersonal conflict is present in 38 percent of the Paleoamerican skeletons complete enough to exhibit it. (Chatters 2014:79)
In Egypt, we have clear evidence for frequent, recurring violence from the site of Jebel Sahaba. Dating from ~13-18 thousand years old, this late Pleistocene burial ground contains dozens of individuals whose remains tell the tale. Blunt force trauma, lesions, projectile points embedded in bone, “supporting sporadic and recurrent episodes of inter-personal violence” (Crevecouer et al 2021).
Do sites like Jebel Sahaba contain evidence for ‘warfare,” or just homicide? That’s a tricky question. First of all it’s hard to find the boundary between war and feuding. If a group kills one or two people from the village in the next valley, is that warfare? Keeley points out that we can often overlook hunter-gatherer warfare for this very reason. He observes that in some studies, “When such a small group of men commits violence against another band or family, even if faced in open combat by all the men of the other group, this activity is not called war but is usually referred to as feuding, vendetta, or just murder. Thus many small-band societies that are regarded by ethnologists as not engaging in warfare instead evidence very high homicide rates.” (Keely 1996: 29)
Walking that blurry line is already hard, but in archaeology it’s even worse. Barring the discovery of a mass grave or a massacre like Ofnet Cave, it’s difficult to know if people died at the same time, or years apart. Given the struggle of distinguishing between individual and group violence using archaeological data, we are forced to turn to other lines of evidence. One of these comes from ethnographic accounts of hunter-gatherer societies around the world.
Lawrence Keeley describes hunter-gatherer warfare “a skulking way of war”, and that’s generally fitting. Stealth, ambush, raids at the crack of dawn, followed by quick retreats characterize the ethnographic record. Steven Leblanc ( LeBlanc 2014) lists some of the most general patterns seen when hunter-gatherers waged war. Strangers were often killed on site. They maintained special weapons and tools used only for conflict. Cycles of revenge and feuding were almost ubiquitous. Villages were often sited on hilltops, coastal spits of land, or other defensible locations. Fighting could begin with ranged weapons, but generally ended in close quarters with clubs, knives, axes and spears. And it was just as vicious as modern warfare.
For example, many aboriginal Australian hunter-gatherers were inveterate raiders. While pitched, rather ceremonial battles took place and rarely caused deaths, ambush tactics were also practiced. One account from Victoria during the late 19th century attests that “revenge attacks and night raids by stealth were a major cause of death, both of individuals and groups” (Pardoe 2014:120). In one such account, they give a detailed description of the murder of a whole band, as revenge for the death of an important young warrior.
In Papua New Guinea, hunter-gatherer ethnographies also recount bloody inter-group conflicts. The forager societies known from Papua New Guinea were more sedentary than most, with high population densities. For these reasons they seem to have had particularly high rates of lethal violence. For example, consider a large raid that the community of Bitara launched against the Palu sometime during the 1950s. The raid was a punitive expedition for the killing of a Bitara woman, and the Bitara gathered a force of as many as a hundred men to get their revenge. They checked several known Palu camps with no luck, before finding a small group chopping sago logs. They rushed in, and managed to kill three men and two women before the rest of the Palu fled. In another case, a large group from the community of Yigei raided the neighboring Kamasuit, attacking their village in the early morning hours. They killed 11 people and abducted a child as well (Roscoe 2014).
In Northwestern Alaska Inupiat bands launched frequent, vicious raids against one another. For them, “armed conflict and the threat of armed conflict were basic facts of life” (Burch 2005:57). On the other hand, in the eastern Arctic of Canada and Greenland, larger-scale conflicts between groups was quite rare. When traveling east to west through Arctic Canada, the early 20th century explorer Knud Rassmusen noted a decreasing trust and openness of the peoples he encountered (Darwent & Darwent 2014). While in the western Arctic, men were lionized for their skills as warriors, in the eastern Arctic warfare was discouraged, violence was more harshly curtailed by social norms, and factors like low population densities made committing acts of violence more costly. Two regions with a common heritage - culturally, linguistically, and genetically - with very different rates of violence. So endemic warfare isn’t inevitable. Cultural institutions can help mitigate our worst tendencies, and different factors like population density and resource scarcity can effect things too.
Steven Pinker’s popular book The Better Angels of Our Nature makes the case that we actually live in far more peaceful times, when compared to much of human prehistory. He has accused anthropologists of generally being too much like Rousseau, naively seeing hunter-gatherer groups as benign pacifists. But criticisms of Pinker’s book make the point that he ignores secondary deaths caused by war, like famine and disease, so he underestimates the number of violent deaths in more recent times. Critics also accuse him of cherry-picking data, being too reliant on very unreliable estimates for historical military deaths, and more (Torpey 2018). Personally, I agree with a lot of these criticisms, and I wouldn’t rule out sociologist Michael Mann’s view that “the world has seen neither a long-term decline in war nor an overall increase” (Mann 2018:57).
Scholars have tried some ways of predicting average cross-cultural levels of human violence. In one interesting approach, researchers looked at levels of violence among great apes and our other closest relatives (Gómez et al. 2016). Then they tried to predict, phylogenetically, how violent we might expect humans to be. They determined that based on our position in our broader family tree, something like 2% of deaths, on average, ought to come from interpersonal violence. That’s high compared with most mammals, but about what one would expect for great apes. Inter-group violence would have also been a major selective pressure in recent human evolution, driving the emergence of pro-social behaviors (Bowles 2009).
Here’s another interesting approach to this topic: One group of researchers examined the ethnographic record for societies in which children engage in coalitional play fighting, meaning games where children fight mock battles in teams. They found that such play occurs across a wide variety of hunter-gatherer cultures, and is unlikely to have been introduced to these hunter-gatherers by agricultural or industrial societies. So it doesn’t look like inter-group violence is just a meme that emerged alongside the development of social complexity. They argue that this is evidence humans have an inbuilt motivation to engage in play ”involving key motor patterns used in lethal raiding” (Sugiyama et al. 2018).
The evidence definitely does not support Rousseau. There was no fall from a peaceful Eden. But of course, it doesn’t really support Hobbes either. We know that our Stone Age ancestors have been fighting each-other since deep in our prehistory, but we also know that not all foraging societies were equally violent. And they certainly weren’t engaged in a perpetual war of all against all. Ancient hunter-gatherers were just people. Sometimes violent, sometimes not. The more we look at ancient hunter-gatherers, the more we find ourselves looking back. “After exploring war before civilization in search of something less terrible than the wars we know, we merely arrive where we started” (Keeley 1996:174).
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Bowles, S. (2009). Did warfare among ancestral hunter-gatherers affect the evolution of human social behaviors? Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science), 324(5932), 1293-1298. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.1168112
Burch, E. S. (2005). Alliance and Conflict: The World System of the Iñupiaq Eskimos. University of Nebraska Press.
Chatter, J. (2014). Wild-Type Colonizers and High Levels of Violence Among Paleoamericans. In M. Allen & T. Jones (Eds.), Violence and Warfare Among Hunter-Gatherers (pp. 70–98). essay, Routledge.
Crevecoeur, I., Dias-Meirinho, M., Zazzo, A., Antoine, D., & Bon, F. (2021). New insights on interpersonal violence in the late pleistocene based on the nile valley cemetery of jebel sahaba. Scientific Reports, 11(1), 9991-9991. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-021-89386-y
Darwent, J. And Christian M. Darwent (2014). Scales of Violence across the North American Arctic. In M. Allen & T. Jones (Eds.), Violence and Warfare Among Hunter-Gatherers (pp. 182–203). essay, Routledge.
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Keeley, L. H. (1996). War before civilization: The myth of the peaceful savage. Oxford University Press, Incorporated.
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Sala, N., Arsuaga, J. L., Pantoja-Pérez, A., Pablos, A., Martínez, I., Quam, R. M., Gómez-Olivencia, A., Bermúdez de Castro, José María, & Carbonell, E. (2015). Lethal interpersonal violence in the middle pleistocene. PloS One, 10(5), e0126589-e0126589. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0126589
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Humans are 90 percent chimp and 10 percent bee."
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The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor."
Sports is to war as pornography is to sex."
Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups. Everything else is commentary."
Civilization is the interval between Ice Ages."
Most of us spend too much time on the last twenty-four hours and too little on the last six thousand years."
Philip Larkin famously proposed that what will survive of us is love. Wrong. What will survive of us is plastic, swine bones and lead-207, the stable isotope at the end of the uranium-235 decay chain."
We are part mineral beings too – our teeth are reefs, our bones are stones – and there is a geology of the body as well as of the land."
However many nations live in the world today, however many countless people, they all had but one dawn." ~Anonymous, Popul Vuh
Every step you take has already been taken. Every story has already been told. The land is not newly discovered, so old with legends you might mistake them for rocks." ~Craig Childs
The present contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect was already in the cause." ~Henri Bergson
Archaeologists may not always see the trees, but we capture the forest with great clarity" ~Robert Kelly
The past is never dead; it's not even past." ~William Faulkner
No civilization has survived forever. All move toward dissolution, one after the other, like waves of the sea falling upon the shore. None, including ours, is exempt from the universal fate.” ~Douglas Preston
If you go into a museum and look at antiquities collected there, you can be sure that the vast bulk of them were found not in buildings but in graves." ~Leonard Woolley
Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless earth.” ~Robert Macfarlane
We always stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them." ~David Anthony
That which always was, and is, and will be everliving fire, the same for all, the cosmos, made neither by god nor man, replenishes in measure as it burns away." ~Heraclitus
Shamanism is not simply a component of society: on the contrary, shamanism, together with its tiered cosmos, can be said to be the overall framework of society." ~David Lewis-Williams
Opened are the double doors of the horizon. Unlocked are its bolts." ~Utterance 220 of the Pyramid of Unas
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten." ~Rudyard Kipling
The mountains are fountains of men as well as of rivers, of glaciers, of fertile soil. The great poets, philosophers, prophets, able men whose thoughts and deeds have moved the world, have come down from the mountains." ~John Muir
The ecological thinker is haunted by the consequences of time." ~Garrett Hardin
Through the experience of time, Dasein becomes a ‘being towards death’: without death existence would be care-less, would lack the power that draws us to one another and to the world." ~Iain McGillchrist
The dead outnumber the living fourteen to one, and we ignore the accumulated experience of such a huge majority of mankind at our peril." ~Niall Ferguson
Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are." ~Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
We live in a zoologically impoverished world, from which all the hugest and fiercest, and strangest forms have recently disappeared." ~Alfred Russel Wallace
Humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences." ~Sebastian Junger
Except in geographical scale, tribal warfare could be and often was total war in every modern sense. Like states and empires, smaller societies can make a desolation and call it peace." ~Lawrence Keeley
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The number of herbivores sets a cap on the number of carnivores that can live in a region. Of course, adding an additional predator of fairly large body size, like a modern human, would produce repercussions that would ripple though all the other predators in the area and their prey." ~Pat Shipman
When viewed globally, near-time extinctions took place episodically, in a pattern not correlated with climatic change or any known factor other than the spread of our species." ~Paul S. Martin
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Behavior is imitated, then abstracted into play, formalized into drama and story, crystallized into myth and codified into religion- and only then criticized in philosophy, and provided, post-hoc, with rational underpinnings."
I have seen yesterday. I know tomorrow."
We are fire creatures from an ice age." ~Stephen Pyne
Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified." ~Edward Abbey
Men and women, empires and cities, thrones, principalities, and powers, mountains, rivers, and unfathomed seas, worlds, spaces, and universes, all have their day, and all must go." ~H. Rider Haggard
One day the last portrait of Rembrandt and the last bar of Mozart will have ceased to be- though possibly a colored canvas and a sheet of notes will remain- because the last eye and the last ear accessible to their message will have gone." ~ Oswald Spengler
All that is human must retrograde if it does not advance."
In the long paleontological perspective, we humans must be considered invasive in any locale except Africa." ~Pat Shipman
Of the gladdest moments in human life, methinks, is the departure upon a distant journey into unknown lands. Shaking off with one mighty effort the fetters of Habit, the leaden weight of Routine, the cloak of many Cares and the slavery of Civilization, man feels once more happy." ~Richard Francis Burton
Sedentary culture is the goal of civilization. It means the end of its own lifespan and brings about its corruption." ~Ibn Khaldun
Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire." ~Gustav Mahler
As for man, his days are numbered. Whatever he might do, it is but wind." ~The Epic of Gilgamesh
There is a cave in the mind."
Full circle, from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb, we come." ~Joseph Campbell
I feel again a spark of that ancient flame." ~ Virgil
Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it therefore not to be an experimental science in search of law, but an interpretive one in search of meaning." ~Clifford Geertz
In all chaos there is a cosmos, in all disorder a secret order." ~Carl Jung
Man fears time, but time fears the pyramids." ~Arab proverb
Few romances can ever surpass that of the granite citadel on top of the beetling precipices of Machu Picchu, the crown of Inca Land." ~Hiram Bingham
You don't have to be a fantastic hero to do certain things- to compete. You can just be an ordinary chap, sufficiently motivated to reach challenging goals." ~Edmund Hillary
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going into the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity." ~John Muir
To speak of truth sounds too grand, too filled with the promise of certainty, and we are rightly suspicious of it. But truth will not go away that easily. The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’." ~Lain McGillchrist
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Civilizations exist by geological consent, subject to change without notice."
When at last we anchored in the harbor, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless"
The best prophet of the future is the past."
An archaeologist is the best husband a woman can get. The older she gets the more interested he is in her."
Archaeology is the peeping Tom of the sciences. It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been."
What would be ugly in a garden constitutes beauty in a mountain."
I have never been able to grasp the meaning of time. I don't believe it exists. I've felt this again and again, when alone and out in nature. On such occasions, time does not exist."
Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths. "~Joseph Campbell
In my experience, it is rarer to find a really happy person in a circle of millionaires than among vagabonds."
Always my soul hungered for less than it had"
History is filled with the sound of silken slippers going downstairs, and wooden shoes coming up."
Back home, I'm always focusing on something happening in the future. On expeditions, time stops, and you become like a stone age man, acting on instincts and knowing you are part of the universe."
Genes are rarely about inevitability, especially when it comes to humans, the brain, or behavior. They're about vulnerability, propensities, tendencies." ~Robert Sapolsky
The Land is not old. It only changes, becoming one thing and the next. We are the ones who ascribe age, the brevity of our lives demanding a beginning, middle, and end."
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books."
The only thing that belongs to us is the time."
To abhor hunting is to hate the place from which you came, which is akin to hating yourself in some distant, abstract way." ~Steven Rinella