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Prehistoric warfare refers to war conducted in the era before writing, and before the establishments of large social entities like states. Historical warfare sets in with the standing armies of Bronze Age Sumer, but prehistoric warfare may be studied in some societies at much earlier dates.
Of the tribal societies still in existence today, some lead lives of great violence, frequently raiding neighboring groups and seizing territory, women, and goods from others by force. Other groups, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, live in societies with no warfare and very little murder.
Common among those groups that engage in warfare is that war is highly ritualized, with a number of taboos and practices in place that limit the number of casualties and the duration of a conflict, a situation known as endemic warfare. Among tribal societies engaging in endemic warfare, conflict may escalate to actual warfare every generation or so, for various reasons such as population pressure or conflict over resources, but also for no readily understandable reason.
War-like conflict may pre-date the origin of modern humans, and this hypothesis is supported by observations in chimpanzee societies. In the earliest hunter-gatherer societies of Homo erectus, population density was probably low enough to avoid armed conflict. The development of the throwing-spear, together with ambush hunting techniques, made potential violence between groups very costly, dictating conflict avoidance, which involved groups moving apart as far as possible to alleviate resource competition. This behaviour may have accelerated the migration out of Africa of H. erectus some 1.8 million years ago as a natural consequence of conflict avoidance. This period of "Paleolithic warlessness" would then have persisted until well after the appearance of Homo sapiens some 0.2 million years ago, and probably ended only with a shift in societal organization in the Upper Paleolithic. At this stage, the mobilization of a raiding party for the purpose of raids on another shifts the tactical advantage from defenders to attackers, capitalizing on the advantages of surprise and numerical superiority. Of the many cave paintings from the Upper Paleolithic, none depict people attacking other people. There is no known archaeological evidence of large-scale fighting until well into the Aurignacian.
The first archaeological record of what could be a prehistoric battle is at a Mesolithic site known as Cemetery 117. It was determined to be about 14,340 to 13,140 years old and located on the Nile near the Egypt-Sudan border. It contains a large number of bodies, many with arrowheads embedded in their skeletons, which indicates that they may have been the casualties of a battle. Some question this conclusion by arguing that the bodies may have accumulated over many decades, and may even be evidence of the murder of trespassers rather than actual battles. Nearly half of the bodies are female, and this fact also causes some to question the argument for large-scale warfare.
Beginning around 12,000 BC, combat was transformed by the development of bows, maces, and slings. The bow seems to have been the most important weapon in the development of early warfare, in that it enabled attacks to be launched with far less risk to the attacker when compared to the risk involved in the use of mêlée combat weaponry. While there are no cave paintings of battles between men armed with clubs, the development of the bow is concurrent with the first known depictions of organized warfare consisting of clear illustrations of two or more groups of men attacking each other. These figures are arrayed in lines and columns with a distinctly garbed leader at the front. Some paintings even portray still-recognizable tactics like flankings and envelopments.
Warfare originated independently in other parts of the world as late as 4,000 years ago.
The Neolithic was a period in the development of human technology that is traditionally considered to begin with the rise of farming and ending when metal tools became widespread. Although the Neolithic occurred at different times in different places around the globe, evidence exists that there was warfare during this time period. Compared to the subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages, the Neolithic is characterized by small towns, stone versus metal technology, and a lack of social hierarchy. Towns are generally unfortified and built in areas difficult to defend. Skeletal and burial remains do not generally indicate the presence of warfare.
Evidence of Neolithic warfare is evident in the Talheim Death Pit in Talheim, Neckar (Germany) where archaeologists believe a massacre of a rival tribe was conducted approximately 7,500 years ago. Approximately 34 people were bound and killed, predominantly by a blow to the left temple. The Talheim site is one of the earliest indications of warfare in Neolithic Europe.
The Māori of New Zealand are notable for the thousands of fortifications constructed to enhance a group's standing in the near continuous fighting on their islands in the South Pacific. In an era before siege weapons had been developed to a high level of technological complexity, and when attackers had limited supplies and time to spend engaged in battles, fortifications seem to have been a successful method of securing a population and livestock against invaders, though the fields and homes would likely be pillaged by the attackers. These substantial fortifications show that there was considerable social organization in the societies of prehistoric peoples. This is indirect corollary evidence for them also having been capable of conducting organized warfare.
The onset of the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) saw the introduction of copper daggers, axes, and other items. For the most part these were far too expensive and malleable to be efficient weapons. They are considered by many scholars to have been largely ceremonial implements. It was with the development of bronze that edged metal weapons became commonplace.
Military conquests expanded city states under Egyptian control. Babylonia and later Assyria built empires in Mesopotamia while the Hittite Empire ruled much of Anatolia. Chariots appear in the 20th century BC, and become central to warfare in the Ancient Near East from the 17th century BC. The Hyksos and Kassite invasions mark the transition to the Late Bronze Age. Ahmose I defeated the Hyksos and re-established Egyptian control of Nubia and Canaan, territories again defended by Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh, the greatest chariot battle in history. The raids of the Sea Peoples and the renewed disintegration of Egypt in the Third Intermediate Period marks the end of the Bronze Age.
Early Iron Age events like the Dorian invasion, Greek colonialism and their interaction with Phoenician and Etruscan forces lie within the prehistoric period. Germanic warrior societies of the Migration period engaged in endemic warfare (see also Thorsberg moor). Anglo-Saxon warfare lies on the edge of historicity, its study relying primarily on archaeology with the help of only fragmentary written accounts.
- Keeley, pg. 28. "Three independent cross cultural surveys of representative samples of recent tribal and state societies from around the world have tabulated data on armed conflict, all giving very consistent results. The results indicate that 90 percent of the cultures in the sample unequivocally engaged in warfare and that the remaining 10 percent were not total strangers to violent conflict."
- Keeley, pg. 29.
- De Waal, F. B. M. (2005). "A century of getting to know the chimpanzee". Nature 437 (7055): 56–59. doi:10.1038/nature03999. PMID 16136128.
- Guthrie, pg 422.
- Neolithic Warfare-Historical Text Archive
- Keeley, pg.45, Fig. 3.1
- Kelly, Raymond (October 2005). "The evolution of lethal intergroup violence". PNAS 102: 24–29. doi:10.1073/pnas.0505955102. PMC 1266108. PMID 16129826.
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