Prehistoric warfare

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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 starts with the standing armies of Bronze Age Sumer, but prehistoric warfare may be studied in some societies at much earlier dates.

When humans first began fighting wars is a matter of debate among anthropologists and historians.

Endemic warfare[edit]

Main article: Endemic warfare

Some tribal societies were greatly warlike, frequently raiding neighboring groups to seize territory, women, and goods.[1] Other groups, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, had no warfare and very little murder.[2]

In warlike cultures war is often ritualized with a number of taboos and practices that limit the number of casualties and the duration of the conflict. This type of situation is known as endemic warfare.[citation needed] 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, or for no readily understandable reason.


Quartzite hand axe

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 hunting parties very costly, dictating intergroup cooperation and maintenance of low population densities to mitigate resource competition. This behavior 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" persisted until well after the appearance of Homo sapiens some 0.2 million years ago, ending only at the occurance of economic and social shifts associated with sedentism, when new conditions incentivized organized raids upon settlements.[3]

Of the many cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic, none depict people attacking other people. There is an equal paucity of skeletal and artifactual evidence of intergroup conflict in the Paleolithic.[4][5][6]


The first archaeological record of what could be a prehistoric battle is at the 14,340- to 13,140-year old Mesolithic site known as Cemetery 117, 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.

Early war was influenced by the development of bows, maces, and slings. The bow seems to have been the most important weapon in early warfare, in that it enabled attacks to be launched with far less risk to the attacker when compared to the risk involved in mêlée combat. 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.[7]

Warfare originated independently in other parts of the world as late as 4,000 years ago.[3]


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[8] 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.[9]

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.

Bronze Age[edit]

Bronze swords from the Museum of Scotland.

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.

Iron Age[edit]

Main article: Ancient warfare

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 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."
  2. ^ Keeley, pg. 29.
  3. ^ a b Kelly, Raymond (October 2005). "The evolution of lethal intergroup violence". PNAS 102: 24–29. doi:10.1073/pnas.0505955102. PMC 1266108. PMID 16129826.  "This period of Paleolithic warlessness, grounded in low population density, an appreciation of the benefits of positive relations with neighbors, and a healthy respect for their defensive capabilities, lasted until the cultural development of segmental forms of organization engendered the origin of war"
  4. ^ Guthrie, pg 422.
  5. ^ Horgan, John. "New Study of Prehistoric Skeletons Undermines Claim That War Has Deep Evolutionary Roots". Scientific American. 
  6. ^ Haas, Jonathan and Matthew Piscitelli (2013) “The Prehistory of Warfare: Misled by Ethnography”. In War, Peace, and Human Nature edited by Douglas P. Fry, pp. 168-190. New York: Oxford University Press.
  7. ^ Keeley, pg.45, Fig. 3.1
  8. ^ "Neolithic Warfare"
  9. ^ The Perfect Gift: Prehistoric Massacres. The twin vices of women and cattle in prehistoric Europe


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