Scant Evidence that Early Prehistoric People were Warlike, Anthropologist claims
The earlier Stone Age seems to have been a time of peace and not war, says an anthropologist specializing in war who has studied the published work of dozens of researchers. Unfortunately for many millions of victims of death, wounding, displacement, hunger and loss, humanity began to make war compulsively, some groups as early as 13,000 years ago.
There was mostly peace in Europe and the Near East during a large part of the Stone Age, but war swept Europe and the Near East by the time of the late Neolithic (the most recent period of the Stone Age), and the Copper and Bronze ages beginning about the sixth to fifth millennium BC.
“In both Europe and the Near East the literature reviews begin without signs of war and end in periods when war is unambiguously established and often a dominant factor in social life,” writes R. Brian Ferguson in his chapter “The Prehistory of War and Peace in Europe and the Near East.” He contributed the chapter to the 2013 book War, Peace and Human Nature. Ferguson is a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. (A profile of Ferguson and PDF files of his published works may be accessed at http://www.ncas.rutgers.edu/r-brian-ferguson.)
Ferguson claims war is a relatively ‘new’ development and that there is little evidence of regular wars in the Stone Age. European Cavalry Battle Scene ( Wikimedia Commons )
“Many people, some archaeologists and most evolutionary psychologists, for example, think that war has always been practiced by humans, and may go back without break to our pre-human ancestors,” Ferguson told Ancient Origins in e-mail. “My argument is that war regularly – not always – leaves archaeological traces, if a people are known by a substantial record of skeletal remains, and/or settlement remains, sometimes supported by weapons or art. Looking at the archaeological record around the world typically shows that those signs eventually show up, but usually after a more or less long stretch when they are not present. When this appears as a recurrent pattern around the world, the straightforward explanation is that war has beginnings.”
Go back several millennia BC “and war is not evident,” he said.
Archaeologists can find traces of war in ancient skeletons by examining their injuries. The above picture shows two skeletons recovered from the archaeological site of Hadyakh, ancient Neyshapour, populated 9 th-14th century AD. The brutal and terrible end of this village can be seen through the multiples skeletons found, all having multiple trauma and crushing lesions. ( Wikimedia Commons )
We asked Ferguson when war began in places other than Europe and the Near East.
The archaeological record tells us that war began in very different times in different places, separated by many thousands of years. In central Florida, war may have been present by 5400 BC, but on the southern Great Plains skeletons are nearly trauma-free until after 800 AD. Much of the tribal universe across the Americas and the Pacific saw a great intensification of war around the 13th century AD, apparently related to climate change. If forced to answer the question: globally, when did war begin? I would have to say between 11,000 BC and 1400 AD.
Ferguson at one time reported a date for the inception of war in the Yellow River area of China. But he subsequently learned Maoist archeology ignored the possibility of early war, so he has no idea now. “Most of sub-Saharan Africa has negligible archaeological excavation, so who knows?” he said. “New Guinea: also almost no evidence, though northern Australia seems to have potentially lethal group clashes (among hunter-gatherers) as early as 4000 BC, and continuing thereafter.”
The idea that humankind in ancient times was characteristically warlike is based on
preconceptions about human nature and selective presentation of the most
violent cases, not careful examination of all evidence,” he said.
It’s impossible to say if prehistoric people made these stone arrow- and spearheads for use on other people or on animals, but war was rare in the Stone Age, an anthropological researcher has concluded. (Phyzome photo/ Wikimedia Commons )
Ferguson identifies several preconditions that make war more likely but not inevitable. He names geographic concentration of critical resources, transition from nomadic to stationary life, high population densities, storage of food, domestication of livestock, long-distance trade that may be monopolized, major ecological events that reduce production of food, and political or social hierarchies and ranking. Even so, people in some places and times had all these factors present and apparently did not make war.