Debate continues over whether Stone Age people were peaceful or warlike
There is a debate among archaeologists, anthropologists and psychologists about whether prehistoric people were violent and warlike or whether there was widespread peace in prehistory. A new archaeological study has found that Neolithic cave paintings in eastern Spain along the Mediterranean Sea show some images of violence, but such art from the period is not universal.
“The portrayal of violence in Levantine paintings is restricted to just a few examples and types of violent acts: battles; ambushes; execution squads; fighting or combat; and wounded archers,” writes Professor Esther Lòpez-Montalvo of the University of Toulouse, France, in the April 2015 issue of the journal Antiquity. “There are also other representations of violence and death that may be considered exceptional by their uniqueness.”
Types of violence in Neolithic cave art in eastern Spain ( Antiquity journal graphics)
Though her research into Neolithic rock art showed just a few examples of depictions of violence, in her introduction to her new article Lòpez-Montalvo says, “Recent research has largely overturned ideas of peaceful farming societies.”
Lòpez-Montalvo shies away from making a grand statement about violence in prehistory, saying that more analysis of wounds on skeletal remains, other archaeological evidence and cave art is needed before conclusions can be drawn. But she does say that there was a progressive increase in the number and complexity of scenes of violence in cave art in Neolithic eastern Iberia, and some areas were more violent that others in prehistory.
Another researcher, anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson of Rutgers University, says his research shows 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, 8000 to 3500 BC), and the Copper and Bronze ages beginning about the sixth to fifth millennium BC. Go back several millennia BC “and war is not evident,” he told Ancient Origins in March 2015.
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Lòpez-Montalvo found 49 depictions of violence in Neolithic rock art, including battles and wounded archers along the Mediterranean coast in eastern Spain. Her paper did not say how images total she looked at.
From this table, once can see that Esther Lòpez-Montalvo found 49 depictions of violence in cave art in eastern Spain along the Mediterranean. (Antiquity graph)
“Spanish Levantine rock art offers a unique insight into conflict in Neolithic society, with images of violence, real or imagined, being acted out in scenes preserved in rock shelters,” Lòpez-Montalvo wrote.
The number of violent scenes increases in the later phases, not only at sites with early violent images, such as Valltorta-Gassulla and the upper River Segura, but also in new regions, such as Valencia and Alicante, where this type of depiction was either absent, rare or ambiguous in the earlier phases.
Bronze Age War: Image from Vitlycke, a bronze-age UNESCO world heritage site in Tanumshede, western Sweden, depicts fighting with weapons. War became much more common later in prehistory, including the late Neolithic and Bronze Age. ( Wikimedia Commons )
This seems to support what Ferguson found in examining archaeological papers about wounds to skeletons and types of weapons found at archaeological sites: Whatever violence there was early on in the Neolithic, as time passes it became more common where there had already been violence, and violence eventually spreads to areas where there had been none before.
Neolithic ax from about 7,000 years ago in Italy. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Ferguson said the timing of the rise of violence and warfare differ greatly around the world. “If forced to answer the question: globally, when did war begin? I would have to say between 11,000 BC and 1400 AD,” he told Ancient Origins.
Lòpez-Montalvo says in her article: “One of the main problems in establishing the origin, nature and scope of violence in prehistory is the asynchronous emergence and ambiguous interpretation of the limited material evidence left in the archaeological record by even the most lethal episodes of physical violence.” Asynchronous means violence emerges at different times.
Lòpez-Montalvo said most of the figures depicted doing violence in Iberian cave art seem to be men. She looked at the types of weapons, too. She found people used the bow and arrow throughout the period she studied. She said in one type of drawing, which she calls Cestosomatic, boomerangs may have been used for long-distance fights, but they were not effective weapons. The few scenes showing “close combat suggest that short-range, dagger-like weapons might have been used, as seen at La Sarga or Santa Maira (Alicante) , but their simplified depiction impedes any identification of weapon type,” she wrote.
Featured image: Prehistoric man and woman carrying weapons. ( Image Source )
By Mark Miller