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Prehistoric man and woman carrying weapons.

Debate continues over whether Stone Age people were peaceful or warlike

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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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

Comments

LUCIFERJONES's picture

I believe that increases in population caused natural resources and food to become harder to find and people fought over territory just like they do today. Very good article

Something truly terrible has happened to this planet over the last 100,000 years, not just once, but repeatedly.  Genetics tells us humans almost died out.  

And in the last few years we have learned that many of our great deserts, such as the Sahara and the northern deserts of China, came into being between 2000 and 3000 BCE.  Before that the Sahara had many lakes and rivers and harbored many humans and animals.  Rock carvings in the Sahara from the west period do not show war and show real artistic expression.  But after the drought, the drawings become stick like, much like many of the drawings above, and show a lot of violence.

People almost died out and the most violent and strong survived.

 

Tom Carberry

Roberto Peron's picture

I peraonally think ancient people sometimes dwelled in peace and at other times made war just like we do today.  Are we peaceful or warlike?  Answer---BOTH and so were our ancestors.

Our modern actions tell us we are always latently warlike, Vegetarian, or Hunters. Domesticated dogs lie fat and happy in our yards and eat meat and vegetable matter. They only turn to violence when it is sparked in them or circumstantially necessary.

We only record traumatic happenings not the days we lie on the porch. Depictions of violence only follow the happenings, which would not be random but each would have rationale or a cause. I do not believe ancient man woke up on a day and said, "well it very quiet so it is time for some violence"

In the Indus, Tigris and Nile Valleys the only difference would be that the reason for violence would change, not the action.

I would also surmise that as each region's populations grew larger Group, Ethnic, Religious and National loyalties grew in proportion and the classical violence of conflict began over access to territory and resources.

Two unrelated Individuals or Tribes happening to be in the same place at the same time have an instant conflict of interests.

Graham

Recidivism is a lovely word. It means “will do it again”.

IMHO there is little point in deducing how many teeth a horse has at a distance. Better to count them and go for a drink and THEN talk about teeth.

Homo SApiens and his precursors were very violent.

I’m sure because of the “leopard spots theorem”. We see it every day, it is a fundamental of all predators. There is a theory that says we fall into two basic groups, Hunters and Farmers and it is simple to distinguish between the two.

Hunters are nomadic, dumb, violent and meat-eaters.

Farmers are settled, planners/thinkers/inventors and vegetarians.
Easy?

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The secret to all knowledge is only found in anomalies...... (Kyneth circa 1978)

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