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Rock paintings in Tadrart Acacus region of Libya dated from 12,000 BC to 100 AD.

Have Humans Always Gone to War?


The question of whether warfare is encoded in our genes, or appeared as a result of civilization, has long fascinated anyone trying to get to grips with human society. Might a willingness to fight neighboring groups have provided our ancestors with an evolutionary advantage? With conflicts raging across the globe, these questions have implications for understanding our past, and perhaps our future as well.

The Enlightenment philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had different visions of prehistory. Hobbes saw humanity’s earliest days as dominated by fear and warfare, whereas Rousseau thought that, without the influence of civilization, humans would be at peace and in harmony with nature.

The debate continues to this day. Without a time machine, researchers examining warfare in prehistory largely rely on archaeology, primatology and anthropology.

Earlier this year, details of one of the most striking examples of prehistoric intergroup violence were published – 27 skeletons, including those of children, had been found at Nataruk near Lake Turkana, Kenya. Blades embedded in bones, fractured skulls and other injuries demonstrated this had been a massacre. The bodies were left, unburied, next to a lagoon on the lake’s former western shore, around 10,000 years ago.

The Nataruk finds are claimed as the earliest evidence for prehistoric violence in hunter gatherers. A 12,000-14,000 year-old cemetery at Jebel Sahaba in Sudan was previously thought to be the first, but its date is less certain and some have claimed that since the bodies were buried in a cemetery they were linked to a settlement, and not true hunter gatherers.

Two Jebel Sahaba victims. Pencils point to weapon fragments.  Wendorf Archive, British Museum,

Two Jebel Sahaba victims. Pencils point to weapon fragments.  Wendorf Archive, British Museum, (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The evidence for warfare becomes clearer in the archaeological record after the beginning of the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago, when humanity moved from hunting and gathering to farming settlements. War may have existed before then, but there are few remains from the early days of Homo sapiens, and causes of death can be extremely difficult to ascertain from skeletons. This means that at the moment, the archaeology remains inconclusive.

Chimps in combat

Animal behavior studies provide another means of exploring the debate.

Jane Goodall’s discovery that chimpanzees make war shocked the world. A group in Tanzania were observed beating members of a rival community to death, one by one, before taking over the defeated group’s territory. Despite attempts to dispute Goodall’s findings, similar patterns of behavior were later discovered in other groups, and evidence for warfare in one of our closest relatives became indisputable.

When chimps go to war.

However, bonobos, also known as pygmy chimpanzees, share as much DNA with us as chimps do, but are overall more peaceful, despite some anecdotal reports of aggression between groups. This is partly attributed to differences in the two species’ social systems. For example, bonobos’ societies are female-dominated, which perhaps keeps male aggression in check, whereas chimpanzees’ social hierarchy is male-dominated.

How did our last common ancestor behave? Were they like bellicose chimpanzees or peaceful bonobos? Although parallels between all three species are fascinating, using them to answer this question is difficult, as ultimately each followed its own evolutionary pathway.

But chimps demonstrate that war without civilization does exist in a species similar to our own. Not only that, but similarities can be seen between chimpanzee and human hunter-gatherer warfare. For example, in both species, an imbalance of power and risk-averse tactics are often a feature of attacks: a group of chimpanzees will assault a lone rival, and hunter-gatherer groups avoid pitched battles in favor of guerrilla warfare and ambushes.

Two tribes

Anthropologists, whose knowledge of “traditional” societies could provide clues as to how our ancestors behaved, also took sides in the Hobbes-Rousseau debate. Margaret Mead’s research on Samoan islanders led her to conclude that “warfare is only an invention”, which had not existed before civilization, while Napoleon Chagnon reported that among the Venezuelan Yanomamö, fighting and raids on enemy villages were commonplace. Both were criticized: Mead for overlooking widespread evidence of violence in Samoa, and Chagnon for inappropriately using a society of small-scale farmers as a proxy for prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

Chagnon’s claim that the Yanomamö live ‘in a state of chronic warfare’ is hotly disputed.

Chagnon’s claim that the Yanomamö live ‘in a state of chronic warfare’ is hotly disputed.  Sam valadi, (CC BY 2.0)

Of course, any traditional society that anthropologists choose to study has still been exposed to outside influences. And they differ vastly from one another, not least in their participation in warfare. But early accounts suggest that lethal aggression did exist between some hunter-gatherer groups before their contact with other societies.

Waldemar Jochelson, who studied the Siberian Yukaghir in the 1890s, described them as having persecuted their enemies like “wild beasts”. Similarly, the Andamanese, from isolated islands in the Bay of Bengal, had longstanding feuds between themselves and participated in dawn raids on enemy camps.

It’s difficult to conclude that prehistory was free from intergroup aggression. Military historian Azar Gat and evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker, among others, argue that warfare existed before the agricultural revolution. Pinker also claims that violence has overall decreased over the centuries. This may seem difficult to believe given the gloomy headline news in 2016, but such a zoomed-out view of history at least suggests hope for the future.

Featured image: Rock paintings in Tadrart Acacus region of Libya dated from 12,000 BC to 100 AD. Source: CC BY SA 2.5

The article ‘Have humans always gone to war?’ by Sarah Peacey was originally published on The Conversation and has been republished under a Creative Commons license



Is there a difference between what we refer to as aggression and violence?

Could it be that aggression is that which is ‘encoded in our DNA’, a ‘basic animal response’ for our survival as a species? An ‘unconscious’ response that happens when one feels threatened, a response based in/from fear of?

Could it be that violence is an escalation of aggression taking the; chest beating, trying to appear bigger then one’s foe, making loud noises, jumping up and down- taking these animal responses and some how for some reason to a more violent physical response?

There is this ongoing continueing debat, at times being very heated as to what is this term/word we have come to refer to as ‘consciousness’. What is it? How did it start? Why did it start? Even – where is it located?

Could it be that the aggressive natural animal response to a threat, based in/from fear be more of an unconscious response?
Could it be, where as the more violent/physical action, that which can cause physical injury and or death be more of a ‘conscious’ decision when one feels threatened, in fear of?

Could it also be, that many of the teachings and wisdom that have come down to us throughout the ages from various faiths and traditions, are the/an attempt to recognize aggression and violence, that there is a difference between the two? That aggression begets aggression. That violence begets violence.

That there are methods, ways of attaining this understanding this enlightenment of a way of ‘being’? That many ‘modern’ methods, beliefs, thoughts, are attempts to bring about this same understanding ?

To seek. To search, to attain, to live in more of a conscious state of being and awareness, rather then a response unconscious state.

To be consciously aware of how any and all of our beliefs/thoughts which can be manifested through our action/behaviour , does have and will have an affect/effect on others.

Could it be that although aggression may be a ‘natural’/unconscious response, that violence could be a conscious decision, that either or, can be recognized and that once we admit to this that there are ways to deal with this and bring about change within both the individual and cultural/society?

Change to beliefs, change to thoughts, change to behaviour.

The decision is both yours to make, ours to share.

Your idea was one of early and plausible interpretations for emergence of war in humans. However, as example of Chimpanzees in this article clearly describes-war predates humans/hominids. Predates agriculture. It is about resources in general. Area of control. Reduction in numbers and strength of possible opponents for that control. Modern technology allows us to see Chimpanzee war in action, they organize, they march in a single determined line. They attack to kill mostly males of opposing fraction. They intentionally torture and violate victims... They do it regularly.

"...appeared as a result of civilization" is really not one of the reasonable possibilities.

Paleolithic and Neolithic peoples were, by and large, hunters and gatherers, moving at least to some extent with the seasons and the attendant animal herds and wild plant growth cycles. As nomads, they would have had few personal possessions, and what they did own would have been compact, necessary, and portable. Industry was principally in the mining of materials like flint to use as animal killing and flaying instruments, as well as tools for crafting shelter and clothing.

It was only when farming began to arise—preceded by herding, probably—that permanence or semi-permanence of locational residence became widespread and, with it, an expansion of possessions that needed robust defense because they couldn't be efficiently picked up and moved to another, safer place. Not unrelated were the new technologies of smelting and mixing metals that led to a demonstrable, empirically obvious build-up of weaponry, particularly as the Bronze Age drew to the Iron Age: new kinds of axes, fearsomely lethal spears, heavy breastplates, and other items of warfare show up in the archaeological record. (While the article tries to cast the move to agriculturalism quite early, it is highly doubtful that this type of lifestyle was prevalent at 10,000 BP: it's just that the archaeological record preserves the evidence of this kind of lifestyle, once it arises, far better than it does the lifestyle of the likely still far more typical nomadic hunter-gatherer groups.)

Moreover, even in ancient writings we can find evidence that scribes and prophets saw the new war metals of the Bronze and Iron Ages as heralding an undesirable and awful time, as can be read from the Hebrew story of David and Goliath, the latter a very modern killer veritably drawn in fancy war regalia, against the former, a meager man-boy of the land equipped with little more than Paleolithic fighting instruments.

This change, described both in the archaeological record and in the epic stories of the age, was not the dawn of "civilization," as such: it was an underlying change in lifestyle that might, at best, correlate with or lead to civilization: instead of going to get food by hunts and the gathering of wild plants, people were, in increasing and dominant numbers, growing the food (beast, grain, fruit, and vegetable) beside them. This is convenient, but the attendant permanence of location becomes, at the same time, a curse: permanence is vulnerability; possessions are a magnet for attacks and raids; and greed for more replaces need for sufficiency.

Some might conflate this with the very essence of civilization: property, monumentalism, "us" versus "them"; violence against one's own kind as the will of gods; and want propelling expansion of territorial control instead of need fostering expedition. If that is, indeed, what counts these days as "civilization," then the current mindset of historians is no more open and capable than it has been since Herodotus; and if that is, indeed, the measure of "civilization, " then civilization is not at all the savior of our kind, but instead the herald of our continuing demise through the ages.

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