The study of warfare in prehistory is a specialty of its own embedded within the anthropology of war. To study prehistoric warfare requires knowledge of the conceptual and theoretical ideas set forth in the entries for “Feuding” and “War, Anthropology of,” as well as an awareness of how to apply this knowledge to the archeological record. Because warfare is distinct from violence and feuding, which occur within political communities, the first task of the archaeologist is to identify the polities within a region and attempt to ascertain their relationships to each other. The notion of a warfare system is useful here. Hence, a regional approach is preferable to a focus upon a single site. In taking a regional approach, the archaeologist will determine settlement location and movement, which settlements have expanded and which have contracted in size, and which have fissioned and which have coalesced. This is a first step toward developing an understanding of whether intergroup relations were peaceful or hostile.
Determining the presence of warfare from archaeological finds is complicated—indeed, evidence for armed combat (weapons) and homicides (projectile points in bones) may or may not be indications of warfare. What follows is an attempt to give some guidelines. Finding burials with weapons suggests a warrior class; mass graves of homicide victims of both sexes and all ages suggests a surprise attack upon a village; mutilated bodies suggest torture and execution, acts performed upon members of the polity by other members. Special purpose weapons, body armor, and drawings of combat on walls or pottery vessels indicate the presence of warriors or soldiers and military organizations; general purpose weapons, such as spears and bows and arrows, may indicate only the presence of hunting and self-defense. Walls surrounding settlements and settlements located on a hill or in a place that is difficult to find and approach suggest the presence of warfare; hidden homesteads suggest fear of attacks connected to feuds; fortified houses, compounds, and neighborhoods indicate fear of crime, attacks, or of an uprising against the upper or ruling class. A burned settlement may indicate warfare; burned houses, an uprising.
The application of these guidelines to the archaeological record gives evidence that warfare occurred in a number of regions before the rise of agriculture: hunting and gathering bands in the Upper Paleolithic, Northern Australia, and the Archaic of North America engaged in armed combat on occasion. Upper Paleolithic cave paintings depict figures with darts (perhaps launched with spear throwers) or spears protruding from them (executions or battle casualties) as well as warriors shooting projectile weapons at each other (line battles). Projectile points in pelvic bones have been found at a number of sites, the earliest being 20,000 years ago. Burials, including mass burials, of individuals with projectile points lodged in them have been found along the Nile. This is evidence for warfare 14,000 years ago. In Northern Australia, rock art spanning thousands of years depicts three phases of armed combat, from individual combat with boomerangs or spears to battles between 20 to 30 warriors on a side. In North America, numerous skeletons have been uncovered that bear evidence that these early arrivals to the New World were killed with weapons. Kennewick Man had several healed wounds and a spear point embedded in his pelvis. At the Grimes Burial Shelter, a young man died as a result of being stabbed in his chest with a knife. In Western Tennessee, six individuals were killed with projectile weapons.
As more and more archaeological sites are excavated, the evidence for early armed combat increases. Hunting weapons, spear throwers and bows and arrows, appear to have served as weapons both in the hunt and in war. It also appears that the frequency of lethal encounters increased through time, probably due to increasing population, increasing encounters between bands, and perhaps increasing competition for resources. Large game animals were on the decline in both Europe and North America during this period due to overhunting and climate change.
Shifting to those regions where agriculture arose— the Near East, North China, Mesoamerica, and Peru— presents a different picture: No evidence of warfare is found at the earliest sites. For example, at Abu Huryea (9500 BCE-5000 BCE) on the Upper Euphrates settled gatherers acquired crops and became farmers. The settlement grew to six thousand inhabitants. Yet, during this 4,500 year period there is no evidence for warfare. Only one skeleton with an embedded projectile point was found by archaeologists. Even the famous walls of Jericho were first constructed in a region that presents no other evidence of warfare (8300 BCE), an observation that has led some archaeologists to conclude that the walls were not fortifications. In the four regions where pristine or primary states arose, warfare appears to be absent in the earliest archaeological sequences. Specifically, in Mesopotamia warfare does not occur until the Uruk period; in North China, the Longshan period; for the Zapotec of Mesoamerica, the Rosario period; and for the Chavin of Peru warfare does not arise. When warfare did arise in these regions it was late in the Inchoate Early State stage. These early states attacked and conquered other states within a region of culturally similar peoples speaking the same language— internal war. In the Typical Early State stage culturally different peoples were attacked—external war.
The presence of warfare in regions with hunters and gatherers and the absence of warfare in regions of early agriculturalists creates a conundrum. War appears to have disappeared. The absence of warfare in those regions where the first states arose means that villages did not conquer other villages, creating chiefdoms; and chiefdoms did not conquer chiefdoms, creating states. The conquest theory of the origin of the state is not valid.
A solution to this conundrum has been proposed by Otterbein; namely, there are two separate origins for war. He identifies two types of military organizations, one that developed perhaps two million years ago, certainly by 20,000 years ago, and a second that developed 5,000 years ago. The former is the nonprofessional military organization, based on fraternal interest groups, and the latter the professional, fulltime personnel, military organization. Otterbein argues that warfare declined and disappeared in some regions, those regions where large game animals were hunted to extinction. This created settled gatherers who proceeded to domesticate crops in nonwarfare environments. Only after centralized political systems had arisen, along with professional military organizations, did states embark on wars of conquest.
Theories of warfare preferred by archaeologists focus on underlying causes and consequences. Three are favored, creating a limited theoretical pallet available to the archaeologist who is attempting to explain what happened in the past. A favorite theory for many years is the recognition that culture contact leads to diffusion of material culture, specifically weapons, and often the knowledge of how to produce the items. The donor culture may also undergo change, a process known as acculturation. The diffusion-acculturation approach remains a mainstay for archaeologists. Theories featuring the physical environment include sophisticated ecological models, the view that population pressure leads to competition over scarce resources (CSR theory), and recognition that civilizations often come to a catastrophic end because of earthquakes, el Ninos, or an ice age. Theories of cultural evolution are also commonly used. The developmental theory of the origin and rise of warfare from no war, to ritual war, to state-level warfare is an example, as is the conquest theory of the origin of the state.
- Fagan, B. (1999). Floods, famines, and emperors: El Nino and the fate of civilizations. New York: Basic Books.
- Haas, J. (1982). The evolution of the prehistoric state. New York: Columbia University Press.
- Kelly, R. C. (2000). Peaceful societies and the origin of war. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
- Moore, A. T. M., Hillman, G. C., & Legge, A. J. (Eds.). (2000). Village on the Euphrates: From foraging to farming at Abu Hureyra. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Otterbein, K. F. (1997). The origins of war. Critical Review, 2, 251-277.
- Otterbein, K. F. (2003, December). The archaeology of war: An alternative view. Anthropology News, p. 9.
- Otterbein, K. F. (2004). How war began. College Station, TX: Texas A&M Press.