The Time Before Warfare Began

Coventry, England 1940. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I remember my mother’s story of the bombs exploding over the City of Coventry while she hid below the ground. She can’t remember exactly how long they were confined in the basement of her school–probably 4 days–long enough to run out of drinking water. Her father was in the trenches of the First World War; he was shot and gassed, but sent back to the front each time. I was born during the “post-war” Baby Boom, but would not see my father for another 6 months. As an American citizen, he had been drafted into the war in Korea. If the 20th Century has been the most violent to date, the 21st has seen no peacetime so far.

It can seem as though organized killing has been with us forever, and certainly for longer than there is written history, and I admit that I have wondered if the institution is essential to human nature.

The View from “Deep Time”

Nevertheless, we have been around for a lot longer than written history; 200,000 years in our anatomically modern form; 2.5 million as the genus Homo. And there is no trace of warfare before 10,000 years ago, at a time roughly corresponding to the advent of agriculture. Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker recently made an elaborate argument that violence has decreased over time. But the evidence from deep time shows rather the opposite: for most of our existence warfare was unknown; the institution only became widespread in the last few thousand years. A related observation is that during our long nomadic hunter-gatherer existence there was no accumulated wealth, consequently no source of inequality.

What Cave Art and Carvings Tell Us

There is little evidence of violence in Paleolithic time, but not because we know too little of our prehistory. In fact a vast body of information on life in the Paleolithic exists in the form of thousands of paintings and carvings that go back more than 30,000 years. Paleontologist and artist Dale Guthrie looks at this body of cultural expression as a scientist, and has discovered that a trove of detailed pre-history is recorded in Paleolithic art. In addition to some renderings we recognize as “cave art,” early people also left us a huge record of detailed observations about their regional environments, ecology and of animal behavior.

Giant Deer (Megaloceros), Lascaux Cave, Dordogne, France. Painted about 17,300 years ago. The line of dots is interpreted as a blood trail from a spear wound. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

But most importantly, for this question of warfare, Paleolithic art makes an eloquent argument against the long held assumption that war and murder are part of early human life and cultural practices.

Weapons, But Not of War

It was in the Paleolithic that we became the people that we are. Although spears and other hunting weapons feature prominently in cave paintings and other artworks, notably absent are shields, maces, daggers, the type of weapons used exclusively by people engaged in combat. There are no fortified settlements in this long time before the end of the last Ice Age. Among hundreds of Paleolithic skeletons known worldwide, only a few show any sign of violent death.

Warrior with attendants. Note shields and weapons of combat. Edo Court of Benin, Nigeria. Plaque in Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Agriculture, Inequality and Institutional Violence

But as we approach the present from 10,000 years ago, signs of organized killing begin to accumulate: depression fractures on skulls, defensive wounds or “parry fractures” on forearms, spear points embedded in bone, mass burials and dismembered skeletons. It is sporadic at first, but intensifies. Fortified settlements were becoming common in Europe by 6500 years ago.

It’s probably not an accident that signs of inequality and stratified societies also accumulate over this same period, elaborate burials and artifacts that display the wealth, prestige and dominant status of an elite. Accumulated and stored wealth present an opportunity for plunder. As archaeologist Brian Ferguson put it, people could no longer walk away from trouble, and so warfare was born.

Finding Humanity in the Stone Age

Neither war nor inequality is an essential feature of modern human culture. We became who we are long before institutional warfare became part of our culture. Perhaps we should to go back to the Stone Age, where we might find people striking similarity to us who can teach us much about our own early humanity.


Ferguson, Brian 2003. The Birth of War, Natural History July/August 2003

Guthrie, Dale 2005. The Nature of Paleolithic Art. Chicago University Press.

Pinker, Steven 2011. The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York. Viking.


About guy robinson

General Biology teacher, paleoecologist, pollen counter, tracker of mastodons and other Ice Age mammals through New York's wetlands
This entry was posted in culture, evolution, history, paleolithic, science. Bookmark the permalink.

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