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Military history

Prehistoric warfare is war conducted in the era before writing, and before the establishments of large social entities like states. Historical warfare sets in with the standing armies of Bronze Age Sumer, but prehistoric warfare may be studied in some societies at much later dates.

When humans first began fighting wars is a matter of debate among anthropologists and historians. The answer to this question is dependent on the definition of "war" itself.

The size of prehistoric armies is also a matter of debate. Those who reject the notion of prehistoric war argue that most early population densities were too low to field anything larger than raiding parties of a few dozen men. This is supported by the later Amarna letters, where no more than 20 armed persons were able to terrorize towns in the southern Levant. Others argue that settlements of the size of Çatal Höyük in modern day Turkey would have likely fielded several hundred men, and an alliance of a few cities would thus produce a sizable force. Presumably, such a group would have been large enough to require all of the elements of warfare, such as tactics, logistics, and organizational structure, for the success of an expedition.


Endemic warfare

Of the tribal societies still in existence today, some lead lives of great violence, frequently raiding neighboring groups and seizing territory, women, and goods from others by force.[1] Other groups, such as the Bushmen of the Kalahari, live in societies with no warfare and very little murder.[2]

What is common among those groups that remain and fight frequently is that warfare is highly ritualized, with a number of taboos and practices in place that limit the number of casualties and the duration of a conflict, a situation known as endemic warfare. Among tribal societies engaging in endemic warfare, conflict may escalate to actual warfare every generation or so, for various reasons such as population pressure or conflict over resources, but also for no readily understandable reason.


The most common weapons used by early man were simple in form and easy to produce. Originally, such weaponry consisted of clubs and spears. These were heavily used for hunting as early as 35,000 BC, but there is little evidence that there was much of what we would consider war in that era. Of the many cave paintings from this period, none depict people attacking other people. There is no known archaeological evidence of large scale fighting during this period of social evolution.[3][4]

Beginning around 12,000 BC, combat was transformed by the development of bows, maces, and slings. The bow seems to have been the most important weapon in the development of early warfare, in that it enabled attacks to be launched with far less risk to the attacker when compared to the risk involved in the use of mêlée combat weaponry. While there are no cave paintings of battles between men armed with clubs, the development of the bow is concurrent with the first known depictions of organized warfare consisting of clear illustrations of two or more groups of men attacking each other. These figures are arrayed in lines and columns with a distinctly garbed leader at the front. Some paintings even portray still-recognizable tactics like flankings and envelopments.[5]


Although the Neolithic occurred at different times in different places around the globe, evidence exists that there was warfare during this time period.[4] Compared to the subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages, the Neolithic is characterized by small towns, stone versus metal technology, and a lack of social hierarchy. Towns are generally unfortified and built in areas difficult to defend. Skeletal and burial remains do not generally indicate the presence of warfare.

The first archaeological record of what could be a prehistoric battle is on the Nile near the Egypt-Sudan border. Known as Cemetery 117 it is at least seven thousand years old. It contains a large number of bodies, many with arrowheads embedded in their skeletons, which indicates that they may have been the casualties of a battle. Some question this conclusion by arguing that the bodies may have accumulated over many decades, and may even be evidence of the murder of trespassers rather than actual battles. Nearly half of the bodies are female, and this fact also causes some to question the argument for large-scale warfare.

Further evidence of Neolithic warfare is evident in the Talheim Death Pit in Talheim, Neckar (Germany) where archaeologists believe a massacre of a rival tribe was conducted approximately 7500 years ago. Approximately 34 people were bound and predominantly killed by a blow to the left temple. The Talheim site is one of the earliest indications of warfare in Neolithic Europe[6]

The Māori of New Zealand are notable for the thousands of fortifications constructed to enhance a group's standing in the near continuous fighting on their islands in the South Pacific. In an era before siege weapons had been developed to a high level of technological complexity, and when attackers had limited supplies and time to spend engaged in battles, fortifications seem to have been a successful method of securing a population and livestock against invaders, though the fields and homes would likely be pillaged by the attackers. These substantial fortifications show that there was considerable social organization in the societies of prehistoric peoples. This is indirect corollary evidence for them also having been capable of conducting organized warfare.

Bronze Age

Discovered in modern Saalfeld, (Germany): A bronze-tipped arrow penetrates a human vertebra.
Discovered in modern Saalfeld, (Germany): A bronze-tipped arrow penetrates a human vertebra.

The onset of the Chalcolithic (Copper Age) saw the introduction of copper daggers, axes, and other items. For the most part these were far too expensive and malleable to be efficient weapons. They are considered by many scholars to have been largely ceremonial implements. It was with the development of bronze that edged metal weapons became commonplace.

Military conquests expanding city states to empires begin in the 3rd millennium BC, notably with Sargon of Akkad creating the Akkadian Empire. Senusret I in the 20th century BC subjugates Nubia under Egyptian control. Babylonia and later Assyria built empires in Mesopotamia while the Hittite Empire ruled much of Anatolia. Chariots appear in the 20th century BC, and become central to warfare in the Ancient Near East from the 17th century BC. The Hyksos and Kassite invasions mark the transition to the Late Bronze Age. Ahmose I defeated the Hyksos and re-established Egyptian control of Nubia and Canaan, territories again defended by Ramesses II at the Battle of Kadesh, the greatest chariot battle in history. The raids of the Sea Peoples and the renewed disintegration of Egypt in the Third Intermediate Period marks the end of the Bronze Age.

Iron Age

Early Iron Age events like the Dorian invasion, Greek colonialism and their interaction with Phoenician and Etruscan forces lie within the prehistoric period. Germanic warrior societies of the Migration period engaged in endemic warfare (see also Thorsberg moor). Anglo-Saxon warfare lies on the edge of historicity, its study relying primarily on archaeology with the help of only fragmentary written accounts.

See also


  1. ^ Keeley, pg. 28. "Three independent cross cultural surveys of representative samples of recent tribal and state societies from around the world have tabulated data on armed conflict, all giving very consistent results. The results indicate that 90 percent of the cultures in the sample unequivocally engaged in warfare and that the remaining 10 percent were not total strangers to violent conflict."
  2. ^ Keeley, pg. 29.
  3. ^ Guthrie, pg 422.
  4. ^ a b Neolithic Warfare-Historical Text Archive
  5. ^ Keeley, pg.45, Fig. 3.1
  6. ^ The Perfect Gift: Prehistoric Massacres. The twin vices of women and cattle in prehistoric Europe


  • Bouthoul, Gaston. Traité de polémologie: Sociologie des guerres. Paris: Payot, 1991.
  • Guilaine, Jean. Jean Zammit. Le sentier de la guerre : visages de la violence préhistorique. Paris : Seuil, 2001.
  • Guthrie, R. Dale. "The nature of Paleolithic art", University of Chicago Press, 2005, ISBN 0226311260
  • Kelly, Raymond C. Warless societies and the origin of war. Ann Arbor : University of Michigan Press, 2000.
  • LeBlanc, Steven A., Prehistoric Warfare in the American Southwest, University of Utah Press, 1999.
  • LeBlanc, Steven A., Katherine E. Register. Constant battles : the myth of the peaceful, noble savage. New York : St. Martin's Griffin, 2004. ISBN 0312310897
  • Otterbein, Keith F.. How war began. College Station : Texas A&M University Press, 2004
  • Randsborg, Klavs. Hjortspring : warfare and sacrifice in early Europe. Aarhus, Denmark; Oakville, Connecticut. : Aarhus University Press, 1995.
  • Roksandic, Mirjana ed.. Violent interactions in the Mesolithic : evidence and meaning. Oxford, England : Archaeopress, 2004
  • Zimmerman, L. The Crow Creek Site Massacre: A Preliminary Report, US Army Corps of Engineers, Omaha District, 1981.
  • Chagnon, N. The Yanomamo, Holt, Rinehart & Winston,1983.
  • Keeley, Lawrence. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage, Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 0-19-509112-4
  • Pauketat, Timothy. North American Archaeology 2005. Blackwell Publishing.
  • Wade, Nicholas. Before the Dawn, Penguin: New York 2006.
  • Rafael Karsten, Blood revenge, war, and victory feasts among the Jibaro Indians of eastern Ecuador, 1923.


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