Violence has historically fluctuated27 Mar 2021
Were ancient societies exceptionally peaceful or violent? As with most things, it depends; no sweeping conclusion can be made.
Finally, there’s the thorny question of the role of war in forager societies. Some scholars imagine ancient hunter-gatherer societies as peaceful paradises, and argue that war and violence began only with the Agricultural Revolution, when people started to accumulate private property. Other scholars maintain that the world of the ancient foragers was exceptionally cruel and violent. Both schools of thought are castles in the air, connected to the ground by the thin strings of meagre archaeological remains and anthropological observations of present-day foragers.
The anthropological evidence is intriguing but very problematic. Foragers today live mainly in isolated and inhospitable areas such as the Arctic or the Kalahari, where population density is very low and opportunities to fight other people are limited. Moreover, in recent generations, foragers have been increasingly subject to the authority of modern states, which prevent the eruption of large-scale conflicts. European scholars have had only two opportunities to observe large and relatively dense populations of independent foragers: in north-western North America in the nineteenth century, and in northern Australia during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Both Amerindian and Aboriginal Australian cultures witnessed frequent armed conflicts. It is debatable, however, whether this represents a ‘timeless’ condition or the impact of European imperialism.
The archaeological findings are both scarce and opaque. What telltale clues might remain of any war that took place tens of thousands of years ago? There were no fortifications and walls back then, no artillery shells or even swords and shields. An ancient spear point might have been used in war, but it could have been used in a hunt as well. Fossilised human bones are no less hard to interpret. A fracture might indicate a war wound or an accident. Nor is the absence of fractures and cuts on an ancient skeleton conclusive proof that the person to whom the skeleton belonged did not die a violent death. Death can be caused by trauma to soft tissues that leaves no marks on bone. Even more importantly, during pre-industrial warfare more than 90 per cent of war dead were killed by starvation, cold and disease rather than by weapons. Imagine that 30,000 years ago one tribe defeated its neighbour and expelled it from coveted foraging grounds. In the decisive battle, ten members of the defeated tribe were killed. In the following year, another hundred members of the losing tribe died from starvation, cold and disease. Archaeologists who come across these no skeletons may too easily conclude that most fell victim to some natural disaster. How would we be able to tell that they were all victims of a merciless war?
Duly warned, we can now turn to the archaeological findings. In Portugal, a survey was made of 400 skeletons from the period immediately predating the Agricultural Revolution. Only two skeletons showed clear marks of violence. A similar survey of 400 skeletons from the same period in Israel discovered a single crack in a single skull that could be attributed to human violence. A third survey of 400 skeletons from various pre-agricultural sites in the Danube Valley found evidence of violence on eighteen skeletons. Eighteen out of 400 may not sound like a lot, but it’s actually a very high percentage. If all eighteen indeed died violently, it means that about 4.5 per cent of deaths in the ancient Danube Valley were caused by human violence. Today, the global average is only 1.5 per cent, taking war and crime together. During the twentieth century, only 5 per cent of human deaths resulted from human violence – and this in a century that saw the bloodiest wars and most massive genocides in history. If this revelation is typical, the ancient Danube Valley was as violent as the twentieth century.
The depressing findings from the Danube Valley are supported by a string of equally depressing findings from other areas. At Jabl Sahaba in Sudan, a 12,000-year-old cemetery containing fifty-nine skeletons was discovered. Arrowheads and spear points were found embedded in or lying near the bones of twenty-four skeletons, 40 per cent of the find. The skeleton of one woman revealed twelve injuries. In Ofnet Cave in Bavaria, archaeologists discovered the remains of thirty-eight foragers, mainly women and children, who had been thrown into two burial pits. Half the skeletons, including those of children and babies, bore clear signs of damage by human weapons such as clubs and knives. The few skeletons belonging to mature males bore the worst marks of violence. In all probability, an entire forager band was massacred at Ofnet.
Which better represents the world of the ancient foragers: the peaceful skeletons from Israel and Portugal, or the abattoirs of Jabl Sahaba and Ofnet? The answer is neither. Just as foragers exhibited a wide array of religions and social structures, so, too, did they probably demonstrate a variety of violence rates. While some areas and some periods of time may have enjoyed peace and tranquillity, others were riven by ferocious conflicts.