Is War a Human Universal?

War — what is it good for? If Edwin Starr is to be believed, “absolutely nothing.” But maybe he was asking the wrong question. Maybe he should’ve asked, why do we humans even have war?

We can’t all just get along

It may seem like a silly question. War is so widespread in today’s world that it can be hard to imagine humans have ever existed without it. (It has this in common with coffee.) The Guardian reported in August on a prehistoric mass grave first discovered in 2006 in the municipality of Schöneck, near Frankfurt, Germany, and now dated to about 7,000 years ago, when the area was occupied by people of the Western Linear Pottery culture (also known as LBK). The article, by Emily Mobley, describes how the skeletons of more than two dozen individuals, including both adults and children, show evidence of a violent, intense attack, and possibly even torture. Furthermore, the haphazard mass grave contrasts markedly with the tidy individual burials typical of LBK graves. And finally, the site is “near an ancient border between different communities,” suggesting that it was the result of conflict. The analysis: “It is likely that fighting broke out over limited farming resources, upon which people depended for survival.”

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The article then closes with some provocative quotes from an archaeologist unrelated to the project:

Lawrence Keeley, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said that alongside Talheim and Asparn, this latest massacre discovery fits a pattern of common and murderous warfare. “The only reasonable interpretation of these cases, as here, is that a whole typically-sized Linear Pottery culture hamlet or small village was wiped out by killing the majority of its inhabitants and kidnapping the young women. This represents yet another nail in the coffin of those who have claimed that war was rare or ritualised or less awful in prehistory or, in this instance, the early Neolithic.”

It’s hard to tell whether Keeley is hedging with that last bit. “In prehistory” can mean different things, but it generally covers a pretty enormous timespan. Lawrence Keeley is known in the field of popular archaeology for his 1996 book War Before Civilization, which collected evidence from around the world pointing to ancient conflicts like the one at Schöneck. He uses this evidence to argue not only that warfare has always been present in human life, but that it has always been just as brutal as it is today — in other words, he seeks to debunk the “myth of the peaceful savage” by showing that peace was never the “natural” state of humanity to begin with.

But is that what the evidence really tells us?

Lessons from prehistory

According to a 2013 survey by Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscitelli (also impatiently summarized for Scientific American Blogs by science journalist John Horgan), Keeley’s analysis is at best a mischaracterization of the archaeological record. First of all, Haas and Piscitelli point out that Keeley and many other authors before and after him have placed far too much faith (and not enough bias control) in the use of ethnographic studies of present-day societies in trying to understand the circumstances of prehistoric ones.

Interestingly, for the few societies that lack warfare, Keeley brings in the effects of outside states and imposed conflict: “Most of these peaceful societies were recently defeated refugees living in isolation, lived under a ‘king’s peace’ enforced by a modern state, or both” (Keeley, 1996, p. 28).

The surrounding context of the non-peaceful societies, however, is never questioned. Yet all the societies in these cross-cultural surveys have been heavily impacted in similar ways and such impacts must be accounted for in such analyses.

They go on to point out that there is virtually no place in the present world that has not been touched in some way by a state society, and that this is even the case for much of the recent archaeological record (such as the Puebloans of Chaco Canyon of roughly a thousand years ago, who had highly significant contact with the Toltec Empire of Mesoamerica).

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Haas and Piscitelli introduce their review of the evidence from archaeology by raising an important point about the nature of what they’re looking for:

The emergence of modern Homo sapiens sapiens in Africa some 200,000 plus years ago is not marked anywhere in the archaeological record by an explosion of population. There have indeed only been a handful of human remains and archaeological sites that date more than 20,000 years old in Africa, an area of 30,000,000 sq km. While negative evidence is not by itself proof of an absence of warfare, it nevertheless bears directly on the relative density of humans on the continent during this very long period. There is nothing at all to indicate any kind of population pressure or possible scarcity of resources. There is also a complete lack of evidence of concrete social units above the level of a family or immediate family group for this same period. Who then, exactly, would have been fighting whom and for what possible reason?

They follow up by exploring in depth just how empty of humans the world has been for most of the time humans have been wandering around in it. That all changed, they continue, around 8,000 BCE, when we started bumping up against the limit of sustainability for foraging (hunting-gathering) economies. It’s after that date that “at different times and places throughout the world, there begins a steady — if episodic — trickle of such indicators of warfare and conflict.” By contrast, and crucially for their argument, “[l]ooking back at the very long stretch of time between 200,000 and 10,000 years ago, the archaeological evidence for warfare melts away.”

The two main types of evidence from this period (essentially, the Middle and Upper Paleolithic eras) are rock art and the bones of dead people. They first review all of the four (yes, four) examples of rock art that have been claimed as depictions of humans being pierced with spears. Tellingly, not one of the four figures can be positively identified as a human, “and indeed two of them have tails.” This contrasts with cave art from dates after 8,000 BCE, which they say includes many “clear images of warfare, conflict, fighting, and warriors”. The paper includes illustrations; feel free to judge for yourself. Personally, I’m convinced that nothing convincing can be concluded from the rock art in support of prehistoric killing of humans, let alone of the existence of Paleolithic warfare.

Although it’s rarely made explicit, it’s probably handy to make a basic distinction between warfare as conflict between groups of people, and fighting or killing between individuals as lone aggressors or lone targets. Haas and Piscitelli find only a “tiny number” of indications of violent death in the human skeletal evidence, and only one site from their target time period that shows a group of victims of violence buried together: the site they refer to as Jebel Sahaba, in northern Sudan, which is dated to about 12,000–14,000 years ago. Wikipedia claims (at least at the time of this writing) that Jebel Sahaba is two thirds of a site called Cemetery 117, and, interestingly, the article on “prehistoric warfare” records it as a Mesolithic site rather than a Paleolithic one. Haas and Piscitelli cite the report by the original team leader, Fred Wendorf:

[P]opulation pressures may have become too great with the deterioration of the Late Pleistocene climate and the effects which this had on the herds of large savanna-type animals which were the primary sources of food at this time. With this situation, the few localities which were particularly favorable for fishing would have been repeatedly fought over as other sources of food became increasingly scarce (Wendorf, 1968, p. 993).

As they point out, the combination of population pressure and scarcity of resources “sounds very much like the causes of warfare in later, more sedentary societies.” Nevertheless, they set it aside as a “notable exception” and move on.

Evidence of absence

Lest we readers suspect that they’ve engaged in cherry-picking of the evidence, the authors list almost a full page of citations for the original site reports and catalogues they surveyed for their piece, accounting for the remains of “at least 2,930” individuals at “over 400” sites.

Rather than demonstrating the commonness of ancient warfare amongst humans, consideration of the entire archaeological data set shows the opposite. Unfortunately, the full body of cave paintings and rock art along with the full body of skeletal remains from hundreds of archaeological sites have not been considered in studies attempting to argue for the prevalence of war throughout human history. Comparing the total number of known individuals before 8000 BC to the small sample of remains showing signs of violence demonstrates the infrequency of warfare or conflict in the ancient past. The archaeological record is not silent on the presence of warfare in early human history. Indeed, this record shows that warfare was the rare exception prior to the Neolithic pressures of population densities and insufficient resources for growing populations. [emphasis original]

So what was Keeley thinking? Without a copy of his book on hand, I can’t say anything with absolute certainty, but I can make a couple of educated guesses based on the information that’s available on line. For one thing, his examples from the skeletal record seem to come largely from the period after 8,000 BCE. In fact, rom what I can see, the majority of his examples from the Americas and Australia (which seem to form the bulk of his evidence) are dated to within the last thousand years. Second, as Haas and Piscitelli point out, Keeley drew on contemporary ethnographic studies for much of his interpretation and analysis. In view of this, Keeley’s book is probably best taken as a description of Neolithic and post-Neolithic humanity, not of humanity in general or “human nature,” whatever that really is.

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And the mass grave at Schöneck? The Linear Pottery culture is solidly Neolithic, and the probable cause of the conflict, as identified by the archaeologists involved, fits perfectly with Haas and Piscitelli’s criteria of population pressure and resource scarcity: neighboring groups of farmers fighting over a limited amount of farmland. Climate change and overcrowding probably contributed to their fighting, just like at Jebel Sahaba.

The double-edged ploughshare

What does this all mean for us, here and now? Horgan, at the end of his SciAm Blogs piece, warns against the logical leap, fortunately no longer as common as it once was, from the belief that war is universal to the assumption that it’s inevitable or even necessary. This would be a form of the “appeal to nature” fallacy, in which the supposedly “natural” thing (in this case, widespread warfare) is intrinsically better or more right than its supposedly “unnatural” alternate (in this case, universal peace). Haas and Piscitelli have established that war isn’t a necessary condition of human existence, but rather a response to a specific combination of pressures. But even if they hadn’t, it would still be wrong to give up on any and all peace efforts as a result.

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But the fallacy can go the other way too. Keeley wasn’t wrong to want to debunk the “peaceful savage” myth. It’s oversimplistic and tends to paint an idealized and sometimes condescending picture of our ancient ancestors, and that rosy filter can also affect the way some of us see contemporary “non-Western” or “primitive” peoples, with consequences ranging from awkward social encounters to horrific crimes against humanity. And it makes for some pretty offensive fiction.

At the same time, though, Haas and Piscitelli envision a Paleolithic era that does sound, in a way, very appealing. They note that a single material culture, the Aurignacian, spanned essentially all of Europe and North Asia for a staggering 15,000-year period (about 40,000 to 25,000 years ago), and that North and South America each seem to have had similar continent-wide material cultures at a later (and shorter) period toward the end of the Pleistocene. To them, this repeating pattern suggests an uncrowded world of plentiful resources:

Rather than fighting with each other under extremely low population densities and no viable competitors for an abundance of food and game, humans would have relied on neighbors for cooperative ventures, such as hunting large game, or for the potential pool of mates. ... All of the issues of group boundaries, “traditional enemies,” different ethnicities, and territoriality are simply incompatible with a model of open continent-wide social networks.

It’s an appealing scenario not because of any seeming “naturalness,” but because it actually sounds like a pleasant way to live. It’s somewhat speculative, and possibly the evidence discussed above could be combined differently to imagine other scenarios. But if we ever achieve a post-scarcity world, I for one hope that, whatever form it takes, it can be as peaceful as the pre-scarcity world of the Paleolithic.

But with coffee.

Thanks to my friend Dan for sharing the article that made me want to research and write this.