The History of the Culture of War
Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness 5,000 years of increasing monopolization of the culture of war by the state

The History of the Culture of War

What is culture and how does it evolve?

Warfare in prehistory and its usefulness

The culture of war in prehistory

Data from prehistory before the Neolithic

Enemy images: culture or biology

War and the culture of war at the dawn of history

--Ancient Mesopotamia

--Ancient Egypt

--Ancient China

--Ancient Greece and Rome

--Ancient Crete

--Ancient Indus civilizations

--Ancient Hebrew civilization

--Ancient Central American civilization

Warfare and the origin of the State

Religion and the origin of the State

A summary of the culture of war at the dawn of history

The internal culture of war: a taboo topic

The evolution of the culture of war over the past 5,000 years: its increasing monopolization by the state

--1.Armies and armaments

--2.External conquest and exploitation: Colonialism and Neocolonialism

--3.The internal culture of war and economies based on exploitation of workers and the environment

--4.Prisons and penal systems

--5.The military-industrial complex

--6.The drugs-for-guns trade

--7.Authoritarian control

--8.Control of information

--9.Identification of an "enemy"

--10.Education for the culture of war

--11.Male domination

--12.Religion and the culture of war

--13.The arts and the culture of war



Summary of the history of the culture of war


War and the culture of war were invented early in prehistory, but they did not involve slavery or the state, and there was no economy based on exploitation, serfs, etc. or the development of internal repression (the internal culture of war) to maintain the power of a ruling class. And hence the usefulness of war during prehistory was quite different from its usefulness later on after the development of the state, as will be discussed later.

Apparently warfare was widespread by the time of the Neolithic period, judging from archeological data on the extensive fortification of early settlements and the widespread existence of weaponry. Some have argued that warfare was not widespread during human prehistory, based on the fact that ethnographers encountered some non-state peoples that had little experience with warfare. See, for example, the website by B.D. Bonta, At the very least, these data negate the argument that warfare is part of some hypothetical "human nature" (See the Seville Statement on Violence, mentioned above). On the other hand, at least half of the particular societies listed on this website were observed in conditions where warfare was impractical because of extreme environmental conditions and/or populations that were widely scattered or pacified by outside forces. In fact several of the societies on the list (Kung San and Mbuti pygmies) did have historical accounts of warfare at earlier times when their peoples were more numerous and less scattered or were not subjugated by other peoples. For detailed arguments refuting the so-called "peaceful peoples", see Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979), The Biology of Peace and War.

There are so few cases of people without a history of war that when the cross-cultural anthropologists Mel and Carol and Ember set out to examine the ethnographic record for predictors of warfare, "we could not compare societies with and without war to see how else they might differ, because there were too few unpacified societies without war" (quotation from Making the World More Peaceful (Ember and Ember 2001)).

We need to distinguish at least two broad periods of prehistory. In the more ancient periods of the Paleolithic and Mesolithic, people maintained themselves by hunting and gathering. The more recent phase of prehistory, corresponding to what archaeologists call the Neolithic, appeared later and was characterized by sedentary agricultural economies with populations sometimes gathered into towns and cities. At the same time, there are some hunter-gatherer societies that persisted through the Neolithic and up until the present time.

As already mentioned, warfare was common during the Neolithic period, according to archaeological data. The excavations of Neolithic cities often show that they were surrounded by walls or palisades that presumably served as defense against enemy invasions or raids. And there is abundant evidence of weapons, including some that would appear to have been specifically designed for use in warfare. More direct evidence is difficult to obtain, indirect evidence includes the account of cranial injuries apparently due to warfare in Schulting and Wysocki (2002), as well as the palisade evidence cited by Milner (1999).

What, then was the usefulness of prehistoric warfare? The most convincing argument, in my opinion, is that prehistoric peoples prepared for warfare so that if they ran out of food, due to natural disaster, they could then raid the supplies of neighboring groups and hence avoid starvation. Let us call this the "raid or starve" hypothesis. This hypothesis is supported by the evidence of cross-cultural anthropology. In their study, Resource Unpredictability, Mistrust, and War (1992), the anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember have shown that the variable that best predicts the frequency of warfare in non-state societies is a history of unpredictable natural disasters. As they explain it in their article Making the World More Peaceful (2001):

". . the fear of unpredictable disasters, rather than actual shortages is what mainly motivates people to go to war. Societies with only the threat of disasters, with a memory of unpredictable disasters during a 25-year period, fought very frequently, just like societies that actually had one or more disasters in the previous 25 years. So we think that people may decide to go to war because they want to cushion the impact of expected but unpredictable disasters, scarcity-producing events they expect to occur in the future but cannot control or prevent. The idea that war is an attempt ahead of time to mitigate the effect of unpredictable disasters is supported by the results pertaining to the outcomes or war. Almost always the victors in war take land or other resources from the defeated, even if the victors do not have resource problems at the time. If you don't need resources at the time, why take resources from the enemy, if not to protect against anticipated but unpredictable scarcity? Surprisingly, taking resources from the defeated occurs usually in foraging as well as in the agricultural cases. It looks like people even in pre-capitalist societies may have been mainly motivated to go to war for economic reasons."

A second predictor of warfare found by Ember and Ember is the fear that others will attack, which can be explained as the result of frequent warfare in the past. The memory of such warfare would be retained in myth and oral history and would stimulate people to prepare for future wars as well. As to be discussed below this "preparation" often takes the form of "ritual war" and feuding-type raids.

The "raid or starve" situation would have become especially effective after the invention of agriculture in the Neolithic. In fact, this argument is made in the UNESCO (1994) History of Humanity, Volume I, chapter entitled Overview of From the Beginnings of Food Production to the First States. The author, Sigfried De Laet, describes as follows the transition from hunter-gatherer society to communities with food production in which property impacted on the nature and function of warfare:

"Property came into existence. No doubt the concept existed in embryonic form among the hunter-gatherers, where each community possessed 'its own' hunting territory. Among farmers, however, the idea of property assumed considerable importance : every farmer had their 'own' fields, their 'own' cattle, their 'own' house and their 'own' tools. At the same time, the other face of property was revealed, for it led to theft, pillage and also war. A community whose harvest had been destroyed by bad weather would be only too easily tempted to go and plunder the barns of a more fortunate neighbouring village community, but the latter would of course defend its possessions by force. Such wars must have been fairly numerous, as is shown by the fact that most Neolithic villages were fortified . . A class of professional warriors gradually came into being, responsible for defending the village while the farmers and shepherds were in the fields. It may well be imagined that initially all able-bodied men took up arms in cases of danger but that soon a few men were made permanently responsible for maintaining security. Such military activities called for a commander, and this role naturally fell to the village chief, whose powers, as noted earlier, thus took on a military character."

Continued on next page

To take part in a discussion about this page, click below on the Culture of Peace Dialogues:

discussion board

World Peace through the Town Hall


1) The difference between "peace" and "culture of peace" and a brief history of the culture of war

2) The role of the individual in culture of war and culture of peace

3) Why the nation-state cannot create a culture of peace

4) The important role of civil society in creating a culture of peace

--Peace and disarmament movements

--Ecology movement

--Movements for human rights

--Democracy movements

--Women's movement

--International understanding, tolerance and solidarity

--Movements for free flow of information

--The strengths and weaknesses of civil society

5) The basic and essential role of local government in culture of peace

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality


--Transparency and the free flow of information

--Education for a culture of peace

--Security and public safety

--Some ongoing initiatives

6) Assessing progress toward a culture of peace at the local level

--Sustainable development

--Human rights

--Democratic participation

--Women's equality

--Tolerance and solidarity


--Peace education


--Inter-relationships among the various measures

--Culture of peace measurement at the level of the state

7) Going global: networking of city culture of peace commissions

8) The future transition of the United Nations from control by states to popular control through local governmental representatives

9) What would a culture of peace be like?