The History of the Culture of War
War and the Culture of War at the Dawn of History:
Ancient Central American Civilization
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


Mayan writing on public monuments gives us some idea of the culture of war that arose independently in the New World. As described in the chapter on languages in Volume III of the UNESCO history, these monuments may be considered as "political propaganda":

"Subject matter on the public monuments is very clearly political in nature and, combined with the iconography represented in sculpture, had as its major purpose the recording of the life crisis events of kings and to a certain extent their exploits. Much of what we find on Maya monuments is clearly meant as political propaganda and must be read with considerable caution. Occasionally the focus of the inscription is the military successes of kings, very often involving the capture and the sacrifice of people of high rank from neighbouring states, either warriors, nobles or even kings . . "

We may assume that the educational system of the Mayans was confined to young men and prepared them to be part of the culture of war, although it is not specifically stated in the following description from the preceding source:

"Some architectural remains in a number of Maya sites suggest that there were special schools in the centres for the noble class, somewhat comparable to the Aztec Calmecae. In all probability there were also rural schools among the Lowland Maya somewhat comparable to the Aztec Telpochcalli. What we suspect is that general elements of iconography, expressed in public monuments in Classic Maya centres, were understood by virtually the entire population, otherwise their public expression makes little sense. Their purpose is to constantly remind the subjects of the Maya kings of the unusally high status and political and religious privileges of the ruler and of other high ranking individuals. A full understanding of the writing system, however, was probably limited to a small percentage of the population of a Classic Maya realm, probably less than 5 percent and including only the adult males of the noble class."

Further details about the ancient Mayan civilization may be found in UNESCO history description of this civilization during its Classic period. Unlike the great empires in the Old World, it would seem that the rulers commemorated on the public monuments were "rulers of small polities, which even in the Classic period rarely covered more than 2000 square kilometers . . " The rulers were military, political and religious leaders:

"The Classic period is formally defined as beginning in AD 250, with the first public monumental inscriptions in Maya hieroglyphic script . . Sometimes warfare was for territorial aggrandizement . . Sometimes warfare was for general aggrandizement, and large polities were formed temporarily with populations up to 400,000.

Copan has a documented dynasty of at least sixteen rulers between AD 435 and 810 . . Sculptures of subordinate nobles from different parts of the valley suggest that power was being shared, and that each part of the Copan polity was represented in council . . "

"Social ranks can be adduced on the basis of texts, iconography, archaeological evidence and judicious analogies with colonial Maya social structure . . The ruler was war leader, chief protagonist in ritual and the link with the cosmos and the venerated ancestors of the community."

Although the UNESCO history mentions several times the taking of captives in the war by pre-colonial Mayan civilization, it does not mention slavery. However, a source on the Internet (data of which I have not been able to independently verify) indicates that "Slaves did the hard labor in the fields and in construction." The same source indicates that the status of women was subordinate:

"Mayan women were respected and sometimes honored, but they exercised their limited freedoms within the bounds permitted by a culture characterized by male domination. As keepers of households and experts in handicrafts, they did all of the weaving and alone produced the highly artistic pre-wheel pottery, for which the Mayans are famous. In performing such important roles, Mayan women earned a modicum of respect and status. When a maiden married, her husband came to live in her family's house until he proved himself. She could divorce him and marry again, if she waited a year. She was also permitted to hold property. In many other ways, however, Mayan women were subordinated. They were prohibited from looking directly at men; they waited on men at meals, eating later with other women; and they could not hold public office or enter a temple. Those in elite or royal families were regularly exported for marriage into foreign families, serving as political trade goods for cementing alliances or clinching trade agreements."

The themes of art and religion in the Mayan civilization appear to have served the culture of war. Among the most remarkable artistic productions were the Olmec colossal heads, which, according to the UNESCO history, may have be meant to glorify the leadership of the state:

"Since these figures do not represent gods - for they lack the distinguishing characteristics and symbolic signs which might allow such an interpretation - they may rather depict 'lineage leaders' or 'ancestors'. Such representations would be justified in a society which, an all probability, was politically organized into various chieftainships . ."

"All this, in conjunction with the development of temple-like architectural forms, points sharply to the existence of a solid religious system, one implying a state-like political organization, going beyond that of mere chieftainship or headmanship; one indeed, with a corresponding body of priests, to which the ruler most certainly belonged."

To take part in a discussion about this page, go to the Forum on the Dawn of History 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 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

--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?