The History of the Culture of War
Data from prehistory before the neolithic 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


During the Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods before the Neolithic, when people lived by hunting and gathering rather than by agriculture, the data suggest that hunter-gatherers also made war. For a long time it was thought by many anthropologists that hunter-gatherers were more peaceful than agricultural peoples, but that is not supported by cross-cultural analysis. In her study, Myths About Hunter-Gatherers, Carol Ember (1978) found that warfare was practiced by 88% of the modern hunter-gatherer societies surveyed, even when excluding equestrian hunters and societies dependent on fishing. The three exceptions are instructive, suggesting that hunter-gatherers did engage in warfare when possible. All three had population densities so low that war was not practical: 1) as mentioned earlier, the Kung bushmen have been decimated over time, but have oral history accounts of warfare in earlier times when they were more numerous; 2) the Yahgan lived under extreme conditions at the southern tip of the Americas and; and 3) the Pekangekun live under similar conditions at the northern extremes of the Americas.

Direct archaeological evidence on the frequency of prehistoric warfare among hunter-gatherers are scant. Since hunter-gatherers did not live in cities, one does not find walls and palisades. There are stone implements that could have served as weapons, but they cannot be definitively distinguished from the weapons used in hunting. Perhaps the best evidence comes from cave and rock-painting by hunter-gatherer peoples. Many of these come from hunter-gatherer peoples who lived during or after the Neolithic, such as those of the African Bushmen illustrated in Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979), and those of plains Indians of North America at Writing-on-stone in Southern Alberta, Canada, described in The Archaeology of Rock Art by Chippindale and Taçon (1998). In addition, the battle scenes between groups of archers in the cave paintings in Spain, one of which is also illustrated in the Eibl-Eibesfeldt book, previously attributed to the Mesolithic period, are now thought to have been Neolithic.

In the chapter on human violence in the Paleolithic and Mesolithic in Guilaine and Zammit (2001), Le Sentier de la Guerre, evidence is drawn from skeletal injuries to suggest that cannibalism was practiced during the Paleolithic among both Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon peoples. As for the Mesolithic, images of figures apparently pierced by spears are shown from cave and rock art in Italy and France, painted over 20,000 years ago. Mesolithic remains of humans apparently killed by spears and arrows are cited from many sites, including in Roumania, France, Algeria, Denmark, Sweden, Russia, Ukraine and India. An especially detailed description is provided of what appears to have been a massacre by spears with stone points of 59 people all ages and sexes at "site 117" near Djebel Sahaba in the Sudan along the Nile River some 12,000 years ago.

Although it appears that warfare took place during the Paleolithic and Mesolithic, we don't know much about it. For example, we do not know at what point in prehistory warfare and hunting were monopolized by men. Perhaps this could be determined by a survey of objects buried with women and men. Was there an early time when women were buried with the weapons of hunting and war? Data are available on women warriors from the Neolithic era such as the Sauro-Sarmation "warrior-women" tomb complexes described by Davis-Kimball (1997), but comparable data do not seem to be available from earlier prehistory.

As discussed earlier, the "raid or starve" explanation is quite plausible for agricultural peoples with stores of food such as those of the Neolithic, but can it explain the earlier warfare among hunter-gatherers? After all, hunter-gatherers would not be expected to have stores of food to the same extent as agricultural peoples. This is not an easy question to answer for several reasons.

First, one should not assume that hunter-gatherers did not store food. Probably they stored less than agricultural peoples, but the difference would have been a matter of degree, not all or nothing.

Second, it is difficult to draw conclusions based on the cross-cultural analysis of contemporary hunter-gatherers or evidence from hunter-gatherers after the beginning of the Neolithic period. One may assume that since the invention of agriculture, many hunter-gatherer peoples have lived in proximity to agricultural people. Under conditions of potential starvation, it would have benefited them to raid the stores of nearby agricultural peoples. This is supported by the statement in a recent review by Roksandic (2004) of violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers: "For most of these populations, at some point in their history, contact with farming communities was possible even if it did not occur."

Another perspective, preferred by Mel and Carol Ember in our discussions, is that the key moments of the use of warfare to avoid total starvation do not come at the last minute on the verge of starvation, but rather at a point somewhat earlier in time as the hunting and gathering territories yielded less and less under drought conditions and the territories had to be expanded in order to find food and water. At this point, neighboring groups would have come into conflict over their territories and one group might attack the other in order to gain more territory for subsistence. This is also the opinion of Irenaus Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1979) in his book, The Biology of War and Peace:

"The history of mankind down to the present day is the history of the successful conqueror. Whether or not territorial gain plays a part in the subjective motivation of war is a completely secondary question in that respect. What counts is the result . . "

"Although the declared objectives of their wars are to capture women and to show other groups that they are ready to defend their sovereignty by force, nevertheless, the demonstrable result, apart from the capture of women and the gain in prestige, is that the winners often exterminate the losers or force them to abandon territory. It is this result that counts, even though the motivations put forward by those involved are different . . Wright states this clearly: 'The function of an activity may be broader than its intention.'"

"Wars are fought for hunting grounds, pasture land, and arable land, and if in earlier times, climatic alterations made a group's living area inhospitable, it was actually compelled to find new territory by force of arms."

Much of the armed conflict that has been described among hunter-gatherers is better considered as "feuding" rather than warfare. For example, feuding best describes the attacks by one group upon another among the Australian aborigines in the original ethnographic accounts of these hunter-gatherer peoples. These descriptions are particular revealing since the Australian aborigines are a people that had no contact with agriculture or the state prior to the relatively recent arrival of Europeans. Here are excerpts from a description of aboriginal feuding that was observed by Spencer and Gillen (1927) over a century ago and described along with remarkable photographs of the raiding party:

"During the time that we spent amongst the Arunta at Alice Springs, in the month of May 1901, we were fortunate enough to witness the dispatch and return of another atninga or avenging party. Some few months earlier an Alice Springs native had died, and his death was attributed by the medicine men to the fact that he had been killed by the evil magic of a man living some 130 miles away to the north-west. Accordingly, while a large number of men were gathered together, advantage was taken of the occasion to organize an avenging party . . That night was spent in the camp making and singing over the ilkunta or flaked sticks which the men were to wear in their hair while on the war-path.

Early the next morning the men, armed with spears, boomerangs, and shields, and wearing the ilkunta or flaked sticks, came dancing up the bed of the creek in the form of a solid square . . all the men in camp were gathered together and a series of ceremonies called atninga unterrima was performed . . "

"[After the ceremonies] Rising to their feet, each member of the party took his shield, spear, and boomerang, and off they started as cheerfully as if they were setting out upon a pleasure trip . . "

"[After their return and special ceremonies to ward off the spirit of the man who was killed] They described how they had found him out in the bush, and had divided into two parties, a larger one of onlookers, or Alnalarinika, and a smaller one, Immiringa, to do the spearing . . It transpired that upon this particular occasion the avenging party had not killed the man whom they actually went in search of. He had somehow got news of their coming, and had discreetly cleared away to a distant part of the country. As they could not kill him they had speared his father, under the plea that the old man had known all about his son "going Kurdaitcha" to kill the Alice Springs man, and had not attempted to prevent him from doing so. It will not be very long before a return atninga will be organized to visit the Alice Springs group, and then probably the old man's death will be avenged. In this way, year after year, an endless vendetta is maintained among these tribes . . "

For another remarkable study of feuding, one is referred to the oral history of feuds over the course of 500-600 years on the South Pacific island of Bellona. This is described by Rolf Kuschel (1989), in his extensive monograph entitled Vengeance is their Reply. Kuschel analyses the recollections of people concerning 195 homicides, each one of which was considered to be the cause for vengeance and the succeeding homicide.

What is the usefulness of feuding? Looked at in isolation, it is difficult to explain, but if we consider it in relation to the "raid or starve" hypothesis, it can be understood as practice for warfare. Raids to avoid starvation might occur only once every few generations but when that time came, those social groups that had practiced feuding over the years would be better prepared than other groups that did not practice feuding. In this sense, the usefulness of feuding for hunter-gatherers would be similar to the function of the ritual phase of warfare among the agricultural Dani people in New Guinea as described above.

Once again, we are faced with the gap between explanation of a phenomenon by the participants and its "deep usefulness" in terms of adaptation to rare events. And here again, we see the situation where the "deep usefulness" of warfare in the case of natural disaster and starvation conditions is so rare that participants in feuding behavior may never have experienced it. Instead, the warfare is justified in terms of vengeance against an enemy, and the need to placate the ghosts of the dead. What is this need for vengeance? And is it cultural or biological?

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

--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?