The History of the Culture of War
The culture of war in prehistory 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


The culture of war during prehistory consisted of at least 6 aspects:

1. warriors and weapons
2. authoritarian rule associated with military leadership
3. control of information through secrecy
4. identification of an "enemy"
5. education of young men to be warriors
6. male domination

Weapons and defensive walls are known through archaeological data. However, the other aspects of the culture of war leave no traces for the archaeologist. Instead, the culture of war has been investigated through cross-cultural analysis of non-state societies by anthropologists such as Carol and Melvin Ember. It is a reasonable assumption that the correlations that they find in the ethnological data of the past few centuries are similar to those that would have existed in prehistoric times.

Authoritarian governance is correlated with warfare frequency. This is measured in terms of checks on leaders' power, ease of removing leaders from power and extensiveness of participation, as described in the following by Ember and Ember (2001):

"Because the ethnographic record hardly ever has contested elections or other features of democracy as defined by political scientists, we reformulated our test hypothesis in terms of variables of political life that can be observed and measured universally and reflect a continuum ranging from more to less democracy. Do such variables predict less internal war in the ethnographic record? The answer is yes, and strongly. In multiple regression analyses, three political variables independently and significantly predicted less war within the society: 1) high political participation -- adults participate more in community decisions; 2) peaceful political succession -- there are nonviolent ways to remove leaders; and 3) civil rights -- the community stays together (no fission occurs) after a political dispute, which indicates that people agree to disagree."

Similarly, there is a correlation of warfare frequency with the socialization of young men to be aggressive. This is true for both initiation rites of young warriors, according to Carol and Mel Ember in War and the Socialization of Children (2007) and the practice of violent team sports, according to Sipes (1973) (War, sports, and aggression: An empirical test of two rival theories). The Embers provide a number of convincing arguments based on data from pacified societies that socialization for aggression is the consequence, not the cause of frequent warfare, in other words, societies with frequent warfare undertake more training of their young men to be warriors. To use their words, "male initiation ceremonies function as the equivalent of basic army training in non-state societies by taking boys or young men away from their families, isolating them from females, and subjecting them to traumatic and grueling conditions".

There are many descriptions of warrior initiation rites. Here are excerpts from a lengthy description by Heider (1979) of one such rite as conducted by the Dugum Dani of New Guinea:

"The initiation began on the first day of the Pig Feast. About 175 boys, ranging in age from 3 to nearly 20, took part . . The first step was to purify the boys, to remove the effects of all the taboo foods which they had eaten . . The boys' part in the initiation was now suspended for ten days [while] men gathered in a fallow garden to build a compound which they called Wusa-ma, the Sacred Place . . On the tenth day, early in the morning, the boys were brought to the Sacred Place. Each boy wore an orchid fiber belt and a small red net, and carried weapons [bow and arrows] . . As they neared the Sacred Place other men ran ahead to hide in ditches; when the boys approached, they charged forward in noisy ambush . . On the second day of their seclusion there was a huge mock battle . . [on the final day] they were led single file to a hidden place in a stream bed where a long fire, covered with leaves, smoked away . . As each boy arrived he was thrown or pushed into the fire. The screams were horrendous, but they were screams of surprise, not pain. The leaves dampened the flames, and the boys were well smoked but not burned . . "

We will see later on that religion is used by the first empires and states to legitimize the authority of the ruling class and its culture of war, but according to the analysis by Leslie White (1959) in The Evolution of Culture, this was probably not the case in prehistoric cultures. As he points out, in prehistoric societies, the gods were invoked to help in the conduct of a war, but not to maintain social control in the society:

"Primitive peoples negotiate with their gods in order to obtain their good will and help in their struggle for existence with reference both to their natural habitat and to their hostile neighbors. But with regard to their own domestic social affairs, primitive peoples felt for the most part that they could manage them themselves without the interference or the help of the gods . . Thus an Indian might seek the aid of spirits in hunting, horticulture, medicine, or warfare, but not in his social relations with his fellow tribesmen. Virtually nowhere do we find that marriage or divorce is an affair of the gods in preliterate systems. Nor is the killing of a fellow tribesman, even a member of one's own family, an affair in which the gods have any concern . . "The late Sir James Frazer has supplied some interesting evidence bearing upon the difference between the ethical systems of tribal societies and those of the higher cultures. Early versions of the Ten Commandments, he points out, have to do almost wholly with the relationship of man to God, not with man's relationship to man. In one of the early codes which he cities there is not a single ethical commandment, ethical in the sense of governing the relationship of one member of a society to another. Instead, we find rules having to do with religious rituals and sacrifices . . In later versions of the Mosaic code, however, we find such commandments as "Thou shalt not steal, commit adultery," etc. Tribal society had by this time been outgrown, and civil society with its state-church had taken its place. Theology had become an instrument of social control."

Although the question of secrecy has not been systematically investigated by cross-cultural anthropology, it is clear from all accounts of non-state warfare that secrecy is essential because the deadly raids of the most serious warfare face the great risk of ambush if their plans are known by the enemy.

In fact, it is the need for secrecy about war plans that can explain the male monopolization and exclusion of women from prehistoric warfare, and the consequent domination by men of all subsequent history.

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

--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?