Scholars Skirmish Over War Origins


The Semai people of Malaysia never fight.

Whenever two tribe members have a conflict, it is resolved with words--lots of them.

The village leader calls a meeting to discuss the dispute. Anyone with an opinion can speak up.

And they do. The meetings can last for days.


When the talking finally stops, the village leader makes a ruling. Then he orders everyone present never to speak of the dispute again, and that is the end of it.

It is no secret that the vast majority of the world’s societies are nothing like the peaceful Semai. But why?

Why do people split into groups with deadly intent? Why does it happen at particular moments in history? And what are the roots of the concept of warfare? In the last few years, researchers in several fields have been exploring these questions with growing vigor.

“It’s a contribution that archeology has to make to contemporary debates about what’s going on today in Rwanda, in Croatia, in Ireland and in all the rest of those places,” said archeologist Jonathan Haas of Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History.


Haas spoke at a recent meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, where some members argued that war is about 10,000 years old. If that is true, then war is probably a social invention analogous to agriculture, cities and political states.

But others contend that war is much older, maybe even millions of years old. If war goes so far back, it must be a much more basic element of human nature, like language or toolmaking--a trait that everyone naturally acquires even with minimal encouragement.

Until about a decade ago, many scholars dismissed primitive warfare as nonexistent or, at the most, inconsequential. Warfare was primarily a tool of states bent on territorial control and expansion.

Any evidence for war that did appear in the absence of centralized government was compared to the head-butting contests of rutting elk, or pairs of grizzly bears wrestling over salmon--a ritual competition that almost never escalates to lethal combat.


Some archeologists were so convinced by this explanation that for years they ignored obvious signs of warfare at ancient sites.

Recently, archeologists interested in war have excavated hilltop forts in the Andes that were built centuries before the Inca empire swept out of a small valley to conquer the region. On the South Pacific island of Palau, they have mapped fortified hilltops and villages built 1,000 years before Europeans arrived. In the U.S. Southwest, they have found Anasazi skeletons with bashed skulls, broken bones and other obvious evidence pointing to a violent end.

But determining that war occurred among people untouched by modern civilization does not settle the question of when, where and how it began.

Nearly every primitive society ever studied fought wars. To those who believe war is a fundamental part of human experience, that means the concept must have developed more than 10,000 years ago. If war is common among people who live as humans did before 10,000 years ago, they reason, it must have been common back then.


But anthropologists have found a handful of cultures, such as the Semai, that never fight wars. That doesn’t mean they aren’t violent--in fact, some have strikingly high homicide rates. But these cultures never organize themselves into groups to violently settle disputes.

In his 2000 book “Warless Societies and the Origin of War,” University of Michigan anthropologist Raymond Kelly argues that these cultures have one thing in common: They do not consider belonging to a group an essential part of individual identity.

They have no clans, no classes, no chiefs. People from these cultures would have a hard time understanding school spirit, party loyalty or national pride.

Kelly believes that before about 20,000 years ago, all cultures lacked the concept of group identity. In such a world, he argues, war would be impossible. It was only after people started settling down between 20,000 and 10,000 years ago that their societies grew stable enough to develop the idea of group identity--and war.


Virtually every scholar of ancient war agrees that the earliest archeological evidence for organized violence lies in the Nile Valley of southern Egypt. The site, known as Jebel Sahaba, is one of the oldest cemeteries known.

The people buried at Jebel Sahaba were laid to rest between 12,000 and 14,000 years ago, after stressful lives racked by periodic famine. The Ice Age was ending, causing periodic droughts that created the Sahara and dried up the Nile.

Nearly half of the 59 skeletons archeologists uncovered at Jebel Sahaba had stone points either lying amid the bones or embedded in them. Some of them contained many more stone points than it would take to kill a person, as if the attackers had brutally “pincushioned” the bodies of their victims. Many of the children had points embedded at the same place in the backs of their necks, as if they had been executed.

But it appears to be an isolated case, because the next oldest evidence of war doesn’t appear for several thousand years.


Archeologists working at three sites in Iraq dating back 10,000 years have found defensive walls, projectile points and mace heads. Many experts consider maces--spiked clubs--a dead giveaway of war, because arrowheads, spear points and axes could have had noncombat uses. Walls could have been for flood control or corralling animals. But maces aren’t good for much besides bashing heads.

Other early signs of war include the 9,500-year-old walls of Jericho, the famous city whose conquest is described in the Old Testament.

Some archeologists have argued that Jericho’s walls were for flood control, not defense. But there is little doubt about Catal Huyuk, an early agricultural settlement in Turkey occupied about 8,000 years ago. The houses are packed together like New York City apartment buildings, with entrances on their roofs that would have made Catal Huyuk tough to ransack.

By 6,000 years ago, there were indisputable signs of war across Europe and elsewhere. In Spain, dramatic cave paintings depict impaled humans and executions.


Many archeological studies show that once prehistoric war began in a region, it came and went with natural cycles of feast and famine. Recent research shows that before Europeans arrived in North America, repeated and prolonged droughts sparked hostilities in a number of regions.

But during times of plenty, war could disappear for decades or centuries. Eastern North America experienced a prolonged peace beginning about AD 1, when the regional food supply increased due to the widespread adoption of maize and bean cultivation.

Brian Ferguson, an anthropologist at the Newark, N.J., campus of Rutgers University, interprets this record as an indication that war was invented independently in many areas--but nowhere much more than 10,000 years ago. He believes that during prolonged droughts or other ecological catastrophes, a previously peaceful species turned to war as a means of wresting precious resources from their neighbors.

But Lawrence Keeley, an archeologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, takes a different view of the same evidence. He argues that war occurred regularly before 10,000 years ago. There is no evidence for it because of what he calls “a problem of archeological visibility.”


Before 10,000 years ago, Keeley pointed out, people were nomadic. They had no reason to fortify villages that they were just going to abandon in a few weeks.

Being constantly on the move meant they didn’t have cemeteries either--so archeologists have few examples of human remains to examine for signs of violent death.

Without such evidence, there is little means of proving the existence of war. But when the evidence does appear at places such as Jebel Sahaba and Catal Huyuk, Keeley argues, war looks like it has been going on for a long time.

Keeley’s account fits well with recent observations of warfare among chimpanzees.


It is possible that man and ape came to war independently. But because chimpanzees are by far the closest living relatives to humans, some researchers believe a common ancestor invented war more than 5 million years ago.

“It’s a pattern of behavior that grows out of hunting,” Keeley said.

But war’s antiquity doesn’t make it genetic, said Steven LeBlanc, an anthropologist at Harvard University. “There’s nothing built in,” LeBlanc said. “It’s situational. And we’ve been in that situation for most of human history.”