Prehistoric warfare

Prehistoric warfare refers to war that occurred between societies without recorded history.

The existence — and even the definition — of war in humanity's hypothetical state of nature has been a controversial topic in the history of ideas at least since Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651) argued a "war of all against all", a view directly challenged by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a Discourse on Inequality (1755) and The Social Contract (1762). The debate over human nature continues, spanning contemporary anthropology, archaeology, ethnography, history, political science, psychology, primatology, and philosophy in such divergent books as Azar Gat's War in Human Civilization and Raymond C. Kelly's Warless Societies and the Origin of War.[1][2] For the purposes of this article, "prehistoric war" will be broadly defined as a state of organized lethal aggression between autonomous preliterate communities.[3][4]


Quartzite hand axe

According to cultural anthropologist and ethnographer Raymond C. Kelly, the earliest hunter-gatherer societies of Homo erectus population density was probably low enough to avoid armed conflict. The development of the throwing-spear, together with ambush hunting techniques, made potential violence between hunting parties very costly, dictating cooperation and maintenance of low population densities to prevent competition for resources. This behavior may have accelerated the migration out of Africa of H. erectus some 1.8 million years ago as a natural consequence of conflict avoidance.

Some scholars believe that this period of "Paleolithic warlessness" persisted until well after the appearance of Homo sapiens some 200,000 years ago, ending only at the occurrence of economic and social shifts associated with sedentism, when new conditions incentivized organized raiding of settlements.[5][6]

Of the many cave paintings of the Upper Paleolithic, none depict people attacking other people explicitly,[7][8] but there are depictions of human beings pierced with arrows both of the Aurignacian-Périgordian (roughly 30,000 years old) and the early Magdalenian (c. 17,000 years old), possibly representing "spontaneous confrontations over game resources" in which hostile trespassers were killed, but other interpretations, including capital punishment, human sacrifice, assassination or systemic warfare cannot be ruled out.[9]

Skeletal and artifactual evidence of intergroup violence between Paleolithic nomadic foragers is absent as well.[8][10]