Violence in the Precivilized World Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Traditionally, historians distinguish between violence perpetrated by individuals against other individuals and group violence perpetrated against other individuals or groups.


Traditionally, historians distinguish between violence perpetrated by individuals against other individuals and group violence perpetrated against other individuals or groups. Organized, lethal group violence among social groups is “warfare,” as in the modern “gang wars” concept. In historic times group violence became associated with the progression toward organized state warfare from more individualistic forms of violence in the precivilized world. In the twenty-first century, archaeological researchers have challenged the traditional border between precivilized group violence and civilized warfare. Evidence from the Stone Age, before 4000 b.c.e., shows the existence of episodic group violence that can be construed as warfare. The main issue is how researchers define and interpret evidence of violence and warfare in the precivilized world.Warfare;originsPrehistoric violenceViolence (origins)Primitive warfareWarfare;originsPrehistoric violenceViolence (origins)Primitive warfare


The lack of technological advancement in the precivilized world led to the view that warfare of the time was also relatively “undeveloped.” In 1949, Turney-High, Harry HolbertTurney-High, Harry Holbert[Turney High, Harry Holbert]Harry Holbert Turney-High developed the influential concept of a Military horizon concept“military horizon” for what he termed the “primitive warfare” of the precivilized world. This view led military historians to focus on state-level warfare after 4000 b.c.e., while anthropologists focused on modern tribal conflict. Present-day archaeologists have accumulated enough data on the period that scholars now believe that warfare episodes did occur in the precivilized world, sometimes with more deadly results than are seen in modern wars. This challenges the traditional evolutionary model of warfare, which views ancient peoples as engaging in individual violence and small blood feuds, with complex warfare emerging only after states developed larger populations and more sophisticated war technologies.


Turney-High’s work Primitive War (Turney-High) Primitive War, first published in 1949, relied on anthropological studies of modern tribes such as the Zulus and Apaches, which were heavily affected by colonialism and technology. In the 1960’s, anthropologists such as Mead, MargaretMead, Margaret Margaret Mead (1901-1978) challenged the earlier model, noting the difficulties of applying data from the “ethnographic present” of modern cultures to a far different ancient world. Mead even claimed to have found Pacific islanders Pacific island tribes that did not know of war. This fueled the academic nature-versus-nurture debate on the origins of war: Were early peoples inherently warlike, or is warlike behavior a learned trait?

Cultures such as the MayaMaya and the Pueblo peoplesPueblo peoples of the American Southwest were put forth as peaceful examples, whereas the SpartansSpartans and AztecsAztecs were cited as warlike. Some researchers claimed that war was common in the distant past, whereas others argued that war is a relatively recent phenomenon. The debate continues as archaeologists uncover increasing evidence of group violence in the precivilized world. When did war begin? Have human beings always been violent? How should violence and war be defined? The answers to such questions have much to do with the interpretive worldviews of the scholars and researchers who explore these topics.


Evidence of the ancient presence of violence and war in human life comes primarily from skeletal remains and human-made artifacts, geographical features, architecture, and iconography created before 4000 b.c.e. Some of the best evidence is provided by groups of skeletons with ellipsoid cranial fractures, embedded projectiles, and decapitation marks found along with associated artifacts such as maces, spears, sling balls, and arrowheads in the context of defensively built or located architecture. Such forms of evidence are rarely found all together at sites dating to before 4000 b.c.e., perhaps indicating how rare actual battle was at that time.

The various kinds of evidence tend to be found in differing combinations. Evidence exists of mass death by violence in Egypt;precivilizedEgypt by 7000 b.c.e.; of the building of walls, towers, and other defensive locations as well as the use of maces and slings in the Levant and Turkey;precivilizedTurkey by 6000 b.c.e.; and of the construction of elevated forts with moats, baffled gates, and palisades in China;precivilizedChina by 5000 b.c.e. All of the mentioned forms of evidence–including battle scenes on cylinder seals–can be found in Sumerians;precivilizedSumer by 4000 b.c.e., indicating that by that time warfare was clearly under way.

The existing evidence concerning human violence has spawned debate among researchers such as Lawrence H. Keeley, R. Brian Ferguson, and Steven A. LeBlanc concerning the best ways in which to define, identify, and interpret the relationship between group violence and war. When is group violence a battle? Does the definition of warfare need to include the existence of battles? Is evidence of the threat of “coercive force” expressed in architecture, weaponry, and the like enough to indicate the presence of war? What if the evidence is limited to a few times and places? Researchers point to the lack of skeletal marks left on many remains in modern warfare when individuals perish from soft-tissue trauma. They note also that modern military systems have armies, soldiers, and fortifications that will never be involved in any battle deaths, yet no one doubts these are associated with war. Is specialization by the individual, the weapon, and the architecture the key? This is a debate that will not die down anytime soon.

Violence vs. Warfare

The growing body of archaeological evidence has led to renewed interest in the relationship between ancient violence and warfare, and in the question of the nature of warfare in the precivilized world. It has been suggested that several “origins” for war are associated with specialization in violence, one taking the form of sporadic outbreaks of war among specialized Stone Age;violenceStone Age hunter-gatherers as settlements emerged and another being the outbreaks related to the first formations of states after 4000 b.c.e. This possibility fits well with the episodic nature of the available archaeological evidence. As the great philosopher of war Clausewitz, Carl vonClausewitz, Carl vonCarl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) noted, war is the province of violence; it is the nature of the relationship between violence and war in the Stone Age with which archaeologists now grapple.Warfare;originsPrehistoric violenceViolence (origins)Primitive warfare

Books and Articles
  • Carman, John, and Anthony Harding. Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 1999.
  • Ehrenreich, Barbara. Origins and History of the Passions of War. New York: Holt Metropolitan Books, 1997.
  • Ferguson, R. Brian. “Archaeology, Cultural Anthropology, and the Origins and Intensifications of War.” In The Archaeology of Warfare: Prehistories of Raiding and Conquest, edited by Elizabeth N. Arkush and Mark W. Allen. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006.
  • Gat, Azar. War in Human Civilization. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Guilain, Jean. The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.
  • Keeley, Lawrence H. War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.
  • Kelly, Raymond. Warless Societies and the Origins of War. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.
  • LeBlanc, Steven A., with Katherine E. Register. Constant Battles: The Myth of the Peaceful, Noble Savage. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003.
  • O’Connell, Robert. Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  • Otterbein, Keith. How War Began. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2004.
  • Peterson, Dale, and Richard Wrangham. Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence. Boston: Mariner Books, 1997.
  • Turney-High, Harry Holbert. Primitive War: Its Practices and Concepts. 2d ed. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1971.

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