War and Violence in Prehistory

Living Anthropologically addresses the issue of whether foragers and early farmers were violent and warlike before agriculture and before the state.

Here are his conclusions, all trying in general to downplay the amount of violence in non-state societies:

  • Up until about 12,000 years ago, there is little evidence for much violence or warfare

Actually, there is some evidence.

Mesolithic rock painting archers

Mesolithic rock painting of archers

  • Non-state horticultural, agricultural, and herding societies have demonstrated historically variable levels of violence and warfare.

Yes, variable, but varying around a high level.


From L. Keeley, War Before Civilization

  • Almost all of those non-state horticultural, agricultural, and herding societies, along with almost all of the hunting and gathering peoples in the last several thousand years or so, have lived in interaction with state societies. Some of them have been incorporated into states, others displaced, and those displaced have sometimes displaced other groups. All these groups have been linked by trade. This was happening before European contact, but has certainly intensified in the last 500 years. These state and non-state interactions have sometimes diminished violence and warfare, but have sometimes exacerbated it.

This does not tell us much.

  • If, following Max Weber, we define a state as “the form of human community that (successfully) lays claim to the monopoly of legitimate physical violence within a particular territory,” then indeed–although the argument is a bit circular–it may be that a modern state can reduce violence. However, making that claim as a definition should not impede understanding how the establishment of a monopoly on legitimate physical violence was often itself a violent process, and in many case still depends on high levels of everyday violence, surveillance, incarceration, border patrols.

Note how the author speaks of “historically variable levels” when referring to non-state groups but “high levels” when talking of states. A clear case of bias.

Actually states are historically variable too, generally at lower overall levels, particularly with modern liberal democracies.

Overall, it would be nice if Living Anthropologically would explicitly state what he tacitly accepts – that the image of the pacific Rousseuite forager is false.



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5 responses to “War and Violence in Prehistory

  1. Helga Vierich

    The “mesolithic” WAS starting about 12,000 years ago.

  2. Helga Vierich

    Also, most of Keeley’s data in the table you showed was from horticultural societies, or from mesolithic sites with sedentary hunter-gatherers. Before 12,000 there is very little evidence of any long term sedentism, and it is highly probable that most people lived as mobile hunter-gatherers.

  3. Pingback: Anthropologists as Libel Lawyers | Breviosity

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