The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory by Jean Guilaine and Jean Zammit

Eras Journal – Suelzle, B: Review of “The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory”, Jean Guilaine and Jean Zammit. Translated from the original French into English by Melanie Hersey.

Jean Guilaine and Jean Zammit, (trans. Melanie Hersey),
The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory,
Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2005.
Isbn 1405112603

This book is a very interesting attempt to explore aspects of the development, function and reproduction of violence within prehistoric societies that have been overlooked in recent times. While the authors’ focus on the roles of conflict, cannibalism and ritualistic sacrifice among the societies of Western Europe in general, and southern France in particular, they also consider examples from Eastern Europe, Russia, Egypt, northern Africa, the Middle East, India, China, the Americas and modern Papua New Guinea as well. The timeframe covered in this study begins in the Palaeolithic and extends to the end of the Bronze Age in Europe, Egypt and the Middle East. The introduction of this book focuses on how often scanty archaeological evidence has been interpreted in the past to reinforce general theories that explained the growing technological sophistication of human societies through the repeated invasion of different groups of people who were the bearers of steadily more socially, economically and politically advanced cultures. Often a close re-examination of the archaeological evidence suggests that these theories of continuous migration possessed multiple flaws and are more a product of the archaeologist’s own worldview than a close analysis of the recoverable archaeological data. A lack of written sources or readily decipherable written sources can also be seen as a major problem when the intentions and motives of sometimes hypothetical groups and individuals becomes a matter of interest. One conclusion reached by the authors is that the people who lived during the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods were not simple caricatures but were human beings who possessed the same range of emotions and intelligence that modern humans possess, and acted upon these stimuli in much the same way that modern people would today.

Chapter 1, entitled ‘Violence in Hunter-Gatherer Society’, examines possible examples of conflict between groups of hunter-gatherers during the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods. The evidence provided for these examples of organised violence consists of iconographical sources such as cave-paintings and the remains of flint arrow-heads embedded in the bones of long deceased individuals. Major problems include the theorised low population density exhibited by semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer groups, the few surviving examples of undisturbed graves from the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic periods, and the inability of fatal flesh wounds to leave any discernable evidence on skeletal remains. An argument that continues throughout the remainder of the book is that the majority of organised conflicts between opposing groups of people resulted from disputes over resources and territory. The second chapter focuses on whether the adoption of agriculture by the various cultures of Neolithic Europe was an aggravating or a calming factor when organised violence is considered. The authors consider a number of European massacre sites as evidence for possible cannibalism by Neolithic farmers and battle-scenes, mostly from Spain, that depict conflicts between opposing groups of archers. It would be fair to suggest that the adoption of agriculture by Neolithic Europeans did not act as a calming factor in disputes between, or within, various farming communities. The third chapter entitled ‘Humans as Targets: 4000 to 8000 years ago’, looks specifically at the human remains from France that had flint arrow-heads and flint or copper blades embedded in some part of the surviving skeleton. This chapter also looks at the problem of whether tombs from France and Spain from the same period that also possessed a large number of human remains were the result of a massacre or the placement of bodies in a communal tomb over an extended length of time.

The authors conclude Chapter 3 with the observation that the simple statistical analysis of individuals who had died a violent death is unsatisfactory without some attempt to explain the ideological underpinnings that had allowed these individuals to die prematurely. Throughout the five chapters of this book there is a chronological and technological progression in the development of weapons in Europe that can be utilised to inflict serious injury and death upon another human being. Flint-tipped spears, flint-tipped arrows, flint axes, flint blades, copper blades and finally bronze swords follow and complement each other in a loose sequence of technical advancement. Chapter 4 attempts to find a balance between the statistical analysis of anatomical injuries that have survived to be rediscovered by modern archaeologists and a more coherent understanding of the iconographical devices that the anonymous leading figures of Copper and Bronze Age Europe used to justify their positions within their respective societies. The most obvious use of iconographic devices from these periods which denote elite social status can be found on the surface of decorated standing stones, many of which represent anonymous masculine figures that have been shown to possess a wide variety of daggers, axes, swords and chariots. There are also a number of carved standing stones that are shown in possession of a variety of items probably associated with anonymous women of high social status. Some of the items, such as jewellery and belts, are interchangeable between standing stones that represent leading male and female members of the European Copper and Bronze Age societies in question. The fifth and last chapter, signified by the emergence of the bronze sword as the most prestigious item of warfare, provides the linkage between the conception of the vigorous, violent male hero that has been a feature of European ideology up till the advent of post-modernism and the previous characterisations of prehistoric conflict as identified by the authors.

There is also an attempt in the fifth chapter to compare the emergence of chiefdoms and polities with hereditary ruling elite by the end of the Bronze Age in Europe with the organised state violence apparent in the royal cemeteries of Mesopotamia, China, Egypt and Nubia. In these four examples, it seems that the power of the already hegemonic ruling elite needed to find an expression in the sacrifice, whether voluntary or not, of large number of courtiers and vassals in the tomb complexes of the deceased kings. It is unfortunate that the city-states of Mesopotamia, the Egyptian New Kingdom, Shang China and the Nubian kingdom of Kerma, all possessed a degree of social complexity, hierarchical stratification and relative bureaucratic stability that makes direct comparisons between these already old civilisations and the emerging polities of continental Europe somewhat strained. For example, in Egypt state propaganda directed at internal elite consumption had been utilised since the Early Dynastic period fourteen hundred years earlier. While it is true that Mesopotamia, Egypt and Nubia were to some extent directly or indirectly interlinked with the small polities and chiefdoms of Bronze Age Europe through the agency of the international trade in luxury goods, bureaucratic civilisation only reached beyond the Alps with the appearance of the Roman legions. The conclusion about the difference between acts of internal violence within the same group of people and acts of external violence between different groups of people is valid on a certain global level. However, the particular social, economic and political circumstances surrounding the formation and deployment of the Bronze Age armies of the Near Eastern Great Powers and the corresponding war bands of European Bronze Age aristocrats should also be taken into account. While it is not the opinion of the authors or the reviewer that any group or civilisation from the ancient world should be overly idealised, there is a difference between the slow process of state formation and elite stratification apparent in preliterate Europe and the Near Eastern kingdoms that had already been in existence for hundreds of years.

Ben Suelzle

School of Historical Studies, Monash University