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Neolithic Warfare

This is a draft of an article that was published in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History (in a slightly different version). All citations should be to the published version and not to this draft. Arther Ferrill

Neolithic Warfare

Arther Ferrill

How did prehistoric man wage war? Did he fight in organized formations or were his conflicts merely skirmishes of the sort that occur among some modern primitive societies? Was prehistoric man aggressive at all, or did he live in an idyllic, peaceful environment, as some believe? Was organized warfare the creation of civilized man, a fiendish by-product of the emergence of civilization in the Ancient Near East? These and many other questions have often been raised, and some authorities still regard them as open and unresolved, yet archaeological discoveries in the twentieth century have provided many reasonably definitive answers.

In my book, The Origins of War: From the Stone Age to Alexander the Great (Thames and Hudson: London and New York, 1985), I dealt briefly with some aspects of prehistoric warfare, but since then, partly because of published responses to my work, one of them an article in this journal by Robert O'Connell, I have modified several of my views. Also new research by me and by others has made it possible to elaborate on and sharply focus several controversies.

There seems little reason to mince words or pull punches about man's aggressive instincts. In prehistoric times man was a hunter and a killer of other men. The killer instinct in the prehistoric male is clearly attested by archaeology in fortifications, weapons, cave paintings, and skeletal remains. Whether these "instincts" are biologically or culturally induced remains a matter of controversy, but by the end of prehistoric times man was a fighter, capable of waging organized warfare of the sort seen in later historical societies. The earliest civilizations along the Nile and in the Mesopotamian valley witnessed a burst of warfare, intensified by the increased power of the new states to marshal troops and pay the high costs of fighting. But organized warfare was not new; it had been practiced for millennia in prehistoric times. When man first learned how to write, he already had wars to write about.

Unfortunately, until quite recently anthropologists and prehistorians usually ignored the importance of war in human culture. Because they tended to be pacifists or because they were interested in other aspects of human culture, they often even denied that early man and modern primitive man were warlike. Within the last generation there has been a dramatic change- -now at least some anthropologists are beginning to realize that war is a nearly universal social activity and that patterns of military organization within prehistoric and primitive societies are as important as the political, economic and religious systems they developed. A recent, good book on the subject is by R. Brian Ferguson, ed., Warfare, Culture, and Environment (New York, 1984). Ferguson offers a useful definition of war: "organized, purposeful group action, directed against another group that may or may not be organized for similar action, involving the actual or potential application of lethal force."

As a military historian, I cannot resist adding that the emphasis in any definition of war must be on organization. When General Sherman said that war is hell, he was not offering a definition. War is teamwork. It requires learning and can be practiced efficiently only after intensive training, usually accompanied by firm, sometimes savage, discipline. It is potentially dangerous, more so than hunting and much more so than political, religious, and economic activities (except when they lead to civil war and rebellion). Fortunately war may occur only occasionally and need not be a constant social condition. Even so, in some historic societies (ancient Sparta and Rome, for example) the need for defence (or aggression) was so great that most males were required to stand at constant readiness for war. Although Sparta and Rome are extreme examples, most societies, undoubtedly including prehistoric ones, had some institutionalized patterns of preparing for military action even during periods of relative peace.

Perhaps the main difference between prehistoric and historic war is that in many cases prehistoric populations did not share a common frontier. There was a no man's land between settlements, and most military confrontations at least began there. Certainly that was true of most Paleolithic conflicts. In the Neolithic with the development of fortifications it became more common to wage war directly on one's own or enemy territory.

One further point of definition or clarification is in order. Prehistory did not end every place on the face of the earth at the same time. In the eastern Mediterranean it came to a close around 3500 BC with the appearance of civilization and writing along the Nile and the Tigris- Euphrates Rivers. On the other hand in Northern Europe and elsewhere in the world prehistoric conditions prevailed sometimes for thousands of years after ancient Egyptian and Sumerian civilizations swept through the Fertile Crescent. Because it is possible that Neolithic conditions after 3500 BC in areas outside of the Eastern Mediterranean were influenced by cultural diffusion from Egypt or Mesopotamia, I shall concentrate mainly on evidence earlier than that date. For similar reasons the experience of modern primitives is not completely valid evidence for conditions in prehistoric times. Primitive warfare, because it has often been conditioned in one way or another by civilized societies (for example, the introduction of the horse into North America by the Spanish) should not be confused with prehistoric warfare.

In recent anthropological studies of warfare the emphasis has been on the causes of prehistoric and primitive war and on the relationship of war to the formation of early states. Although some of this work has been outstanding, very little has been written about how prehistoric man actually organized for war, how his weapons determined the tactics of battle, what kind of training and discipline must have been involved, to what extent prehistoric warfare was offensive or defensive, what were the details of logistical support, the probable size of armies, and finally the development of strategy and tactics in organized warfare against man.

One popular misconception about prehistoric warfare is that populations were so small that warfare on a modern, historic scale is simply out of the question. In fact, that is entirely wrong. Too many writers today tend to think of war as involving armies of millions of men, but only in the twentieth century has this been the general rule. At Waterloo both Wellington and Napoleon had armies of less than 100,000 men, and a half century later at the Battle of Gettysburg neither army had that many. At the Battle of New Orleans there were 9000 British and 4000 Americans on the field. Actually throughout much of modern history armies have been far smaller than most people realize. In 1567 the Duke of Alba marched to suppress a revolt in the Netherlands with only about 10,000 men. In the French Huguenot wars armies numbered about 10,000 to 15,000 strong. In 1643 at Rocroi a French army of 22,000 defeated Imperial Spain. Suffice it to say that armies of 5,000 to 15,000 men are large enough to represent major military striking forces in most periods of history.

Population figures for prehistoric times in the Mediterranean region are notoriously difficult to determine, but there are some reasonably reliable estimates, as we shall see. Also estimates of New World native populations before contact with the Europeans are impressive for such places as the Hawaiian Islands where prehistoric armies were large. Even some of the Northwest Coast Indian tribes, such as the Tlingit and the Kwakiutl, had populations of about 10,000. In the Eastern Mediterranean as early as the seventh millennium BC 5,000 to 6000 people may have lived at Çatal Höyük in modern Turkey, and the population of Jericho at about 8,000 BC has been estimated at 2,000 with a possible defending force of 500 to 600 men. At the beginning of the Neolithic period in the Near East some armies may have numbered up to 1000 or so, and by the end of the period somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 men. Armies of that size compare with full scale historic armies of a much later period. If size alone is a consideration, prehistoric armies were capable of practicing warfare in a highly sophisticated fashion. In fact men can be organized effectively for war in groups of less than 500.

There is no evidence for the practice of war before the late Paleolithic Age (35,000 to 12,000 BC). A few weapons are known to have been used much earlier. Stones and clubs, man-made pebble choppers, and the spear were available hundreds of thousands of years ago, perhaps millions. They were definitely used in hunting game and probably in attacks by man on man, but there is no clear evidence. The famous Paleolithic cave paintings of France and Spain, dating from the period of 30,000 to 20,000 years ago, show no certain scenes of man killed by man. Mainly they depict animals, several thousand of them. Only about 130 of the figures have been identified as possibly men, and many of them are dubious, simply as men. Even so, the vast majority of the 130 are shown in peaceful scenes. A tiny number appear to be pictures of men dying from wounds inflicted by spears or arrows, but they are so badly drawn that not a single one can be certainly identified as a wounded or dead man.

It is possible that the bow and arrow and the sling go back into the Paleolithic Age, perhaps as far back as 50,000 years ago, but again there is no definite proof of their use that early. Stone darts, sometimes called "arrow heads," were made during the Paleolithic Age, but they were not necessarily attached to arrows fired from a bow. They may simply have been points inserted in spearheads or throwing darts. No one knows where the bow and arrow were invented, but it appears most likely that they first came into use at the end of the Paleolithic Age (12,000 to 10,000 BC), after the period of the cave paintings.

The new weapon spread quickly around the Mediterranean, more slowly perhaps even around the world, from one prehistoric culture to another. It is uncertain whether the New World bow reached America as a result of cultural diffusion from Africa, Europe and Asia, or whether the bow was spontaneously invented in several different locations. Most forms of the bow appeared in the Neolithic period, even the composite bow. One authority on early bows has speculated that the flat short bow had a northern and north eastern origin, that the simple long bow was western and that the composite bow came from the east.

It would be difficult to exaggerate the significance of the bow for prehistoric warfare. It provided a revolutionary increase in range and volume of firepower. Before the introduction of the bow long range firepower was provided by the thrown spear (sometimes with the help of an atlatl, a spearthrower that extended man's forearm and gave the spear more range, accuracy, and power). But the bow more than doubled the range of the spear, and since the arrow was so much smaller and easier to carry, it was possible to deliver a much greater volume of fire against the enemy. In some cases it could have been done from concealment. When Neolithic man took position in a line and fired on command, he unleashed a powerful barrage of arrows.

Almost simultaneously other new and important weapons appeared in the late Paleolithic or Neolithic periods. The dagger, the sling, and the mace were found at Çatal Höyük in Anatolia dating from about 7000 BC. The sling is an especially important weapon, deadlier and with greater range and accuracy than the early simple bow. Everyone knows the famous biblical story of David and Goliath, but few people realize how widespread the sling was throughout the world and how devastating a weapon it could be. The ancient Greek writer, Xenophon, tells us that as he led a group of Greeks out of Persia back to the Aegean his slingers from the island of Rhodes fired slingstones farther than the Persian arrows and that their accuracy was greater. Projectiles for slings can vary dramatically in size from pebbles to lead shot to fist-sized stones. The larger missiles can smash skulls and break bones, even against armor.

Some authorities believe that the sling was not often used because slingers took up too much space in line. That is wrong on both scores. The sling was a common weapon in ancient war, and slingers could fight in relatively close formation. Slings need not be slung overhead, nor need they be long. Short slings slung underhanded like a softball pitcher with only one swing of the hand became the standard, at least by Roman times, and probably much earlier. Another misconception is that it takes nearly a lifetime to learn the use of the sling and that only men who used it as boys in their native land could be recruited as slingers. Nothing could be further from the truth, even though there were some regions in antiquity, such as Rhodes and the Balearic Islands, famous for their slingers. Still, one of my own students in military history became reasonably adept with the sling during Spring vacation a few years ago, and all Roman legionnaires received regular training in it. The weapon was important and widely used, particularly in a siege.

At least by the Neolithic Age man also learned how to put bashing weapons made of stone onto wooden handles. The Indian tomahawk is the classic example, but around the ancient Mediterranean the mace was more common although battle-axes were known too. To modern readers the panoply of prehistoric weapons seems quaint and antiquated--there are no intercontinental ballistic missiles, no hydrogen bombs, no tanks or aircraft carriers, no gunpowder in any form. But prehistoric warfare was savage. There were also no Geneva Conventions, and a captive who gave his captor name, rank, and serial number would have had his skull broken (assuming captives were taken at all) or even more likely would simply have been reduced to permanent slavery. Captive women were taken as slaves and concubines, and modern distinctions between the treatment of the civilian and military population were often nonexistent.

Perhaps the most impressive evidence of prehistoric preoccupation with warfare are the archaeological ruins of massive fortifications constructed by early man. In Paleolithic times men used natural shelters for protection against animals and enemies. Caves, forests, rivers, and deserts all serve as defensive barriers, but with the introduction of long range missiles in the form of arrows and slingstones, accompanied by the need to produce food in an agricultural settlement, man had to build artificial barriers, usually high walls, for defense. Neolithic fortifications were sometimes massive. The walls of Jericho were ten feet thick and thirteen or more feet high. A twenty-eight foot tower that was thirty-three feet in diameter with a central stairway and an entrance at the bottom was attached to the wall. Although the entire wall remains unexcavated, it probably extended about 765 yards and enclosed an area of approximately ten acres.

Although Jericho eventually became a settled agricultural community, it first attracted residents as a hunting site. To protect themselves against invaders the inhabitants built the wall. Evidence now indicates that the wall went up before the cultivation of plants. Elsewhere I have suggested that the military need for fortified defense against the new projectile weapons forced man to settle down and led to the discovery of agriculture. Behind his new walls Neolithic man could store surpluses of food, and because he could fall back behind the walls for protection, he could work the land outside them with some sense of security.

A quite different form of military defense is seen in the architecture of Catal Huyu?k. There were no massive outside walls, but the houses were all interconnected, sharing contiguous inner walls. Entry into the rooms was through holes in the roofs reached by ladder. As a result the line of the outside walls of the rooms around the settlement formed a kind of fortification. When attackers approached, the inhabitants could simply scamper up their ladders, retrieve them, and if an invader broke through a wall, he simply found himself in a single room. Many other Neolithic settlements in the Near East were protected by fortifications of one kind or another.

It should be obvious that war was a very important part of the life of prehistoric man in the Neolithic Age. What remains is to determine whether it was true organized warfare comparable to that practiced in civilized societies. That requires some assessment of Neolithic strategy and tactics, which may sound somewhat highblown, but if Neolithic man did not apply strategy and tactics to his fighting, then it was not organized warfare. The elementary, basic requirement for true war is the ability to form troops in column and line. If a body of warriors cannot march in column and fight in line, it is not an army. Forming a column and holding a line requires teamwork, training and discipline. The natural instinct in a clash of arms is to run, an act that jeopardizes everyone, but there is safety in the line. If the enemy cannot break through your line, or come around behind it, you will win. If your line is penetrated, you are finished, and your life is in grave danger.

In The Face of Battle John Keegan wrote:

Inside every army is a crowd struggling to get out, and the strongest fear with which every commander lives--stronger than his fear of defeat or even of mutiny--is that of his army reverting to a crowd through some error of his making...Many armies, beginning as crowds, remain crowdlike throughout their existence.... Tactically quite un- articulated, they were vulnerable to the attack of any drilled, determined, homogeneous force...The replacement of crowd armies by nuclear professional armies was one of the most important, if complex, processes in European history.

There is every reason to believe that even in Neolithic times man learned to fight in an organized fashion. The fortifications themselves suggest teamwork and leadership, discipline and order. Fortunately, however, we are not limited simply to fortifications. Neolithic cave paintings show warriors forming a line, firing on command, and marching in column behind a leader who was wearing a distinctive uniform that distinguished him from the rest of his troops. One painting may possibly even show Neolithic warriors executing a double envelopment. Because there are no written documents for prehistoric times we do not know about the great wars that must occasionally have broken out, and obviously we cannot know for certain about the tactics of individual battles. There are not even paintings or drawings that are as detailed as the ones from Bronze Age Egypt or the Minoan Aegean.

Anthropologists have identified some common strategies in prehistoric warfare. One of them is to interdict use of unoccupied territory to prevent exploitation of its resources by others. Associated with that is the maintenance of the no man's lands between prehistoric communities. Tactics in such a strategy often did not involve full scale battles and consisted mainly of raids and terrorism. Another strategy was to plunder the settlement or territory of a neighbor much as the Galls did against Rome when they sacked the city in 390 BC. For a relatively large and mobile force with a rich but weak neighbor a raid was a better way of acquiring resources than working for them. Finally there was the strategy of unconditional surrender: the defeat of the enemy and seizure of his territory. This often involved larger battles and considerable violence. Unfortunately we cannot often reconstruct the details of prehistoric battles.

But there are some tantalizing hints about the nature of Neolithic warfare. One of them comes from the very earliest stages of the Neolithic, probably even from the end of the Paleolithic Age. There is an ancient Egyptian cemetery, actually at the northern edge of modern Sudan, discovered during the intensive excavations that were sponsored as the Aswan damn was under construction, when everyone knew that much archaeologically rich land would soon be under water. The excavators called it "Cemetery 117" and identified it as Epipaleolithic (12,000-4500 BC) from the so-called Qadan culture. This particular cemetery is of special interest because nearly half of the fifty-nine skeletons show signs of violent deaths inflicted by small flake points (microliths), probably arrowheads. Some of the dead suffered from multiple wounds, and points were discovered in the sphenoid bones in two skulls, suggesting that the victims were shot under the lower jaw, probably as they writhed in pain on their backs. A young adult female had twenty-one stone artifacts in her body. Another, an adult male, had nineteen wounds. It is possible that some of the others, whose skeletons now show no sign of injury, were killed too, since not all deadly wounds leave a mark on the skeleton.

This cemetery on the Egyptian-Sudanese border is not the only prehistoric burial site that contains evidence of human violence. Neolithic cemeteries near the Dnieper rapids in the Soviet Union and at Schela Cladovei in Rumania also reveal the signs of warfare. They too date to sometime before 4000 BC. All three settlements have one thing in common. They were on rivers where the fishing was no doubt good, and where there may have been reasonably rich agricultural land. CSR, Competition for Scarce Resources, undoubtedly had much to do with prehistoric warfare. Some of the examples mentioned above are quite famous--Jericho, Çatal Höyük, and Cemetery 117, but they are not unique. Just last year a two- volume book was published entitled Enclosures and Defences in the Neolithic of Western Europe (Oxford, 1988). In fact Neolithic sites all over the world reveal the signs of planning and building against outside attackers. Warfare in prehistoric times was the rule--not the exception.

Quite recent research has shown that the Neolithic world was dotted with fortifications. As early as the fourth millennium they appear in settlements all over Northern Europe. A good example is the Neolithic enclosure at Compiagne on the Oise in modern France. As one authority has recently said, "Such sites proliferated in Western Europe during the fourth-third millennia BC and are the oldest monumental structures found so far in the central Paris Basin." Normally a timber palisade surrounded by shallow ditches formed a perimeter around the settlement. The one discovered in 1978 at Compiagne, during the extension of an industrial park, was only partially excavated, but aerial photographs reveal that it was about 750 meters long in the form of a rectangular bow with a straight palisade trench as the string of the bow. Altogether the enclosure included about 14 or 15 hectares, and the circumference of the timber palisade was 1800 meters. This is roughly three times larger than the enclosure at Jericho. The quantity of earth removal for the trench is staggering. As the illustration shows, the ditches were wide and deep. The palisade was made of posts, an average of 14 posts for every 10 meters, lined with clay for protection against moisture, and the gaps filled with wickerwork. Oyster shells and pottery sherds were placed in the palisade trench as a foundation for the posts. Comparison with several similar sites in La BassCAe and in Picardy (six separate sites altogether) shows that they were defended with structures built in about the same fashion.

At Crickley Hill in county Gloucester, four miles south of Cheltenham, there is a small (4 acre) prehistoric fortification. It had a causewayed enclosure of two rings of ditches with banks made of horizontal layers of stone and earth on the inner rings. There were at least three outer and inner ring entrances with gates into the settlement. Fenced roads led from the outer gates into the interior camp. When that camp was abandoned, the inner ditch silted up and, later, new occupants rebuilt the fortifications with a single outer ring There was a post palisade somewhat less than two meters high directly behind a stone bank on the inner edge of the ring. The three entrances corresponded roughly to the previous ones. What is striking about this phase of the settlement is that there is clear evidence that it was attacked and destroyed. Flint arrowheads cover the roadways from the eastern entrances into the inner camp, and over 400 were found in the eastern entrances themselves. Obviously the defenders were overwhelmed, because the site was destroyed by fire and abandoned. Clearly the ditches were designed to slow the invaders while the defenders fired at them from the palisades. Actually the earlier double walls would have been a more effective defense in depth. An author writing recently for Scientific American has suggested that the increase in warfare and fortifications in the Middle Neolithic in Europe may have been caused by a colder and wetter climate and the competition for scarce resources. Much of the best land had already been claimed and there was no longer an outlet for population pressure. But there was also an intensification of warfare in North Africa and the Middle East, and there a deteriorating climate cannot be the explanation.

As prehistory came to an end with the emergence of civilization in Mesopotamia and along the Nile, warfare played a critical role in the formation of the new states. Actually all over the world when primitive societies became emergent states, military institutions were critical and sometimes even determinative. Early Egyptian history testifies to the importance of armies. Even before the unification of the two kingdoms, in the predynastic period, the Palette of the Fortresses shows fortified towns under siege and the booty of war on the other. The famous Palette of Narmer, first of the Egyptian pharaohs, depicts the new ruler on one side in the act of slaying an opponent and on the other he is reviewing the headless bodies of his enemies under the standards of his army. At the bottom the bull of Narmer is destroying a fortified site. In the upper right one can see Narmer's ship, and it is possible that his invasion force moved down the Nile into Lower Egypt by flotilla.

In Mesopotamia the war chariot was used as early as 3000-2500 BC, and in both Egypt and Mesopotamia the weapons arsenal was highly developed with new arms and armor made of bronze. Whereas the bow and arrow were used extensively in Egypt, in Mesopotamia Sumerian infantrymen were armed with javelins, spears, daggers and swords. In both regions other prehistoric weapons, such as maces and battle-axes, were widely used. In Mesopotamia, especially, siege warfare and fortification were highly developed. By the second millennium, in the Battles of Megiddo and Kadesh, armies of 20,000 men marched distances of hundreds of miles with the logistical support system that entailed. Warfare had emerged from prehistory.

Recommended Readings

Bogucki, Peter, Forest Farmers and Stockherders (Cambridge, 1988).
Burgess, Colin, et al., Enclosures and Defences in the Neolithic of Western Europe, 2 parts (Oxford, 1988).
Divale, William T., Warfare in Primitive Societies: A Bibliography (Santa Barbara, 1973).
Ferguson, R. Brian, Warfare, Culture, and Environment (Orlando, 1984).
Ferrill, Arther, The Origins of War (New York, 1985).
Keegan, John, The Mask of Command (New York, 1987).
Manzanilla, Linda, ed., Studies in the Neolithic and Urban Revolutions, 2 parts (Oxford, 1987).
Mellaart, James, The Neolithic of the Near East (London, 1975).
Rausing, Gad, The Bow (Lund, 1967).
Telegin, D. Ya., and Potekhina, I.D., Neolithic Cemeteries and Populations in the Dnieper Basin (Oxford, 1987).
Turney-High, H.H., Primitive War: Its Practice and Concepts, 2nd ed. (Columbia, S.C., 1971).
Whittle, Alasdair, Neolithic Europe: A Survey (Cambridge, 1985).