Neolithic farmers in northwest Europe extremely violent, say archeologists

Originally published at: Neolithic farmers in northwest Europe extremely violent, say archeologists | Boing Boing

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@beschizza… is the headline missing a “were”? “were so violent”? Or is my brain broke? :thinking:

But on-topic… This is very interesting point. I’m not sure that I’ve seen a discussion about the origins of warfare (probably because I’m not a huge fan of war history as a field). But at some point, it seems like a form of formalized warfare would have an origin. It seems to spring fully formed in ancient history (much like religion, farming, gender roles, forms of commerce, etc) and so it’s nice to see people are interested in answering such a interesting question…

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Human bones are the most direct and least biased form of evidence for past hostilities

Sure, the bones are unbiased. But every human who reads them is biased.

I am reminded that formalized warfare could predate our species.

But like many things that historians and archaeologists want to claim, it depends on the definition of “organized” and “warfare,” I suppose.


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As a group we can barely agree on where to get dinner and drinks, much less the meaning of terms like this!


Whether it was the “first” organized warfare is surely debatable, it does seem plausible that the advent of agrarian societies was also a catalyst for a lot of conflict, and for more organized violence and something like militarization.

You have all the pieces:

  • Larger numbers of people, more concentrated together
  • Higher levels of organization (i.e. kings/warlords, etc.) to amass and supply armies
  • Fixed settlements and long term food storage making easy targets (and requiring defense)
  • Land (and its control) are more critical, as productive land would have high value

One example of how moving from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to agrarian communities would require a more formal militarized society:

The Dakota in Minnesota had a hybrid-but-primarily-hunter-gatherer lifestyle where they traditionally moved around throughout the year to take advantage of different sources of food. They grew some crops suring their summer encampments but those didn’t form the bulk of their food supply. When conflict flared up (as it often did between the Dakota and the Ojibwe) they would typically move to a safer place before returning. Conflict was sporadic and participation voluntary: people would drum up a group, who would then raid enemy territory.

When a group in Minnesota (Cloud Man’s village) tried to settle down and adopt an agricultural lifestyle, they were sitting ducks who experienced regular raids from the nearby Ojibwe. The experiment failed primarily because it forced them to stay and defend their stored food supply (which was hazardous in a small community — they couldn’t afford to lose a lot of people defending a granary) or to leave and risk starvation because of the loss of their primary food source. This was a catch-22 that caused the end of the experiment.

If they wanted to really adopt an agrarian lifestyle and continue for more than a few years, they couldn’t simply start farming. They would have had to fully transform their society around the need to defend their settlement: stockades, bulking up their numbers to be able to strongly defend themselves, staying in one place year round, and probably a more organized approach to mutual defense. That kind of transformation wasn’t realistic given the small number of people who were committed to the experiment, so it ended.


No doubt on any of this. Agrarian societies can produce and then store more food, and you need fewer people producing food to have enough (or a surplus). More food equals more babies, and more of those babies growing up to be adults. Those extra people have to do something, and a town only needs so many priests and artists. So, organizing a group of them sent to roam the countryside stirring up trouble and possibly bringing back more resources is a natural outlet. Plus those roaming groups can bring back something even more valuable–information.

It’s probably safest to say that those bones tell us that there was a lot of concentrated violence in that area that we [perhaps so far] not yet discovered anywhere else.


That, plus if the neighboring communities are also agricultural there is a lot more to be gained in raiding them. They have stores of food, They have valuables (a nomadic hunter gatherer society doesn’t really accrue material wealth, and wouldn’t have anywhere to keep it if it did). And they have larger numbers of people to enslave or bring under your control, and productive land to acquire — an agrarian society is a bit of a pyramid system where the more people out working in more fields, the more comfort and wealth the people at the top get and the more powerful the whole community is.

Raiding a hunter gatherer group gets you what, maybe a handful of people? Not much else.


Oh, yeah, right; blame the rural folk. We all know it is the city folk making the trouble.


And then centuries later a significant portion of those peoples (especially the men) were replaced by cattle herders migrating from the Eurasian steppes.

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I suppose it’s fitting that Cain was the farmer; though Abel was no angel, those pastoralists only look like hunter-gatherers from 30,000 feet while squinting.

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… those who fared less successfully appear at times to have engaged in raiding and collective violence as an alternative strategy for success.

Luckily, that kind of thing doesn’t happen any more.


Nitwits like to take stories like this as “proof” that humans are brutes by their nature, only out for themselves. However, as @chenille astutely pointed out in a recent topic:


A+ thank you! I’m not surprised at all to see a study like this in this day and age. When archaeologists are optimistic about the future, evidence is interpreted as peaceful - flower children and the Shanidar burials! And these days, looking around at the shitshow that is our current future… I’m not surprised to see evidence interpreted as “proof” of humanity’s darker side.

I say all of this as an insider to the profession!


I am with you on this one

Violence in the natural world is fairly common and it is logical that animals with complex social organizations would also get organised to get violent. Ant colonies can be very vicious when invading other colonies…

At what point do you start calling it “formalized warfare”? I am not sure, but I think much much earlier than neolithic northern Europe


Imagine the embarrassment of showing up to a battle in street clothes only to realize it was a black-tie affair.


Yeah, I think Jane Goodall would say that some of the subjects that she studies have relatively organized wars as well. Our ancestors have been doing this stuff for a long, long time.

Edit: guess I should have scrolled up further in the conversation to see that this exact point was already made by @Les_Pane !


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