Interpersonal Violence in Paleolithic and Mesolithic Societies


These are razor sharp microlithic arrowheads from the middle to late Ertebølle period. Such artifacts could not only be successfully used for hunting animals, but also for killing humans.

Biological anthropologists argue for a continuity of an aggressive instinct from a common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans (Kelly 2005) -but why should an aggressive attitude be evolutionary more successful than coalitions with friends?

Social anthropologists see interpersonal violence as the outcome of competition of individuals for status, prestige and high rank. They have also noted, that inter and  intra group violence is more prevalent in non segmented societies, than in segmented ones (Marcus 2008).

To those fortunate souls who live without the threat of aggression, violence often seems random and senseless. But Wolfgang Sofsky, a German sociologist and cultural anthropologist, argues that brutality has discernible rules and patterns. The massacre, the police action, the death march—each method of group violence “follows its own laws,” and each has a common aim: “to spread terror, instill respect and dispel tedium.” Similarly, violent individuals, like the assassin, the mercenary and the berserker, also have a reason for their behavior: to achieve a euphoric state of total liberty.

Historical Materialists simply believe that conflict and warfare are driven by the need for food, land and other resources.

The archaeological record of interpersonal violence shows an enormous regional variation, clearly arguing against any simple monocausal explanation. A convincing gold standard of identifying victims of a lethal conflict is the association of artifacts lodged in human bones, with corresponding skeletal damage or the presence of lethal bone lesions that are unambiguously caused by other humans.

The earliest possible skeletal evidence of intra group violence comes from Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain, with at least 32 human skeletons dating to ca. 250 k.a. BP. Several skulls of this sample have healed impact fractures. A final report is not available and therefore it remains somewhat unclear whether these findings should be interpreted as evidence of human conflicts.

Two late Paleolithic (Epigravettian at ca 13 -11 k.a. BP) bodies of this kind are known from Italy. One, from San Teodoro cave in Sicily, was a woman with a flint point in her right iliac crest. This artifact was designed as a triangle and was most probably an arrow point. The other was a child with a flint in its thoracic vertebra, found in late Epigravettian layers of the Grotta dei Fanciulli (the famous Grotte des Enfants) at Balzi-Rossi cave complex at the Italian / French border.

The most remarkable discovery of late Paleolithic Age comes from Jebel Sahaba, a few kilometers north of Wadi Halfa on the east bank of the Nile. A graveyard (ca 12 k.a.BP) containing 59 burials was located on a hill overlooking the Nile. Twenty-four skeletons had flint projectile points that were either embedded in the bones or found within the grave fill in positions which indicated they had penetrated the bodies. The excavator of the site, Fred Wendorf (The prehistory of Nubia, II p. 991) wrote: ” The most impressive feature is the high frequency of unretouched flakes and chips. In a normal assemblage all of these would be classified as debitage or debris and none would considered tools. Yet many of these pieces were recovered from positions where their use as parts of weapons were irrefutable”. In total, more than 40% of the men, woman and children in the commentary had died by violence.  Fred Wendorf, suggested that environmental pressure and vanishing resources on the end of the Pleistocene were the causes of violence, but this remains only one hypothesis. A detailed analysis of the skeletons with nowadays methods (dna-analysis, stable isotopes) is missing till now. If war is defined as organized aggression between autonomous social units, the archaeological record at Jebel Sahaba may indeed indicate the presence of an early war.

Bones from more than two dozen individuals, including at least 12 well-preserved skeletons, were discovered in a now-dry lagoon on the shore of Lake Turkana at Nataruk and showed individuals with crushed skulls, spear wounds and bounded hands. According to the excavators, the bones date to 10 k.a. BP, providing another evidence of deaths by human conflict during the late Paleolithic.

Coming ba ck to the European Record, at Ofnet cave in Bavaria two pits contained the skulls and vertebrae of thirty-eight individuals, all stained with red ochre, dating to around 6.5 k.a. cal BC (Orschiedt 1998). The Ofnet finding most probably represents a massacre, which wiped out a whole community and was followed by the ceremonial burial of skulls. Most of the victims of deadly attacks were children; two-thirds of the adults were females, which led to the suggestion, that a temporary absence of males may have been the precipitating cause of the attack. Half the individuals were wounded before death by blunt mace-like weapons, with males and females and children all injured, but males having the most wounds.

Territoriality may have had an important connotation in semi sedentary Ertebølle communities. At Skateholm, two larger cemeteries from the middle to late Ertebølle period both located on an island contained about 85 graves. An arrowhead was lodged in the pelvic bone of an adult male and a bone point was found with another male  At the Ertebølle Vedbæk cemetery on Zealand, one adult, probably male in a grave with three bodies had a bone point through the throat. Bone points that probably caused lethal damage have also been found in the chests of burials of adults at Bäckaskog and Stora Bjers in Sweden. Other Mesolithic victims of fatal injuries are known from France (Téviec in Brittany) to the Ukraine (Vasylivka III cemetery) in the East.

Ofnet-Cave (after R.R. Schmidt)

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8 Responses to Interpersonal Violence in Paleolithic and Mesolithic Societies

  1. Imix says:

    Two things cross my mind when reading on this topic: First, that hominis unlike other primates are or became hunters of large mammals – killing a large mammal is deep in their blood and their psyche – also, then, of humans? Second, while we do not know the circumstances and context of the famous Upper Paleolithic cave paintings, there is a conspicuous absence of images of interpersonal violence such as war parties, raids, killings in them, which is in contrast to rather frequent depictions of such acts in most historial ethnic art.

  2. Cernunnos says:

    Very interesting topic, indeed. I haven’t heard of the mentioned quite clear indications of interpersonal violence during the later phases of the paleolithic. I’d appreciate if you could state your sources, not because I reject your credibility, of course, but because I’d like to find out more about the sites by myself. Thanks a lot!

    Anyway, they are all quite late and I doubt that the Sima de los Huesos evidence has much to do with the usual meaning of the term violence. Still, like in the previous comment, I consider the notion of lacking evidence (of course you know about the problems of “absence of evidence”) for inter- and intrapersonal violence during most of the paleolithic and especially in contrast to post-paleolithic periods, as a still valid paradigm.

  3. Katzman says:

    I doubt the Sima de los Huesos evidence also, and of course it does not fulfill my “gold standard”. The most useful articles and books about the topic:

    Thorpe I. J. N. Anthropology, archaeology, and the origin of warfare. World Archaeology; 2003. 35: 145–165.

    Kelly R.C. The evolution of lethal intergroup violence. PNAS 2005. 102: 43 15294-15298.

    Marcus J. The Archaeological Evidence for Social Evolution. Annu. Rev. Anthropol. 2008. 37:251–66

    Wendorf F (Ed.) Prehistory of Nubia. Vol 2 954-996

  4. Paul Prati says:

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  5. kervennic says:

    Interesting article. I am reading on the subject because i want to write a book in french about domestication.
    My idea right now is that civilisation and domestication stemmed from a need to minimize violence among hunter gatherers at the late paleolithic. This seems to agree with the reduced violence in the beginning of the neolithic close to Natufians site (contrasting with the prior increase). Eventually, because of population pressure there was again an increase in warfare illustrated in more recent neolithic site that could be curbed only with further advance in what can be called social domestication.

    I am a bit puzzled with the generalisation of keeley. It does not add anything to understand the evolution of pattern of violence and the existing clear differences among societies. For instance all modern hunter gatherers have clear different pattern of violence.

    My question is, are there further detailed data on the evolution of violence with time during old paleolithic societies. Are there large amount of bodies without any trace of violence in any old paleolithic society ? Has there been statistical study of trauma signs on skeleton comparing different region at the same period (for instance levant and western europe) or studying transition in north america toward more sedentism ?

    I have not read keeley yet, but form the review it seems that he is mixing quite a lot of different groups and period to make his point which may not add much to understanding the origin of violence .

    Do you know if there are any “serious” review or study on this ?

    please mail me if you have information.

  6. Katzman says:

    there are no detailed data on the evolution of violence with time during the paleolithic- certainly a dissertate of further research
    A global overview is the book: The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory by Jean Guilaine and Jean Zammit (via Amazon)

  7. Huib Papenhuijzen says:

    I am writing an essay on human behaviour more specifically on how competition relates to cooperation and how humans developed through approx. 4,5 Mio years in this respect. Very interesting work. I have read Keeley’s book and I am working out my comment on it. I will publish it later, probably this year together with my essay.
    For the time being I would say, do not worry too much about Keeley. When you need more detail, please be in touch with me by e-mail.

  8. hendrik bullens says:

    hi huib
    what is yr academic background?
    did you publish yr thing in the meantime?
    if so, pls send it – I am a conflict&peace researcher interested in evo sciences

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