No Smoking Spears: Prehistoric Man Was Armed - but Not Dangerous

There's precious little archaeological evidence for man-on-man mayhem before the advent of agriculture, when man began to covet land, archaeologists say.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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Cain slaying Abel, by Peter Paul Rubens (1608-1609)
Cain slaying Abel, by Peter Paul Rubens (1608-1609)Credit: The Courtauld Gallery, London, Wikimedia Commons
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him. (Genesis 4:8)

Murder seems so ingrained in man that the Bible begins the story of the first children with it. Given that premeditated killing has been documented in chimpanzees as well, it is likely that the common ancestor to both, millions of years ago, had his aggressive side. Yet the first-known evidence of actual war dates back just 13,000 years ago, to the findings in Jebel Sahaba, Sudan – and there's precious little evidence of deliberate man-on-man killing beforehand.

A matter of character

One might have thought hunter-gatherers in the era predating human urbanization were an aggressive lot – doesn't "hunter" say it all? But internecine violence wouldn't have made sense, says Dr. Guy Stiebel of Tel Aviv University, though pointing out that the absence of an archaeological smoking gun isn't proof of their amity.

"What would hunter-gatherers have to fight about?" Stiebel asks. If faced with a challenge, such as a dearth of resources, the hunter-gatherers could simply drift on rather than fight, he says. In his view, war became an artifact of more advanced civilizations that had begun to settle down – and indeed, the war at Jebel Sahaba took place as man was making the transition to farming, in parallel with experiencing resource stress as the region dried out, transforming from rainy savannah to desert.

Stress over resources – whether caused by burgeoning populations, water depletion or climate change – is a recipe for competition to this day. "Once groups settle down, climate change can force some to move – and run into a settled group," Stiebel says, which is possibly what happened at that first known war, where the bodies retain clear evidence of violent death.

And what about earlier times? Supporting Stiebel's theory of pacific primitive men, there's almost no evidence of death by ancient murder most foul. No bodies have been found with ancient spears stuck through them, and there is absolutely no primitive art – such as cave drawings – to indicate internecine violence. All cave paintings showing prehistoric weapons (such as javelins, and/or bows and arrows) are scenes of hunting animals (many of which are extinct now).

Man is now widely believed to have been responsible for the extinction of the giant mammals such as the mammoth and sloth, but not necessarily of his brother.

Of course, that could be because the evidence hasn't been found. For instance, poison-tipped darts or other organic means of mayhem wouldn't have been preserved, Stiebel points out. Nor is the cause of death always immediately evident thousands of years after the event. It takes a special set of circumstances for unambiguous signs of violent death to remain clear, such as were found in Jebel Sahaba – where remains of flint arrowheads were found in bodies with clearly unhealed injuries.

Neanderthals were nicer

"I could hardly be an authority on prehistoric war because there's very little evidence, just a lot of interpretation," laughs Prof. Ran Barkai, chairman of the archaeology department at Tel Aviv University.

What evidence we have shows that prehistoric man was armed to the teeth – stones found in Kenya that many archaeologists believe are axes go back nearly two million years, well before the advent of Homo sapiens. Arrowheads too are nothing new. The question is what primitive man did with his weapons.

"Some think hunting goes back two million years. In any case, there is consensus that by half a million years ago man had weapons," says Barkai.

Organic components of primitive weapons are long gone. One example still extant is 400,000-year-old, seven-foot long wooden spears that were stunningly preserved in the Schöningen bogs of Germany, as were remains of animals and what may be composite tools (worked flints embedded in bone or wood).

"No question about it, primitive man had a highly developed ability to kill," chirps Ran. Whether he confined that ability to the mouse and mammoth, or killed his brother too, isn't known.

Yet even Neanderthals, long scorned as lowbrow brutes but acknowledged to be skilled hunters, left behind no evidence of death by internecine violence – with one possible exception.

In the Shanidar cave in Iraq, overlooking a river, is a Neanderthal skeleton with a shoulder injury that looks like a stab wound, says Barkai. (That same cave has other skeletons showing evidence of deformity so grave that the individuals clearly had to be cared for, indicating that Neanderthals were a doting bunch.)

There's one more of these isolated examples – in a cave on Mount Carmel, Israel. Revisiting the roughly 13,000-year-old human body found a small shard of flint stuck in a vertebra. Somebody may have shot this individual in the back. "It could have been an accident," Barkai points out. "We can't know."

Some archaeologists posit that primitive man lived in peaceful societies. Barkai buys that. "Unlike many others, I believe that to survive in the ancient world required ways to get along with each other, not to kill one another," he says.

And there's just no evidence of deliberate killing. That would come much, much later, for instance as found in the so-called "Talheim Death Pit" far away in Germany – the mass grave with 34 bodies who clearly suffered horrible trauma is dated to about 7,000 years ago.

Tip of one of the eight spears from the Schonigen marsh in Germany, dated to 400,000 years ago.Credit: Chip Clark, Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute
Cave art in Bhimbeka, India, going back as much as 30,000 years - which seems to show animals being hunted. Not humans. Credit: Conscience, Wikimedia Commons
Israeli archaeologist Jacob Vardi holding a prehistoric stone ax found in Eshtaol, during a "rescue dig" ahead of building a road.
Excavation at Jebel Sahaba, 1965.Credit: Wendorf Archive

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