Has humanity always been at war?

An digression has come up in a private thread that I thought warranted broader discussion. A book by Barry Brown Humanity: The World Before Religion, War & Inequality proposes that war is a recent feature of humanity. I have no plans to read the book, but generally have my doubts as to his stance.

So the questions are, has humanity always featured war? and has religion been a cause or effect?

My take is that war extends far prior to history, but that the up scaling of populations and structures that attend agricultural societies allowed for the up scaling of conflicts. But the propensity to war, anthropologically, is part of our primate DNA, and has preceded religion and civilization.


I would tend to agree with you on that. Large-scale war as we think of it now would have required civil organization and leadership. But I don’t see any reason to believe there haven’t been tribal skirmishes since forever.


The earliest known war took place in ~2500 BC. The oldest evidence of interhuman violence is around 13,000 BC. Extrapolating, people have been fighting other people since before the oldest signs of permanent human settlement something like 15,000 BC. Non-permanent settlements date back to 200,000 B.C., which is a soft date since there are claims of wooden buildings more than twice that old – both of those from before the first traces of homo sapiens.

So it’s probably safe to say that our ancestors were having at least skirmishes even before they were recognizably our ancestors.


The oldest known war took place about 5200 years ago in northern Spain. A grave at San Juan ante Portam Latinam includes almost 340 individuals, many confirmed victims of violence. At least 11 had confirmed arrow injuries and there were many additional arrowheads intermingled with human remains.

I agree that violence between groups has occured for a very long time. I assume that skirmishes became more war-like after humans settled permanently because intergroup violence is at least partly fight for resources. Nomadic groups can more easily avoid other groups and there is therefore less need to fight for the ownership of resource-rich sites.


I’m wondering if that book by Darrel Falk that Christy just referenced discusses this. Seems right up its alley.

I can’t help but shake the idea of the “fall” or “sinfulness of humans” being tied to our evolutionary development. God calls us to transcend it.


Judging by the way many monkeys and apes behave with outsiders, human aggression is a hang -over from evolution that has not gone away and people still find even more vile and mass killing means to carry it out with their own corrupt justifications for doing so.

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I’ve actually been following this subject for a long time, and I agree with your summary.

Bonobos (pygmy chimps) are usually cited as a peaceful, matriarchal counterpoint to male chimpanzee violence (see Wrangham, “Demonic Males”}, but researchers in the field say bonobos are no more or less peaceful than other species; chimps (both male and female) are just extraordinarily violent and, like us, skilled at organized violence. I’ll just drop some screenshots from my downloaded articles, but all are easily findable on Google Scholar.

Chimps wage a form of war against both gorillas and neighboring chimpanzee groups that resembles the type of warfare practiced by human hunter-gatherers:

Here’s a really good summary article from 2018. Pay particular attention to this part:

We propose that socially cooperative violence, or “emergent warfare,” became possible
with the onset of symbolic thought and complex cognition. Viewing emergent warfare as
a byproduct of the human capacity for symbolic thought explains how the same capacities for
communication and sociality allowed for elaborate peacemaking, conflict resolution, and
avoidance. Cultural institutions around war and peace are both made possible by these
changes. Accordingly, we suggest that studies on warfare’s origins should be tied to research
on the advent of cooperation, sociality, and communication.


Are you referring to this?


Added note: A huge number of Neanderthal (and earlier) fossil skulls show signs of death by crushing blows. Violent death and “murder” have been part of the human equation from the start.

Hmmm. I’m not sure how wooden buildings don’t equate to permanent settlements. In any case, the first sapiens is dated 300,000 years BP (before the present) in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. That’s pretty solidly in the middle of 200-400,000 years ago, wherever those wooden buildings may be found. (Interesting stuff. Sorry to nitpick.)

Absolutely agree.

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So surprised to hear that chimps will attack gorillas. I wouldn’t have assumed that bonobos were more peaceful overall but I have read they look to sex to displace aggression.

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That’s the standard line. I didn’t want to get into the sex aspect too much, but bonobos alone with humans regularly have sex face-to-face (“missionary” position), and they also regularly use sex (both between and among sexes) as a social lubricant, so to speak. Despite all that, bonobos only appear more peaceful in contrast to chimps, cuz chimps really suck. Like us. haha

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Yeah they’re some pretty twisted almost-hominids but we still take the cake.

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And just to add to the sexy trivia, @MarkD , Stichbirds are the only avian species that does it face to face. I am not aware whether they are more or less socially violent than other birds…I should look in to that.

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I like the way the Jacaranda bird has stood the patriarchy on its head. In lots of birds the female is larger and more powerful, but the female jacaranda will reward males who build a suitable nest and impress her as being a fit partner with eggs to hatch and rear for her. So many ways it could have gone down. I don’t think of God as starting with an end result in mind and then coercing events to ensure that end. I think God is entirely into trusting the process and seeing the result is good.

For that matter I wonder if swallows and other birds that can sleep on the wing can also regularly join the mile high club so to speak? Do you happen to know about that? Also, isn’t face to face mating extremely awkward for birds?

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Maybe you are referring to Jacanas? Yes, that species has reversed sex roles, with females holding harems of males. I think they are cool! Tee hee. Yes, therenare many evolutionary solutions to the cooperation and conflict between the sexes in raising young.


Good point. “Stranger danger” is an actual thing. haha

A true story I tell elsewhere: Chimps and early hominins had a similar home range of about 13 km. in any direction to collect food/material for tools. About 1 mil years ago, that extended to 100 km. when trade networks appeared, and around 100,000 years ago they extended to 300 km. What does that mean? The appearance of trade between neighboring groups requires both lessened aggression toward a stranger on your territory and increased ability to communicate with them. Make peace and trade what they have for what you want, and vice versa.


Oh. I just found a paper reporting that forced copulation is extremely high in stitchbirds, probably facilitated by the “face to face” posture. Sort of the opposite of gazing lovingly into your partners eyes…!


Probably let my tree latin get in the way, plus my natural laziness about looking things up even when my memory is sketchy.


Oof. I should’ve thrown in “mammals” or “primates” or some other qualifier. I’m not ready for every exception to the rule!

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If you want to go by physical evidence of violence, the oldest know war happened in Kenya about twice that far back. But I was referencing what historians will unanimously affirm as having been a war, not just battles. So if we include physical evidence of battles humans have been slaughtering each other for 10,000 years – and when I say “slaughter”, I mean total warfare where entire enemy populations were wiped out (the instance in Kenya shows men, women and children not just killed but mutilated horribly and tossed in a lake – including at least one pregnant woman thrown in with her hands tied; it also shows evidence of weapons specifically designed for killing other humans!).
The first known war with actual soldiers, i.e. men whose job was fighting, was in ~2500 BC when Sargon the Great conquered neighboring city-states to make the first known empire. This is a critical piece since for a long time historians only counted something as a war if “professionals” were involved!

I saw a summary of a paper that argued two things:

  1. Hunter-gatherers only very rarely engaged in war
  2. When they did it was total: the losers were all slaughtered.

The second point was argued in part from how our near cousins behave. The paper noted that given the inter-species rivalries of our cousin species it can no longer be considered surprising that homo sapiens was the sole surviving intelligent species.

It reminded me of an article I read a few years back which asserted that early humans, like some primates today, killed pregnant females but often took non-pregnant females of child-bearing age and deliberately impregnated them. Annoyingly, there was no hypothesis put forward to explain this.

The people name sounds familiar, so it could be.

The issue is whether what has been found are actual building remnants, plus the habit of tribes that relocated frequently. Along with that is the fact that wood doesn’t survive well over centuries. One article I saw argued that ash and cinder found in rectangular patterns, several in near proximity, indicate wooden structures that burned to the ground, a claim that is highly disputed.

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Yeah, it’s the paper I linked previously from Nature. The slaughter of an entire enemy population was exactly 12 skeletons.

Ten of the twelve articulated skeletons found at Nataruk show evidence of having died violently at the edge of a lagoon, into which some of the bodies fell.

I have to disagree again. Large-brained mammals, not just hominids, have an annoying habit of going extinct, and the evidence is pretty firmly against sapiens driving Neanderthal extinct via warfare. (Not to mention the many hominins that went extinct before we ever made contact with them, let alone killed them off.)

Wood tools, such as spears, are definitely less easily preserved than stone tools. What comes to mind is the 700,000-yr-old Schöningen spears. They were found next to an ancient lakebed. H. heidelbergensis would drive horses into the water and kill a few, then butcher them to share. The Turkana “slaughter” was an ancient technique even then.