Military History Prehistoric Warfare
Douglas P. Fry, Geneviève Souillac
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0224


What are the bioarchaeological lines of evidence for prehistoric war? Under what conditions does war originate? How old is war? Does prehistoric war relate to social organization and other factors such as demography and resource use? What are the major debates and controversies in the study of prehistoric war? Archaeology provides the main sources of data on prehistoric war, since, by definition, prehistory precedes written records. War, as opposed to individual aggression, involves intergroup conflict and can be defined as relatively impersonal lethal aggression between communities. Regarding archaeological evidence, skeletal remains reflect trauma and violent death, mutilations, trophy-taking, scalping, and so on. Archaeologists deduce warfare, or at least the fear of attack, from fortifications and settlements located in defendable places. Other indicators of prehistoric war include specialized weapons or an abundance of projectile points suggestive of an attack. War can be reflected in rock art, although sometimes ambiguously, and other artistic media. The most clear-cut indication of war comes from multiple lines of archaeological evidence. When a complete archaeological record shows absolutely no evidence of war, then war probably was absent. The worldwide archaeological record shows that war originated multiple times in distinct locations during the Holocene, which began 11,000 Before Present (BP). For example, transitions from warlessness to warfare occurred at 2,000 BP in Northwest Alaska, by about 3,500 BP in the Valley of Oaxaca, and at 9500 BP in parts of the Near East. Overall increases in human population and higher population densities are associated with the origins of war as is the transition from nomadic to sedentary lifestyles. Increasing population and sedentism require more intensive food acquisition. War is likely to originate along with a host of changes occurring along a trajectory toward settled life, complexification in social organization, changes in subsistence methods, and population increases. Such major shifts are reflected in archaeological sequences from different parts of the globe that begin with no evidence of warfare during mobile forager periods followed by war originating and then often intensifying over time along with complexification, typically via the intensified harvesting of aquatic resources or the development of farming. Despite the lack of evidence for pre-Holocene war and the numerous Holocene sequences showing transitions from warlessness to war, some writers continue to assert that warfare is millions of years old. Such an assertion usually takes two directions. The first is that both chimpanzees and humans make war. The second is the statement that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Such a statement is not only unfalsifiable but also ignores what is known from archaeology about how war originates. Whether war is recent or ancient remains a lively debated topic.

General Overviews

LeBlanc 2004 and Keeley 1996 give good overviews of the archaeology of war, but with the slant that war was ancient and prevalent across prehistory. Ferguson 1997 and Fry 2006, see also Fry 2015, review the archaeological evidence, and they are critical of LeBlanc’s and Keeley’s assertions about the prevalence and antiquity of war. Brief overviews of war in prehistory are provided by Ferguson 1997, Vencl 1984, and most recently by Scherer 2021. Otterbein 2004 and Kim and Kissel 2018 present book-length multidisciplinary reviews of war and peace with substantial archaeological content. In a classic article, Roper 1969 reviews all the hominid evidence for indications of violence and concludes that homicide predates humanity, and hence is extremely old, but that evidence of ancient warfare is lacking.

  • Ferguson, R. Brian. “Violence and War in Prehistory.” In Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past. Edited by Debra L. Martin and David W. Frayer, 321–355. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1997.

    Excellent consideration of the evidence for prehistoric war and associated debates and theoretical considerations. Considers the influence of ideology in this field, including problems with the proposition that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”

  • Fry, Douglas P. The Human Potential for Peace: An Anthropological Challenge to Assumptions about War and Violence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    Challenges assumptions that war is millions of years old or an integral part of human nature. Chapter 10 considers prehistoric sequences and shows war to have originated recently in the Holocene along with social complexity, whether via agriculture or forager complexification.

  • Fry, Douglas P. “Conflict and War: Anthropological Aspects.” In International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences. 2d ed. Vol. 4. Edited by James D. Wright, 614–619. Oxford: Elsevier, 2015.

    Concise consideration of ethnographic and archaeological aspects of war. Points out that non-warring societies exist, although sometimes are ignored. Considers archaeological sequences of war arising from conditions of warlessness. Concludes war is linked to social organization and has recent origins.

  • Keeley, Lawrence. War before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

    A landmark book for awakening archaeological interest in war. While acknowledging the lack of evidence for warfare older than 10,000 BP, nonetheless, pursues the thesis that war has always been prevalent. Unfortunately, muddles war and various types of violence.

  • Kim, Nam C., and Marc Kissel. Emergent Warfare in Our Evolutionary Past. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    DOI: 10.4324/9781315151021

    A solid consideration of evidence and propositions on war and violence. Concludes violence is very old. Views Pleistocene humans as having had the capacity for emergent war. Relationships among social organization and archaeological developmental sequences of war are not discussed.

  • LeBlanc, Steven A., with Katherine E. Register. Constant Battles: Why We Fight. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

    Nicely written for a general audience. Argues that humans have made war for millions of years. Represents the school of thought that war is very ancient. Weakened by the selective omission of evidence, for example, in claiming that non-warring societies do not exist.

  • Otterbein, Keith. How War Began. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2004.

    An eclectic overview that draws on biological, primatological, cross-cultural, historical, and archaeological research, with a heavy focus on social organization. Arrives at the unique conclusion that war evolved twice—millions of years ago and again with the birth of states.

  • Roper, Marilyn K. “A Survey of the Evidence for Intrahuman Killing in the Pleistocene.” Current Anthropology 10 (1969): 427–460.

    DOI: 10.1086/201038

    A classic article that thoroughly reviews all the Pleistocene hominid and early human evidence of killing. Methodological issues are considered. The conclusion is that sporadic killing occurred in the Pleistocene, however, the evidence does not demonstrate any clear cases of war.

  • Scherer, Andrew K. “Recent Research on the Archaeology of War and Violence.” Annual Review of Anthropology 50 (2021): 403–421.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-101819-110415

    Provides an overview of publications on the archaeology of war and violence for the decade beginning in 2010. Notes the importance of understanding nuances of particular places and times; explores topics of state formation and increases/decreases in war and violence.

  • Vencl, Slavomil. “War and Warfare in Archaeology.” Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 3 (1984): 116–132.

    DOI: 10.1016/0278-4165(84)90009-6

    Classic article that raises key issues in the archaeological study of war, many still relevant today. Provides a discussion related to war of “things unfound” in the record and the problem of contextualizing evidence. Provides a thorough consideration of kinds of evidence for war.

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