In the first installment I argued against extreme positions about the prevalence of warfare in the Pleistocene.
One problem underlying the controversy over warfare in the early human history is that different people use different definitions of war. So let me be clear and say what definition I use. It comes from the questions and methods of my research program. My primary interest is in cultural group selection, and thus I define warfare as lethal group-on-group violence, no matter what forms it takes (battles, raids, ambush of stray individuals, etc.).
By this definition, both chimpanzees and wolves fight wars. Lethal conflict between chimpanzee troops is now well known, but many people don’t realize that wolves also go to war.
Take Yellowstone National Park, where wolves were reintroduced in 1995, after being hunted down to extinction earlier in the twentieth century. Once the wolf population increased to the point where all territory was divided up among the packs, between-pack violence became the primary cause of mortality. Wolves raid enemy packs and kill cubs there. They also ambush individuals belonging to other packs and try to kill them.
Packs are exterminated not in one glorious battle, but by a “death of thousand cuts,” picking one individual here, another there. When a pack weakens to the point where it cannot anymore defend its territory, the remaining individuals often disperse. The winning pack then expands its territory and splits into two packs. This is not very different from warfare among Mae Enga clans, as described by Mervyn Meggitt.
When one pack of wolves exterminates another, I call it warfare, because it is between-group competition carried out by violent means. Other scholars use different definitions. Some insist that conflict should be “organized” to be counted as war. Others only consider large-scale conflict and exclude ‘primitive war.’ Such alternative definitions may be as valid as mine, when they fit the kinds of questions and conceptual approaches that investigators use.
We run into additional difficulties when we are trying to assess the prevalence of war in prehistory. Clearly we need to distinguish between interpersonal violence and group-level war. This can be difficult. A skull bashed in by a blunt object may indicate a death in battle, or murder resulting from a domestic dispute. For this reason many anthropologists want to see additional indicators of group-level conflict, before they agree that it was warfare. Such archaeological signs could be fortifications or weapons specialized for man-on-man fighting (war clubs, swords). Bows and arrows, however, are equally useful in hunting and war. As a result, much of warfare between small-scale societies, who tend to use ranged weapons and rely on raids and ambushes, will be invisible to archaeologists.
Certainly when we want to assess how prevalent was group-on-group violence in the Pleistocene, we cannot require the presence of fortifications as a definitive proof – if we do, we have defined warfare out. But there are plenty of other, indirect signs of warfare during the Stone Age.
Consider that over the last two million years there were at least 20 species of Homo. By the end of the Pleistocene there was just one – us. It is possible that we drove other Homo species to extinction by indirect competition. Sure. But it is equally possible that we hunted them down.
Let’s take the Neanderthals, who are the closest to us – so close that we might be two subspecies of the same species (we now know that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens could, and did interbreed). There is a famous Shanidar 3 male from a cave in Iraq. Anthropologist Stephen Churchill makes a pretty strong case that this Neanderthal was killed by a thrown spear – which means by a human, since Neanderthals used stabbing spears.
Another Neanderthal, this time a child, was probably eaten by modern humans.
It is interesting that this 2009 article says: “Svante Pääbo, who leads the Neanderthal Genome Project at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, painstakingly sequenced samples of Neanderthal DNA and found little evidence of their genes in us. His result implies that there was minimal interbreeding.” How quickly things change! Only 5 years later we know that there was a substantial degree of interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals. In fact, I shouldn’t be implying that Neanderthals were not humans. (In the old times people would say Cro-Magnons and Neanderthals, but Cro-Magnons have fallen out of fashion).
So it looks like modern humans killed, ate, and had sex with Neanderthals. How is it different from warfare in ethnographically attested foraging societies?