War Before Civilization

By Peter Turchin October 31, 2013 26 Comments

I am currently reading The Barbarous Years by the historian Bernard Bailyn. He paints a pretty grim picture of life in the seventeenth century North America. Although our historical sources are primarily concerned with massacres and atrocities involving Europeans, who played the role of victims as frequently as perpetrators, cruel and merciless ways of war were just as common in conflicts between the Native American societies.

Men were ambushed and killed when away on hunting trips, while women put themselves at risk when they left settlements to gather berries and nuts. Occasionally, large war parties overran entire villages, even those that were well-protected by defensive walls (as many were).

The victors pillaged food stores, destroyed crops and burned houses, dispatched the wounded, and carried off the survivors. Although women and children were often adopted into the winning tribe, the defeated warriors were usually tortured to death.

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the prisoners were often maimed—fingers chopped or bitten off to incapacitate them for further warfare, backs and shoulders slashed—then systematically tortured, by women gashing their bodies and tearing off strips of flesh, by children scorching the most sensitive parts of their immobilized bodies with red-hot coals. [In the end] they would most likely be burned to death after disembowelment, some parts of their bodies having being eaten, and their blood drunk in celebration by their captors.


Insecurity and war, with a constant threat of sudden (or, worse, painful and degrading) death, was the typical condition of human societies before ‘civilization’—before large-scale states with their government and bureaucrats, police forces, judges and courts, complex economies, and intricate division of labor.

Some anthropologists object to using the historically known societies of American Indians as a mirror of life in all small-scale, tribal societies before the rise of civilized states and empires. They argue that the arrival of Europeans in the Americas with their germs, metal tools, weapons, and an insatiable appetite for certain trading goods (such as furs) destabilized native societies and raised the intensity and lethality of inter-tribal warfare. There is much merit in this argument. More generally, war intensity has varied greatly between different regions and, within regions, over time. Nevertheless, life in small-scale tribal societies was much more precarious and violent than most people realize.

We know this is true because archaeology can tells us much more today, compared to a few decades ago, about the life in societies before history. Consider, for example, a village of Oneota Indians, who lived along the Illinois River 700 years ago (that’s 200 years before Columbus). The archaeologists located the village cemetery (the site is known as ‘the Norris Farms #36’) and studied the remains of 264 people who were buried there. At least 43 of them—16 percent—died a violent death. According to George Milner,

Many of them were struck on their fronts, sides, and backs with heavy weapons, such as celts [stone axes], or they were shot with arrows. Some people apparently were facing their attackers, whereas others were not. Presumably the latter were wounded when trying to flee. Victims were occasionally hit many more times than necessary to cause their deaths; perhaps several warriors struck blows to share in the kill. Bodies often were mutilated by the removal of scalps, heads, and limbs. Scavenging animals then fed on many corpses, which were left exposed where they fell until the remaining parts were found and buried in the village cemetery.

The pattern of deaths suggests a state of constant warfare, with men and women being ambushed singly or in small groups as they went about hunting and gathering. In other words, this Oneota village was quite similar to many later Indian villages observed by Europeans, although, as I said earlier, the general level of violence increased quite noticeably in the post-Columbus era.

The estimated proportion that died a violent death, 16 percent, lies in the middle range of such estimates for prehistoric populations. This is not to say that their life was uniformly grim. At times people living in small-scale societies enjoyed periods of peace and prosperity. But at other times, warfare was even worse than what the Oneota villagers had to endure. Roughly at the same time but several hundred miles to the northwest of the Oneota settlement, on Crow Creek, South Dakota, there was once a village of the Caddoan speakers. Crow Creek is one of the most famous prehistoric massacre sites. It was a very substantial village protected by a defensive moat, but it was nevertheless overrun and completely destroyed by enemies.

Skeletons from around 500 bodies, piled in a common grave, show evidence of violent death followed by extensive mutilation. Essentially all bodies were scalped, and many were beheaded or had their limbs cut off. Some had their tongues cut out.


Note added 1.XI.2013: The title of this blog, of course, follows the title of the pioneering book by Lawrence Keeley.

Published On: October 31, 2013

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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  • Yep–in general. The accounts of Indian massacres are fantastically exaggerated, of course, and even the accounts of whites massacring Indians are exaggerated, and those pre-Columbian cemeteries display a bit of cherry-picking. (Stephen Pinker cherry-picked outrageously in his book–he didn’t need to–his point was right–but he found the most extreme accounts of the most extremely violent societies he could find.) But better surveys of cemeteries, incliuding here in “peaceful” California, show high rates of violent death. Of course the same is true of medieval English cemeteries, ancient Asian cemeteries, and so on. And for that matter the murder rate in frontier mining towns in the old west was even higher–one per day (sic, from actual records) in Bodie, CA, popl. about 2500 at the time. There were peaceful frontier towns and peaceful tribes (even before Columbus), but still one has to be somewhat thankful for the modern state, anarchist or no….

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Actually, 16% in the Oneota village is not so bad at all. Just read Greek and Roman histories, putting the population of a whole town to the sword (and selling the survivors into slavery) was the routine thing.

      I am amused at the controversy between Pinker and Fry/Ferguson. Neither extreme view is right, the truth is more complicated – and more interesting. But untangling that deserves another blog.

      Here in Denmark, where I am doing the visiting professor thing, there were 49 murders in the whole year of 2012. That works out to less then 0.1 percent of the population dying of violence. That’s a 200-fold difference with a typical small-scale society! And most of those are bunched up in Copenhagen, here in Aarhus the rate is even lower. Yes, Aarhus today is much more preferable to living in an Eastern Woodlands village 700 years ago.

    • Shooter says:

      “The frontier mining towns had more deaths…” – The Great Wars had a lower death ratio than those of the Indian tribes.

      Genocide was normal to the Indians. They would still do it if not for the Europeans.

  • T. Greer. says:

    The trick I think, is to disentangle what deaths were simply due to violence, what were caused by small and barely planned raids, and what came from sustained, organized warfare. Murder, oppression, raiding, and warfare are hard to distinguish in pre-historical times.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      What is theoretically interesting is to distinguish within-community murder from between community warfare. When a body is scalped, it’s highly unlikely that the murder was a result of domestic violence…

      As to the distinction between raids that kill 1-2 people and ‘organized’ warfare, it’s largely mythical. Killing 1-2 people at the time at a constant rate is a very efficient way of destroying a community at a little risk. Furthermore, the Crow Creek community was under sustained pressure from such small-scale warfare before the massacre, as the pattern of healed wounds shows. So there is no categorical difference between these types of violence.

      • T. Greer says:

        When a body is scalped, it’s highly unlikely that the murder was a result of domestic violence>

        True. Thus the ‘oppression’ line in the sentence. There are plenty of reasons the community big man might want to scalp those lower down.

        This would not account for all deaths. But it could account for some of them.

        So there is no categorical difference between these types of violence.

        I am less sure. Lets take away the ‘raiding’ label, though, because it is less helpful, and replace it with ‘banditry’, which is really what most raiding was anyway.

        is there a difference between a bandit and a warrior? How many bandits do you need until you have a warlord? Does a boat full of pirates declare war by attacking a fishing vessel? How about a group of nomads that falls upon a trade caravan? A poor peasant that turns upon his brothers?

        Those are kind of trick questions. A death is a death, and as you say, constant death in small numbers will kill a community off as well as one great battle. But I would submit that the difference between sustained and organized warfare on the on hand and more simple raids on the other is important – at least from the view of social evolution. Why? Because the important metric is not the number of people killed or the amount of damage done to the other party, but the costs and requirements of mobilizing your own. Sustained, set-piece warfare simply requires a much higher level of organization, cohesion, and specialization than banditry does.

        • Barry says:

          ” Sustained, set-piece warfare simply requires a much higher level of organization, cohesion, and specialization than banditry does.”

          Not necessarily. Imagine trying to make a living hunting, gardening, gathering, etc., while under constant threat (and reality) of being attacked and killed.

  • Trishia Jacobs says:

    “Insecurity and war, with a constant threat of sudden (or, worse, painful and degrading) death, was the typical condition of human societies before ‘civilization’—before large-scale states with their government and bureaucrats, police forces, judges and courts, complex economies, and intricate division of labor.” — I wish you could elaborate on this in the future. I recently read “Paris the Novel” by Edward Rutherfurd and am now reading his “London the Novel.” Although they are works of fiction that cover thousands of years, the historical aspects are accurate. I get an encapsulated summary of how a small powerful, greedy segment of society makes life miserable for the rest of us:) And that’s WITH “civilized” governments…….

  • John Lillburne says:

    At the same time that there was this terrific barbarism, therewere often large degrees of ritual and discipline. The Xhosa (Nelson Mandela’s tribe) and after capturing a prisoner would hand him over to the women (Winnie Mandela?) who would then skin and mutilate eg cutting of the male appendage of the prisoner whilst alive.(It didnt make for exactly cordial relationships between groups). At the same time they wer honour bound to leave women and children completely untouched and free virtualy move freely in the midle of battle. “”Indians”” also had certain ritualistic aspect to the violence.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Do you have the ref for the Xhosa warfare?

      On leaving women and children alone. Anthropological data suggest that warfare between culturally similar tribes tend to be more ritualistic and less cruel than warfare between culturally dissimilar tribes.

  • Have you read Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne? It’s a very well written history of Comanche wars. One thing I learned from it was that by the time of European contact, only a few tribes still practiced cannibalism. These tribes were hated and despised by others, and naturally were the most likely to ally with the Whites.

  • karlfrost says:

    I’ve been reading accounts of the First Nations of the Northwest and accounts of the people who studied them or reported on them over the years. There are lots of reports of pre-contact fighting, raiding, and slavery, some of the logics of which leave us flabbergasted, even if one corrects for Western biases to distort public perceptions of native groups for commercial purposes. There are also some humorous stories of First Nations groups on the coast knowing about Western fetishization of cannibalism and playing up images of cannibalism and selling preserved body parts to the traders as a way to play off of their preconceptions, establish a reputation of being fierce in order to get better prices for furs. I have wondered, though a number of things.
    1) we can easily pick case studies of particularly savage groups at particular points of time, but what about the variance amongst groups? what was the typical, what was the range of aggression vs cooperation and good will?
    2)While the logic of some of the fighting seems outrageous, what do the overall numbers, averaged over groups and decades, translate to and how would that compare to medieval Europe or to the current global violent death rate (including within and between group violence).

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Karl, there are several compilations – by Lawrence Keeley, Sam Bowles and co-authors; and opposite ones by Fry and by Ferguson. This is now a very contentious area, but it is also an area of rapid discovery, as skeletons are tallied up, and so on. We are coding this in Seshat. Within 1-2 years we will have pretty good idea of where the data lay.

  • Peter Turchin says:

    And now for my Spanish-speaking readers:

  • AKarlin says:

    Here is a good collection of comparative statistics on prehistoric violence vs. that in modern societies:

    It’s from the book with the same title as this post.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Thanks, Anatoly. In addition, there is a compilation by Sam Bowles and colleagues. Steven Pinker of course relies on these data too. On the other side of debate are Douglas Fry and Brian Ferguson. A useful compendium is the tome edited by Fry, War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views.

  • Rev. Right says:

    Although women and children were often adopted into the winning tribe, the defeated warriors were usually tortured to death.

    While defeat in war was often tragic for women, it was absolutely catastrophic for men. Women and men therefore have fundamentally different stakes in inter group conflicts. This translates into contemporary gender differences in attitudes towards immigration and multi-culturalism. For men, the clash of cultures is life or death, For women, it comes down to being the property of the fittest men. The ascendance of female political power in the West is driving the dismantling of the defenses of these cultures. If put in charge, women are compelled to open the gates to the barbarians. It’s only natural.

    • O.Voron says:

      Rev. Right, consider this – the leaders and founders of a number of European anti-immigration parties are women. Norway, Denmark, and, of course, Marina Le Pen of France.
      Sarah Palin is not exactly pro-immigration either:)
      A short while ago in Norway two women, both the leaders of their anti-immigration parties, formed a coalition government, so yes, they got political power.
      In a number of cases it is men who are ‘driving the dismantling of the defenses’ and women are trying to preserve the stability and integrity of their ‘homes’

  • Rev. Right says:

    Certainly there are women who identify with their culture and recognize the centrality of their relationships with their husbands, fathers and sons. This is includes the brave women you mentioned as well as many, many others. What I was referring to was the fundamental evolutionary drivers that result in different political prerogatives between the genders. Defense of the culture is everything to men; it is negotiable for women.

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  • To what degree did the infectious diseases spread faster than white people could on foot, and lead to social disintegration?

  • Burton Voorhees says:

    I wonder if there are distinctions in the level of violence between settled societies and nomadic foraging societies. That seems to be a sticking point between Pinker and Fry.

  • John Strate says:

    With evidence of high rates of mortality from primitive warfare, what’s known about the traits that would be favored as a result of this selective force? Is it a stretch to call H. sapiens the “war animal” given its distinctive expression and its likely importance in both biological and cultural evolution? The arguments in the book Demonic Males seem to be sound ones.

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