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2016-06-16 03:10:32   •   ID: 1322

Interpersonal Violence in Paleolithic and Mesolithic Societies

Figure 1
These are are razor sharp microlithic arrowheads from the middle to late Ertebølle period. Such artifacts could not only be successfully used for hunting animals, but also for killing humans.

Biological anthropologists argue for a continuity of an aggressive instinct from a common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans (Kelly 2005) -but why should an aggressive attitude be evolutionary more successful than coalitions with friends?

Of course, genetics has also made progress in the meantime. An important gene in the context of aggression seems to be associated with a certain gene polymorphism of the monoamine oxidase A (MAOA) gene. However, experts in the field are convinced that aggressive behavior can never be explained by a single gene polymorphism alone, and that modulation by early childhood experiences may be essential. Too little is known about epigenetic factors.

Social anthropologists see interpersonal violence as the outcome of competition of individuals for status, prestige and high rank. They have also noted, that inter and intra group violence is more prevalent in non segmented societies, than in segmented ones (Marcus 2008). To those fortunate souls who live without the threat of aggression, violence often seems random and senseless.

But Wolfgang Sofsky, a German sociologist and cultural anthropologist, argues that brutality has discernible rules and patterns. The massacre, the police action, the death march—each method of group violence "follows its own laws," and each has a common aim: "to spread terror, instill respect and dispel tedium."

Similarly, violent individuals, like the assassin, the mercenary and the berserker, also have a reason for their behavior: to achieve a euphoric state of total liberty. Historical Materialists simply believe that conflict and warfare are driven by the need for food, land and other resources. The archaeological record of interpersonal violence shows an enormous regional variation, clearly arguing against any simple monocausal explanation.

A convincing Archaeological gold standard of identifying victims of a lethal conflict is the association of artifacts lodged in human bones, with corresponding skeletal damage or the presence of lethal bone lesions that are unambiguously caused by other humans.

The earliest possible skeletal evidence of intra group violence comes from Sima de los Huesos, Atapuerca, Spain, with at least 32 human skeletons dating to ca. 250 k.a. BP. Several skulls of this sample have healed impact fractures. A final report is not available and therefore it remains somewhat unclear whether these findings should be interpreted as evidence of human conflicts.

Two late Paleolithic (Epigravettian at ca 13 -11 k.a. BP) bodies of this kind are known from Italy. One, from San Teodoro cave in Sicily, was a woman with a flint point in her right iliac crest. This artifact was designed as a triangle and was most probably an arrow point. The other was a child with a flint in its thoracic vertebra, found in late Epigravettian layers of the Grotta dei Fanciulli (the famous Grotte des Enfants) at Balzi-Rossi cave complex at the Italian / French border.

The most remarkable discovery of late Paleolithic Age comes from Jebel Sahaba, a few kilometers north of Wadi Halfa on the east bank of the Nile. A graveyard (ca 12 k.a.BP) containing 59 burials was located on a hill overlooking the Nile. Twenty-four skeletons had flint projectile points that were either embedded in the bones or found within the grave fill in positions which indicated they had penetrated the bodies.

The excavator of the site, Fred Wendorf (The prehistory of Nubia, II p. 991) wrote: " The most impressive feature is the high frequency of unretouched flakes and chips. In a normal assemblage all of these would be classified as debitage or debris and none would considered tools. Yet many of these pieces were recovered from positions where their use as parts of weapons were irrefutable". In total, more than 40% of the men, woman and children in the commentary had died by violence.

Figure 2
Fred Wendorf, suggested that environmental pressure and vanishing resources on the end of the Pleistocene were the causes of violence, but this remains only one hypothesis. A detailed analysis of the skeletons with nowadays methods (dna-analysis, stable isotopes) is missing till now.

If war is defined as organized aggression between autonomous social units, the archaeological record at Jebel Sahaba may indeed indicate the presence of an early war. Bones from more than two dozen individuals, including at least 12 well-preserved skeletons, were discovered in a now-dry lagoon on the shore of Lake Turkana at Nataruk and showed individuals with crushed skulls, spear wounds and bounded hands.

According to the excavators, the bones date to 10 k.a. BP, providing another evidence of deaths by human conflict during the late Paleolithic.

Coming back to the European Record, at Ofnet cave in Bavaria two pits contained the skulls and vertebrae of thirty-eight individuals, all stained with red ochre, dating to around 6.5 k.a. cal BC (Orschiedt 1998). The Ofnet finding most probably represents a massacre, which wiped out a whole community and was followed by the ceremonial burial of skulls (Figure 2).

Most of the victims of deadly attacks were children; two-thirds of the adults were females, which led to the suggestion, that a temporary absence of males may have been the precipitating cause of the attack. Half the individuals were wounded before death by blunt mace-like weapons, with males and females and children all injured, but males having the most wounds. Territoriality may have had an important connotation in semi sedentary Ertebølle communities.

At Skateholm, two larger cemeteries from the middle to late Ertebølle period both located on an island contained about 85 graves. An arrowhead was lodged in the pelvic bone of an adult male and a bone point was found with another male  

At the Ertebølle Vedbæk cemetery on Zealand, one adult, probably male in a grave with three bodies had a bone point through the throat. Bone points that probably caused lethal damage have also been found in the chests of burials of adults at Bäckaskog and Stora Bjers in Sweden.

Other Mesolithic victims of fatal injuries are known from France (Téviec in Brittany) to the Ukraine (Vasylivka III cemetery) in the East. Ofnet-Cave (after R.R. Schmidt)

We should not forget, that the evidence of lethal violence among humans during the Paleolithic and Mesolithic is based on osteological information, which is limited by preservation and the incomplete osteological record. Anyhow we have to consider some preservation bias before the Late Paleolithic.

Figure 3
In addition, it is sometimes difficult to classify traumatic lesions into random accidents and interpersonal violence.

The first clear evidence of interpersonal and lethal violence on a larger scale is from the the Late Paleolithic.

It is generally suggested that inter-group Violence executed by professional warriors fully evolved during the Metal Ages (Figure 3: Cypro-Archaic warrior of my own collection; ex Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers collection).

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