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How Warlike Were Our Ancestors?

It depended on how they made their living.

A recent find of hunter-gatherer war dead on the shores of Lake Turkana, Kenya, reignited an old controversy (1). Did our pre-agricultural ancestors fight wars, or were they peace lovers? War is defined as violent conflict amongst groups and is different from individual-level homicide that is present in all societies.

This question hits a nerve because it asks us to decide whether our remote ancestors were noble savages, as Rousseau imagined, or bloodthirsty killers as Thomas Hobbes presumed.

Archeology versus Ethnography: The Perfect Academic Stalemate

The study of dead civilizations, or archeology, presents a conflicting picture with ethnography, the description of living people.

Anthropologist Lawrence Keeley is a leading proponent of the view that our ancestors were universally warlike. He cites ethnographic examples such as the bloodthirsty Jivaro head-hunters of South America for whom some 60 percent of men are reported to die in battle. Keeley concludes that on average about a quarter of men die in battle for societies studied by anthropologists.

No one doubts that ethnographies are replete with violence amongst groups. Yet, its relevance to our remote ancestors is questioned, particularly by archeologists, who are at a loss to find any evidence of warfare before 15,000 years ago.

Archeologist Brian Ferguson (2013), noted that the emergence of warfare in Anatolia (modern Turkey), Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) and Europe occurs at the same time as the rise of agriculture. He writes (3, p. 227):

It is the Southern Levant [modern Syria and Israel] that presents the most intriguing findings. From the time of the Natufians, beginning around 13100, up to the Bronze Age IIb around 3200 BC there are only a handful of violent deaths indicated by skeletal remains: two Natufians (an unsexed adult and an older woman) with unhealed cranial fractures and one adult male with an embedded spear point; a lethal wound – maybe – at 'Ain Ghazal; an elderly woman with a point in her jaw at Ghwair; a boy killed by a blow to the head at Basta; and an adolescent male killed by multiple blows at Shiqmim. … Nevertheless, seven instances from nearly 10.000 years with only one or two adult males, is a remarkable record – against the presence of war.

Some critics of Keeley's perspective also point out that about a quarter of the hunter-gatherer societies studied by ethnographers have no warfare. These peoples, including the Mbuti, Semang, and Copper Eskimos, live in societies organized around nomadic forager bands of about 30 people and live in sparsely populated places.

Anthropologist Raymond Kelly (4) believes that these warless societies are more typical of our remote ancestors, as represented in the archeological record.

The oldest evidence of warfare comes from the Jebel Sahaba site in Sudan. As Kelly (4, p. 148) concludes:

The earliest conclusive archeological evidence of warfare dates from 12,000 to 14,000 B.P. And is derived from a cemetery near the present-day town of Jebel Sahaba in the Sudan. This Nubian cemetery (site 117) is located atop a knoll about a kilometer from the Nile river. It contains remains of 59 individuals, of whom 24, or 40.7 percent, show evidence of violent death. This evidence consists of stone projectile points and barbs embedded in the skeleton or resting within its compass. In all, 110 chipped stone artifacts were found in direct association with the burials ...

Most of these individuals showed evidence of multiple wounds. In the years since Kelly wrote this, the dates have been revised to make the site 2,000 years newer than previously thought. This still makes the site the oldest source of conclusive evidence of warfare. Burial in a cemetery is suggestive of a settled population and some anthropologists now see the Nubian burials in the context of increased warfare amongst agriculturalists compared to hunter gatherers. The Lake Turkana find shows that foragers were involved in warfare 10,000 years ago.

Does the Lake Turkana Find Resolve Anything?

It appears that one group of foragers surprised another and slaughtered most of them, leaving their bodies – men, women and children - where they lay on the edge of the lake to be subsequently covered in silt and preserved. Twenty-seven people who died at the site showed evidence of violent death, including damage to bones by spears, arrow points, and other stone-tipped weapons.

The researchers see this as a premeditated attack for several reasons. The unusually large number of deaths indicates that the group was taken by surprise. Weapons used in the attack, such as hafted stone points, were probably not used in hunting and were therefore carried to the site with the intention of mounting an attack.

The shore of Lake Turkana was a favorable location for hunter-gatherers. It had plentiful fish stocks that sustain indigenous fishermen to this day. Animals arrived in large numbers to drink, offering easy game for skilled archers or spear throwers. Due to the abundance of fish and meat, population was unusually dense This set the stage for conflict over essential resources that were concentrated in space and therefore defensible.

Such conditions were not typical for our remote ancestors who had little to fight over. So the Turkana find suggests that foragers could indeed be victims of warfare. The archeological record indicates that this was unusual and atypical. Our ancestors favored Rousseau over Hobbes.


1 Mirazon Lahr, M., Rivera, F., Power, R. K., Mounier, A., Copsey. M. B., Crivellaro, F., et al. (2016). Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of west Turkana, Kenya. Nature, 529, 394-398.

2 Keeley, L. H. (1997). War before civilization. New York: Oxford University Press.

3 Ferguson, R. B. (2013). The prehistory of war and peace in Europe and the Near East. In Douglas P. Fry (ed.), War, peace, and human nature (pp. 191-240). New York: Oxford University Press.

4 Kelly, R. C. (2000). Warless societies and the origin of war. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

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