We can guess that the small hunting and gathering groups that weathered the last
ice age had cause on occasion to attack each other. Such attacks were probably
for control of food sources, important raw materials (tool stone), water, trade
routes, or perhaps locations of presumed religious significance. Prehistoric
hunters equipped themselves with weapons to make their living. It was an easy
step to turn those weapons on neighbors if the stakes to be won were
It is possible that war and raids of this type were not common as the ice age
ended because population densities were relatively low and human life was no
doubt highly valued. But the increasing relative natural bounty and advances in
technology made it possible for populations to grow. Some living areas were
clearly better than others and more desirable. At some point the competition
between groups became armed conflict.
In the 1960ís, a burial site was discovered along the Nile in ancient Nubia
that provided what may be the earliest skeletal evidence for prehistoric
warfare. The site dated was between 12,000 and 4500 BC and included the remains
of 59 people, including women and children. Forty percent of the skeletons were
found buried with small flake points, thought to be arrowheads. Points were
found embedded in the bones of four skeletons. Several individuals appear to
have been executed, perhaps after already suffering other wounds. Seven
skeletons had arms fractured in a manner consistent with warding off blows.
Increased economic incentives for war
Competition and incentive for armed conflict between groups grew once the
agricultural revolution began. By 6000 BC, good agricultural or grazing land
must have increased significantly in value where the new food gathering
activities were taking hold. The food disparity widened between the newly rising
agricultural towns and the marginal communities in the hills or on quickly
exhausted lands. Stockpiles of grain and animal herds owned by the first towns
were a powerful attraction to the more primitive tribal groups. As the towns
grew richer in goods through specialization of labor, their attraction as
targets only increased.
When European explorers encountered the less advanced peoples of Africa and the
Americas they made note of the occasional raiding attacks that native tribes
carried out against each other. These raids served several purposes. They might
have been demonstrations of strength and intimidation that were partly
diplomatic. They might have been simple raids to acquire slaves, food, goods, or
other commodities. They might have been wars of extermination or conquest to
take by force more desirable lands. We assume that war began in a similar manner
in those parts of the world where ancient civilizations first arose.
Archaeological evidence supports the theory that warfare accompanied the
earliest beginnings of civilization. The oldest town sites yet excavated, such
as Catal Huyuk in modern Turkey and Jericho in modern Israel, were fortified.
Jericho was an excellent site near an easy crossing of the Jordan River. The
people of these towns went to the expense of building walls or other
fortifications to defend their food and other goods from neighbors less
fortunate and more belligerent.
Both of these sites and other early towns show evidence of being sacked and
destroyed. Levels of ash and crumbled masonry indicate a time when the buildings
came down and were burned. In some cases, weapons and skeletons have been found
intermingled within the ash layer. Long before written history begins, we have
clear archaeological evidence of towns being attacked and destroyed.
The archaeological record indicates that between 12,000 and 8000 BC there was a
revolution in weapons technology. During this period four new weapons first make
their appearance-the bow, the sling, the dagger (short sword), and the mace. The
bow and the sling were important for hunting, but the dagger and mace were most
useful for fighting other humans. These four new weapons, together with the much
older spear, were the principal weapons of all armies until around 1000 AD.
The bow may be the oldest of the new weapons. In cave paintings, it is clearly
shown being used against both animals and men. The simple bow and arrow had a
range of around 100 yards; double that of the thrown spear. The bow was
especially useful for ambush and deadly when many bows were fired in a barrage.
A single archer could carry many more arrows than javelins.
The sling is usually given little respect today but it actually had greater
range, accuracy, and power than the simple bow. It was an important long-range
weapon during the Neolithic period and for some time after. Excavations at Catal
Huyuk show no evidence of arrows, only slings. Elsewhere in Anatolia, at
Hacilar, sling projectiles were made from baked clay. Slingers using
manufactured projectiles could achieve a higher accuracy than those throwing
odd-shaped stones. Large fist-shaped stones could break bones or smash skulls,
even those protected by armor. Xenophon states in the Anabasis that the slingers
from Rhodes in his 10,000-man army of mercenaries had better range and accuracy
than the Persian archers that opposed them.
The mace and axe
The mace, one of the oldest weapons in humankindís armory can be traced
directly down from the primitive wooden club. By the Neolithic period, the mace
had been improved by the addition of a stone head to the club. Later, a metal
one replaced the stone head. Early Egyptian reliefs show soldiers armed with
maces as well as spears. Egyptian maces went through several designs, including
a sharp edge that must have been intended to cut through leather or cloth
The development of leather armor made the mace less effective. One response to
leather armor was the battle-axe, a variation of the mace with a sharp cutting
edge, made possible by the new technologies of copper and then bronze. Piercing
axes had long blades (from edge to handle) and pointed edges. These could
penetrate leather. Cutting axes has short blades but long cutting edges. They
were most useful against opponents not wearing armor.
Axes and maces both declined in use as better swords became prevalent,
especially after 1200 BC.
Swords evolved from knives and daggers. These had been made from stone blades
for thousands of years and then from copper and bronze. Prior to 1200 BC,
daggers were carried mostly as secondary weapons by skirmishers. The sickle
sword, shaped like the familiar farm implement, was popular in the Near East and
Egypt but appears to be a clearly inferior weapon. It was not particularly
useful for stabbing and not strong enough for cutting off limbs.
Around 1200 BC the first important sword was brought to the Mediterranean
region. Archaeologists classified it as the Naue Type II sword and by 1100 BC it
was the only sword in use in the Aegean. By the early Iron Age it was the
standard sword also in the Near East. This revolutionary sword was over two feet
long and sharply pointed, but narrow and two-edged. It could be used for
slashing or thrusting. A powerful swordsman could sever limbs or a human head.
The Naue II sword was developed in either what is now modern Austria or Hungary.
The early examples of this sword were made of bronze but by 900 BC a superior
version was being made of iron. It remained the standard sword in the
Mediterranean and Near East until around 700 BC.
The Romans adopted a shorter sword that they encountered while fighting the
Carthaginians in Spain in the third century. By the second century, the two-foot
gladius was the standard close-range weapon of their legionary infantry.