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R Schulting

War without warriors? The nature of interpersonal conflict before

the emergence of formalised warrior élites


The experiential role of violence and combat in the creation of social


the Sixth World Archaeological Congress

29 June - 4 July 2008
University College Dublin

Session organisers: Barry Molloy and Angelos Papadopoulos

Rick J Schulting
School of Archaeology
University of Oxford

Not for citation without author’s written permission

The appearance of ‘warrior élites’ marks a well-defined, or well-imagined, role that
emerges at various times and places around the world. In prehistoric Europe, this
image first appears most clearly in the Bronze Age, yet there is abundant evidence for
earlier violence, from both the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. Who was carrying
these acts out, and how did they figure into the creation of social identities? ‘Warrior’
identity in these earlier periods was arguably indistinguishable from ‘adult male’
identity. Understanding the conditions preceding the emergence of more formal and
specialised warriors should shed light on the nature of conflict and identity, and the
place of material culture in the formation and maintenance of specialised social roles.

Many of the papers in this session address the nature of élite warrior status in the
context of chiefdoms and early states. But what about before this? Certainly there was
no absence of interpersonal violence, as demonstrated by many sites exhibiting
skeletal injuries. The earliest example with evidence for multiple injuries that can be
attributed to large-scale, inter-group conflict comes from the oft-cited Epipalaeolithic
cemetery 117 at Jebel Sahaba in Sudan, dating to ca. 13,000 years ago. A sufficient
number of Mesolithic skeletons are found across Europe with embedded projectile
points, and blows to the head, to strongly suggest more than occasional violence. For
much of Europe, the frequency and scale of conflict may increase further with the

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appearance of the Neolithic, though the comparison is not a straightforward one, and
is greatly hampered by the relative paucity and uneven distribution of Mesolithic
human remains. But in none of these cases is there unequivocal evidence for the
emergence of a specialised warrior identity: there are few indications of formal
weapons that could not equally serve other purposes, iconographic portrayals are rare,
and there are few if any contenders for distinct warrior graves. This paper addresses
the nature of ‘war without warriors’ from the perspective of Mesolithic and Neolithic
Europe. Ethnographic cases of band and tribal conflict are also drawn upon to help
elucidate the nature of warfare in these small-scale societies.

A discussion of this nature will inevitably rest on definitions. So to make these clear
from the outset, ‘warfare’ here refers to armed conflict of lethal intent between two or
more autonomous sociopolitical groups. This is distinct from feud, which occurs
within a single group, or homicide, which can occur between individuals either within
or between sociopolitical groups (though more often the former, through simple
physical proximity; the latter situation, unless quickly resolved, almost invariably
escalates into warfare). The notion of ‘warrior identity’ is perhaps slightly more
difficult, though less so in its more extreme forms, where it can be seen as a
specialised identity, often, though not always, associated with young/middle adult
males, and carrying with it the expectation that these are the individuals primarily
responsible for a group’s defence and offence directed against other groups (thus, to
state the obvious, the existence of warriors pre-supposes the existence of war). This
status will often be accompanied by a distinct material culture, including first and
foremost weaponry, which may not be generally available to other members of the
group; it may also include other insignia.

This definition points the way to my general thesis, that ‘warrior identity’ in
Mesolithic and Neolithic Europe was largely indistinguishable from ‘adult male’
identity. I will return to this after a consideration of the range of evidence for conflict
in the Mesolithic and Neolithic Europe.

Evidence for interpersonal conflict in the Mesolithic and Neolithic

Evidence for conflict in the European Mesolithic takes the form of embedded bone
and stone projectiles, and both healed and unhealed cranial trauma. For cranial

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trauma, healed injuries are in the majority, which may very well indicate a different
context for violence: an element of ritualised dispute resolution is often inferred when
faced with similar cases in other parts of the world. The major exception to this is the
site of Ofnet in Bavaria, with its two so-called ‘skull-nests’. Depending on the
analysis, between 25 and 50 percent of the skulls in these two pits show perimortem
injuries. The heads were removed while the bodies were still fleshed, with cutmarks
visible on a number of vertebrae, and deposited in a formal manner, in some cases
wearing animal tooth ornamentation, in two shallow pits in a cave. While the nature
of this event, or even whether it is a single event, has been debated, inter-group
hostilities would seem to offer a reasonable scenario.

Neolithic evidence for conflict takes two main forms, skeletal trauma and
architecture, the latter in the form of enclosures. Though there is much debate
concerning the roles of Neolithic enclosures, itself a varied category, there is good
evidence that at least some were subjected to large-scale attacks, even if they were not
necessarily intended as defensive structure when first conceived and built. Foremost
among these for Britain are Hambledon Hill, Crickley Hill and Carn Brea. The large-
scale conflicts implied by attacks on these sites must quality as warfare by any
definition: the events are on a scale that is simply too large for them to represent in-
group fighting. Some 400 projectiles were found concentrated at the entrance into the
Crickley Hill promontory enclosure. Undoubtedly this represents only a fraction of
the missiles fired at and from the enclosure, as many would be retrieved at the time,
and many others would be lost in the intervening 5500 years since this event – and it
does seem to be a single event, as a recent dating programme by Alasdair Whittle and
Alex Bayliss has shown. The same can be said for the even more impressive figure of
800 arrowheads found by Roger Mercer at Carn Brea. Given the unknowns, trying to
estimate the number of people involved in such conflicts on the basis of the number of
recovered arrowheads is probably futile, but it does not seem unreasonable to suggest
the involvement of hundreds of antagonists.

Skeletal evidence is on occasion equally dramatic, best exemplified by the paradigm-

shifting late LBK mass grave at Talheim in SW Germany. Thirty-four men, women
and children were found here, unceremoniously thrown into a large pit, with many
showing perimortem cranial injuries. Evidence for even larger-scale violence comes

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from the late LBK enclosure ditches of Asparn-Schletz in Austria, where more than
120 individuals were found in the ditches, with many showing perimortem injuries.
Talheim is perhaps slightly more ambiguous than the British enclosures as regards
whether it can be said to relate to ‘warfare’; it could conceivably represent a feud
between, for example, lineages within a larger social group, though this might imply a
degree of supra-household or supra-village organisation beyond what is usually
attributed to the LBK. This is harder to argue for the dead in the ditches of Asparn-
Schletz, if these relate to a single episode, which is not inconsistent with the available
C dates and stratigraphy. The relative dearth of young women here compared to an
expected normal demographic profile has been used to suggest their removal as

Then there are numerous other sites with a small number of individuals showing
skeletal injuries attributable to interpersonal violence. In many cases these are yet
more ambiguous, and it cannot be said with any certainty whether they reflect in-
group or out-group conflict. The overall pattern that emerges, however, is intriguing.
With very few exceptions, projectile injuries affect males, while both males and
females are more often equally affected by healed as well as unhealed cranial injuries.
This pattern demonstrably applies to the Mesolithic and the Neolithic, continuing into
the Late Neolithic and Chalcolithic (and presumably beyond this, though I do not
have specific data to hand for the Bronze Age). This implies at least two different
contexts for violence, one involving predominantly males fighting at distance with
bows, and the other involving close-quarters conflict that could equally affect males
and females. While it is perhaps tempting to infer that this marks the distinction
between out-group and in-group conflict, this is probably too simplistic a reading of
what was a more complex and varied situation, particularly in the case of the contexts
leading to cranial trauma.

However, the notion that projectile injuries do relate for the most part to organised
conflict between primarily men from different groups does appear a reasonable one.
What little iconographic evidence there is for conflict in the European
Mesolithic/Neolithic comes from a number of well-known rock art sites in the
Spanish Levant, and appears to support the role of bow conflict. The dating of these
panels as either Mesolithic or Neolithic is controversial, but for our purposes here this

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distinction does not really matter. The panels are interesting for a number of reasons,
one being that some seem to depict small groups of archers in battle line arrangements
that are not dissimilar to those known in a number of ethnographic tribal contexts,
such as seen for the Dani of New Guinea in the film Dead Birds.

From the above discussion, it is clear that the weapon of choice for long-range
conflict in earlier prehistory was the bow and arrow, and probably most men, and
young boys, would own at least one. Of course the bow can also be used to hunt. But
for the British Neolithic at least, the large numbers of leaf-shaped arrowheads that
have been found can be seen as somewhat puzzling, given the paucity of hunted game
known from contemporary faunal assemblages. Indeed, there are no known examples
of embedded projectile injuries in wild fauna from the earlier Neolithic (though,
oddly, embedded point fragments are known from domestic cattle and pig at the Late
Neolithic site of Durrington Walls). Yet four cases of directly embedded projectile
fragments are known from Neolithic human remains in Britain (Ascott-under-
Wychwood, Tulloch of Assery, Penywyrlod and, most recently, Wayland’s Smithy),
with another case from Poulnabrone in Ireland. The existence of many other examples
is suggested through the close association of projectile points, often with broken tips,
with the skeleton (e.g., Hambledon Hill, Cat’s Water, Wayland’s Smithy, just to name
a few; a recent study of a Beaker age example from Feizor Nick Cave presents a rare
example of a female with a projectile injury). Even if wild game are underrepresented
because of the ‘ceremonial’ nature of many – though by no means all – of the sites, it
is unlikely that hunting played more than a minor economic role. What it might do,
however, is serve to train young men in proficiency with the bow. This training of
boys from a young age in both shooting and dodging arrows is a common feature of
the ethnographic literature for tribal societies ranging from Papua New Guinea to the
North American Pacific Northwest. It begins as a game, but is in deadly earnest in
later life, though sometimes retaining some of the qualities of a ‘sport’ – was the
shooting of domestic species at Durrington Walls perhaps part of a ceremonial hunt
with an underlying purpose of maintaining, and advertising, the bow skills of the
various participating groups?

Small-scale conflict and war without warriors

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Another important consideration in the present discussion is the general nature of

tribal conflict. Based largely on ethnographic accounts of tribal warfare, but informed
where possible by the archaeological record of Mesolithic and Neolithic Europe, some
suggestions in this direction can be made. One of the most common themes to emerge
is that in band and tribal conflict the first choice of encounter is almost invariably
ambush, preferably against an unarmed opponent. The night-time or early dawn raid
features prominently, maximising the likelihood of killing the enemy while
minimising the danger to one’s own group. Indeed, the enterprise would often be
abandoned if the alarm were raised. Open battles would sometimes be fought by some
groups ethnographically, and indeed might even be arranged beforehand, but ambush
and deception are found more often, and were probably more deadly in the long run.
Advantages, however they arose, were often relentlessly pursued, to the point of the
extermination of the opposing group. This rarely had anything to do with territorial
expansion, though this might follow on by default. One result of such climates of
uncertainty seen ethnographically is that during times of unrest, people would sharply
curtail their travel, and men would go about their days and nights fully armed, even
within their own communities.

Overtly economic motivations are often more evident in expansionist chiefdoms and
states. Nevertheless it is clear historically that some tribal groups are very
expansionist, such as the segmentary house societies of the Iban of Borneo, who
pursued an explicit policy of expanding into new territory by force. Many additional
examples could be found among African pastoralists. Then there are also many
different kinds of economic motives that can operate at a smaller scale. The question
is who decides that they are worth pursuing in a society lacking strong central
leadership, and how this ambition is realised. One of the features of bands and tribes
is that the constituent social units are relatively small, though in the case of tribes they
can amount to large numbers of individuals in aggregate. And, in both bands and
tribes one of the main structuring principles is kinship. These two points taken
together – small numbers of people, often closely related, whether fictitiously or not –
mean that any economic advantage would be easily perceived as beneficial both to
specific individuals and to the overall group. Carrying out the action, then, becomes a
matter of convincing enough individuals to join an expedition.

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In the case of the Mesolithic, one might mention the likelihood of stored food
reserves, particularly in coastal situations that were at least partly sedentary. This, and
conflict over access to particularly productive fishing locales may have been factors in
accounting for the high incidence of violence seen in Mesolithic Scandinavia and
along some of the large rivers of eastern Europe: the Iron Gates of the Danube, and
the rapids of the Dnieper River in the Ukraine. Food stores would of course also be
present in the Neolithic, in the form of stored grain, and perhaps more enticingly, in
the more mobile form of herds of domestic animals, and in particular cattle. The
economic and cultural value attributed to cattle in the Neolithic of northwest Europe
emerges fairly clearly from number of lines of evidence. Under such conditions, as I
and others have argued elsewhere, they make particularly attractive targets for
raiding. And such raids can be carried out by very small numbers of individuals.
Again, stealth and ambush are the ideals.

The preference for this kind of conflict itself may militate against elaborate and
showy weaponry. It might also be argued to provide little incentive for the
development of an élite warrior identity.

In addition to the preference for ambush, a critical factor is the combination of a high
degree of both autonomy and responsibility placed on the individual in small-scale
societies. The relevance of this here relates to the central importance of revenge,
which emerges again and again as one of the strongest motivators for both within-
group feuding and between-group warfare. The duty of vengeance falls most directly
on close kin, and next, in the case of between-group conflict, on the aggrieved
community and its allies as a whole. While help would certainly be sought, neither the
means nor the responsibility for revenge are delegated to any authority. One of the
consequences of this is that it is very difficult to cease hostilities once begun – none
have the clear and binding authority to do so, though attempts might be made. In
societies with more centralised authority, the personal/family responsibility for
vengeance is less emphasised, with the decision for, and means of, retribution coming
under firmer control by the central authority.

Thus, the reason that we do not see a specialised warrior identity in the Mesolithic or
Neolithic is that every able-bodied male would be expected to perform this role

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alongside his other roles: hunter, farmer, herder, fisher, weaver, potter, etc. This is
part of the autonomy and responsibility of small-scale, acephalous societies. This is
not to say that all would be equally proficient in warfare, and no doubt some would
display a greater aptitude and become recognised as leaders, though if the
ethnographic accounts are anything to go by, such leadership roles would usually be
restricted to the duration of the immediate conflict at hand, and would not extend into
other fields of activity. Nevertheless, it is possible that success here, as with any
important endeavour, might offer one avenue to elevated status, particularly when it
presented the opportunity to add to the group’s valuable cattle herds. The ability to
obtain the necessary support and organise a retaliation or raiding party against another
group would, whatever the ideal, probably not be an option open to all.

The question of whether warfare proper appears only with the Neolithic is not one I
propose to go into in any detail here, though it warrants a brief mention. Raymond
Kelly’s argument to this effect hinges on the useful notion of social substitution – that
is, warfare exists when group identity is such that one individual can be made to stand
in for another. Thus, in the case of revenge for a killing, rather than seeking the killer
him- or herself, any member of the killer’s group is seen as an appropriate target,
satisfying the requirements of blood vengeance. Kelly argues that this only occurs
with the appearance of agriculture in the Neolithic. It is this point that is contestable,
as it adopts a rather stereotypical view emphasising one extreme of the gamut of
hunter-gatherer societies, seeing them as egalitarian, highly mobile, and with shifting
group membership such that no real notion of group identity emerges. Not only are
there numerous ethnographic counterexamples, but the archaeological record of
Mesolithic Europe strongly suggests that in many areas people had much more
developed notions of territoriality, and that differences were marked by material
culture on a relatively small spatial scale, strongly indicative of the emergence of
group identities. But the thesis of the crucial role of social substitution itself seems
sound. There is also a strong element of mutual reinforcement here, since inter-group
conflict encourages, or even necessitates, the taking of sides, which further
encourages the use of material culture to demarcate those sides.

A paradox

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It is with the Chalcolithic (ca. 3200-2500 BC) that we first seem to see the image of a
specialised male warrior, on carved stelae in the Alpine region, and, from ca. 2500
BC, the widespread appearance of Beaker ‘warrior graves’, with fine arrowheads,
stone wristguards, copper or flint daggers and the Beaker drinking vessel itself (the
stereotypical, hard fighting, hard drinking warrior). Of course, as has been often
emphasised, this is an image, one constructed in death by those doing the burying, and
is undoubtedly an idealised one. But, regardless of its ‘reality’ in individual cases, the
simple fact that adult male identity is being constructed and portrayed in this way
indicates the importance of the warrior image. This is precisely what is lacking in the
earlier Neolithic. It could be said that the emphasis on commingled burial in mortuary
monuments that dominates the ‘Early’ Neolithic of northwestern Europe (Britain,
northwest France, southern Scandinavia) precludes any kind of particular
identification in death other than an overall community membership. But, aside from
the fact that this is in itself says something about the structure of this society, this
would not apply to the single flat graves that predominate in the LBK of central
Europe. Male graves here do tend to be associated with stone axes and projectile
points, but because of the ambiguous nature of these implements these are not seen as
warrior graves. Given the clear evidence for the use of stone axes to inflict horrific
head injuries at Talheim and other sites, it may be time to re-consider this. Perhaps
part of the male identity being marked in death here does relate to roles in warfare, as
much as to carpentry, exchange and hunting.

All this begs the question, then, of whether the appearance of more formal and
unambiguous weaponry, seen particularly with the advent of first copper but more
particularly bronze metallurgy, is associated with an increase in actual levels of
violence. As is so often the case, the question is not a straightforward one, partly
because the skeletal evidence has not yet been systematically reviewed. Experience
with the Neolithic evidence suggests that many early published accounts of injuries
are unreliable in both directions; that is, claimed injuries are often not sustained when
reviewed with modern forensic criteria, while many real injuries are missed. Yet, on
present information, it seems that there may actually be less skeletal evidence for
interpersonal violence in the Beaker period and Early Bronze Age, at least in Britain.
This has been argued by Roger Mercer and Nick Thorpe. John Robb has drawn
attention to a comparable phenomenon in Italian prehistory, where periods with

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greater material elaboration of conflict imagery actually show a lower prevalence of

skeletal injuries than periods lacking such imagery.

What happens to shift the role of conflict from the many to the few? Does this even
happen with the appearance of formalised weaponry, or does this only mark the
emergence of élite leaders, with most adult males still participating in warfare, but
using more mundane forms of weaponry – bows and arrows, wooden clubs, etc.

A traditional Marxist approach offers one approach to this question. Increasingly

conspicuous differences in wealth within communities in the Beaker period and EBA
may have increased tensions that were either largely absent or latent in the preceding
Neolithic. At the same time, as has often been suggested, it may be that traditional
kin-based networks were breaking down, and allegiances could be more easily
shifted. Under such circumstances, it may have been prudent to control the means of
violence, since the threat might come internally as much as externally. This is all
rather hypothetical, as there is no clear evidence for such within-group conflict
(though how would it be recognised?), but it may be worth exploring further.

Pacific Northwest Coast chiefs to a large extent controlled, or tried to control,

specialised weaponry, though these were often just elaborated versions of weapons –
clubs and daggers – more widely available. Firearms were an obvious exception when
they became available through the Fur Trade, and a very concerted effort was made
by chiefs to control these and distribute them to chosen followers.

The development of metallurgy and its increasing importance in the creation of

bronze weapons provides obvious possibilities for control. But this implies that such
weapons really were the state of the art, and the means by which warfare was
conducted. Yet, unless the nature of warfare changed significantly from earlier period,
projectile weapons would remain the most effective long-distance weapon, and it
would matter less whether these were stone- or metal-tipped. For close-range fighting,
the ethnographic preference is almost invariably for surprise attack rather than melee,
and again wood, antler and stone clubs would arguably be as effective for this purpose
as metal weapons. This could imply that the nature of warfare did indeed change, or
that, as many have argued, the main purpose of bronze weaponry was for display

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rather than real combat. This position, however, seems difficult to sustain in the light
of research demonstrating that bronze swords often do exhibit edge damage consistent
with use in combat, and experimental archaeology shows that objects such as halberds
previously thought to be unwieldy and ineffective, actually work quite well (at least
on stationary sheep’s heads).

Neither violence in general nor warfare specifically, are marked by the appearance of
specialised, formal weaponry in the European Bronze Age. Abundant and compelling
archaeological evidence demonstrates that warfare was a feature of human societies
long before this. The nature of small-scale societies – their small size, the paucity of
specialised roles, and, perhaps most importantly, the generally high degree of
autonomy and personal responsibility – is such that all men were ‘warriors’ as the
situation arose, in addition to all their other roles. This flexibility and lack of
specialisation extends to the ‘weapons’ of this time, which are for the most part
indistinguishable from tools used for other purposes. A most interesting question is
whether the emergence of formalised weaponry sees an increase or decrease in the
actual prevalence of violence, or changes in the forms it takes. Some intriguing
preliminary suggestions are that the two are inversely correlated. But further work is
required, both on use-traces on the weapons themselves, and on the skeletons that
bear the brunt of human violence.