Historical story

Violence in the Stone Age and the Bronze Age

Why do people go to war? NEMO Kennislink will be looking at this question from various scientific disciplines in the coming weeks. For the first episode we spoke with archaeologist David Fontijn.

In the solar system, Earth is midway between the planets Venus, the goddess of love, and Mars, the god of war. That's how it sometimes seems to be for humanity. We are torn between peace and war, between cooperation and conflict. What is peaceful at one moment can turn into a situation of bellicose violence. How is that possible? Why do people go to war? In the coming weeks, NEMO Kennislink will look at this question through the lens of various scientific disciplines.

Several philosophers, starting with Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), have asked themselves why conflicts exist between people and how they can best be controlled. Hobbes came to the conclusion in his major work Leviathan that humans are naturally prone to war and conflict. In Hobbes's imaginary "state of nature" there were no laws, except the law of the fittest. It was a 'war of all against all.' According to Hobbes, this pessimistic view of man follows that people should transfer their right to self-defense to a monarch, who rules strictly but justly and thus prevents man from falling back into the state of nature.

Hobbes's philosophy has to be placed in its time to understand it properly. Hobbes had no idea how man had lived in the "state of nature." He probably didn't even care that much. He was not an archaeologist, but a political thinker who lived during the bloody English Civil War. He used an imaginary state of nature as a core argument to substantiate his plea for a strong monarch.

Social beings

Yet the question of whether people deep down are violent or peaceful is important to political philosophy. It determines, among other things, how you should organize the state. Should it be powerful and even repressive or, on the contrary, be reticent, so that the best in people comes out naturally? The latter is the view of many later, more liberal philosophers such as John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

But what do we really know about this? Can anything be designated as a 'state of nature' of man? And why did conflict arise? To do that, we have to leave philosophy for what it is and look at what we can really know about our earliest history. Archaeologist David Fontijn specializes in the earliest archeology in Europe and conducts research into these kinds of big questions, among other things. For this he works together with behavioral psychologist Carsten de Dreu. Both are affiliated with Leiden University.

“Even in the very oldest history of people you can see indications that they used violence against each other,” says Fontijn. “But you cannot draw the conclusion from this that humans are naturally violent. More importantly, man is a social being. Social behavior can mean different things. For example, your group connecting with another group, exchanging gifts and helping each other. But it can also mean that you as a group turn inward and set yourself against another group. Both are expressions of social behavior and are universal. Both forms occur among hunters and gatherers and among the first farmers.”

Culture in crisis

It is sometimes argued that conflicts between people started mainly with the agricultural revolution. Owning a farm and field would entail a kind of notion of private property. But according to Fontijn, the way people lived had little to do with this. Whether they lived in a permanent place or moved around is not the same. “Problems only arose when more and more people arrived and natural resources became scarcer, partly due to climate change.”

In order to understand this better, according to Fontijn, we need to look at the Tape Ceramic culture. This was a Stone Age culture that spread over large parts of Europe, including the Netherlands. The name refers to the decorated pottery that these peoples made. They were the first farmers in Europe in large parts of Europe. “This culture was a success story in many ways. They had an extensive system of cooperation over a long period of time and generally interacted peacefully. But in the end it went wrong. They probably had a too rigid, limited way of cultivating their land. As a result, they were too dependent on very fertile soil. When it ran out, they had no alternative. The system and culture entered a crisis. More and more people came and from that moment you see that they started fighting conflicts with each other. Archaeologists have recovered many traces of violence from a relatively short period.”

According to Fontijn, the explanation for this change is that the place of violence in the social system changed. “Violence became a means of guaranteeing the survival of one's own social group. For example, there is a known site where only dead men and children lie. The women are missing. They were probably robbed by another group because there was a shortage of marriage partners within their own group – for whatever reason.”

Ritual swords

So there is nothing in archaeology to indicate that humans are naturally violent, or peaceful. People are social. Violence has its own place or function within every social system. And that place or function can change if a system comes under pressure. The changing function of violence in a society becomes very clearly visible when we look at a later period, namely the Bronze Age (ca. 2300 – 800 BC). “The Bronze Age appears to be steeped in weapons and violence in parts of Europe,” says Fontijn. “In the Stone Age, simple, everyday objects were still used as weapons. But that changes in the Bronze Age. Then war really becomes part of an ideology.”

“The idea arose that you could only be a man if you were also a warrior. Weapons and violence were therefore ritually glorified. Huge, heavy decorated swords from that time have been found. They were not for fighting, but had a ritual function. Violence became a central part of society. You see the same thing now at a military parade in Moscow, for example. That makes no sense rationally, but it is symbolic display of power and glorification of violence to show other countries how powerful the country is.”

Population growth, which had already started in the Stone Age, continued in the Bronze Age. According to Fontijn, violence is becoming increasingly important because it is becoming increasingly crowded in Europe. “Let's take a virtual walk through Stone Age Europe,” he says. “Then you see forests everywhere, and now and then an open space where some people live. If you do the same in the Bronze Age, you will see places all over Europe – from Poland to Ireland – where people live, where forests have been cut and where fields have been created. So there are many more people and they all prey on the same thing:fertile land, livestock, marriage partners, metals, etc. As a result, violence became more and more justifiable. The idea that violence can be something good and just that can be glorified seems to have originated in the Bronze Age and has never gone away.”

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Different appearance

From a behavioral psychological perspective, the social dynamics surrounding prehistoric violence are also interesting. “No one is a full-time warrior, not now and not in prehistoric times. In fact, to become someone capable of killing others, you have to temporarily become a different person. You can now also see this in the culture within professional armies, with their specific training and rituals. This idea first emerged in the Bronze Age.”

“Being a warrior meant much more than just carrying weapons. To become warriors, men changed their appearance. For example, special razors have been found in warrior graves. Apparently because warriors were supposed to have a smooth chin. And they often had a special, temporary hairstyle and jewelry. All to emphasize 'now I'm a warrior'. And when the war is over, you can also take off the warriorship again. Because no one can and wants to be a murderer all their life.”