Origins of War
Origins of War
War seems eternal, apparently without a beginning and, by implication, without an end. Throughout history there has been a tendency to take it as a given, simply an extension of the intuitively obvious proposition that people have always fought and always will fight. This perhaps is true. But when we ask, "Is fighting synonymous with war?" it becomes apparent that we are talking about a special kind of fighting.
War, as we know it, is really an institution--a complex phenomenon that is premeditated and directed by some form of governmental structure, concerned with societal rather than individual issues, featuring the willing (though perhaps not enthusiastic) participation of the combatants, and intended to achieve lasting results. These characteristics point to a requisite level of social evolution and imply that warfare is a mechanism intended to perform certain functions, which have varied in range and intensity. Given such a definition, it becomes possible to differentiate simple blood feuds and extended acts of revenge from what is meant by war in historical terms. This distinction is critical, since it makes it clear that humankind was not born to war but eventually came to it as the result of fundamental shifts in our subsistence patterns.
But this raises some profound questions. Although it is possible to dismiss virtually all forms of hostility among animals as being not truly warlike, there remains one glaring exception... ants. Besides ourselves, they are the most social and well organized of creatures. Virtually all prerequisites for war are present in ant society--government, armies, politics, and lasting societal results--but the practitioners are automatons just a few millimeters long. Nonetheless, a number of creatures within the vast family Formicidae qualify as true war makers. Here, not among ourselves, we can find that true warfare originated as far back as fifty million years ago. That ants wage war flows logically from their highly organized way of life, much as it eventually would with human warriors--but there is one crucial difference. Individually, these ants are genetically predestined for a martial existence. They are haplodiploid reproducers, female offspring of a central queen, sharing three-fourths of their genes with their numerous sisters. Such creatures sacrifice for the group because it is their best chance to perpetuate their own genes; death in battle is trivial compared with the success of an army made up of genetic near-replicates.
We humans, of course, are not haplodiploid, but fully sexual reproducers. Virtually all mammals besides ourselves limit their sociality and self-sacrifice to close relatives. Therefore, it is not most pertinent to ask whether humans are inherently warlike, but instead to question why is it possible for us to wage war at all.
Although this issue is far from resolved, support has begun to emerge for a dual-inheritance model of human development, positing not only separate mechanisms for our genetic and cultural evolution, but also a subtle interplay of both to produce the most efficient behavioral patterns. This profoundly liberating evolutionary innovation, allowing us to rely upon the much more rapid and communicable medium of ideas rather than flesh, made us flexible and opportunistic in ways never before possible. And eventually it would permit us to wage war, not because our genes compelled us, but as a premeditated response to external conditions.
In the meantime, we had to eat. Humans evolved as hunters and gatherers, living for 97 percent of human history in pack-sized bands dictated by the availability of food sources and genetic affinity. Quite probably, the lives of our distant ancestors roughly mirrored the patterns revealed by recent hunting and gathering societies--a relatively low-key existence emphasizing personal independence, general equality among group members including women, consensus-based decision making, and freedom of movement particularly as a means of avoiding or resolving conflict. Weapons possession would have been virtually universal with males, but used for hunting, not for dominating the group or other groups.
It is unlikely that hunter-gatherers were any less aggressive, or less inclined to commit violence, than humans of later times. Indeed, hunting likely provided us with much of the behavioral raw material to build armies one day--small-unit cohesion, tactical planning, standards of courage, and effective use of arms. However, war as we have defined it would have been basically irrelevant in a world in which personal property had to be limited to what could be carried, seasonal diversity more than territory dictated the availability of food, and the genetic necessity for outbreeding made it advisable to avoid alienating other local gene pools.
In such an environment, our big brains evolved, along with speech and advanced sociality. And it stands to reason that we were deeply affected by this heritage. Yet our capacity for culture also left us, if not infinitely plastic, then at least capable of an unprecedented level of adaptation--able to undergo a transformation that in relatively short order would find us living in vast despotic societies that were at least broadly analogous to those of the social insects.
Plainly, the domestication of other lifeforms was critical to this change. However, contemporary scholars see this process as considerably more mutual and subtle than was previously thought; in a sense, other species domesticated us virtually to the same degree that we domesticated them. The first great change began to occur in about 10,500 b.c. in the Middle East, when humans began harvesting and eventually cultivating cereals. Before we knew it, we had become farmers; this new and abundant food source swelled human population to the point that there was no going back to hunting and gathering.
Shortly after, humans domesticated the beasts of the field. Pastoral animals were naturally kept toward the outskirts of farming communities where they could not eat or step on growing crops. In the Middle East, the herding of ruminant animals encouraged the development of the nomadic way of life, which contrasted with that of the village dwellers. Although both nomads and village dwellers would continue to share certain dependencies, considerable basis for antipathy emerged.
Beginning around 5500 b.c., numerous Middle Eastern farming communities began to build walls around their domiciles, probably to defend themselves against raiding nomads. To prevent pursuit, it is likely that these attacks would have been fairly brutal--terrifying enough to result in the gradual concentration of populations in fortified townships. Though sporadic and geographically irregular, these raids would have had economic and even ideological motivation sufficient to mark them as the beginning of something approaching true warfare among humans.
Furthermore, recent evidence from the Ukrainian steppe indicating that horse riding extends back to around 4000 b.c., along with remains of domesticated horses in the Middle East late in the fourth millennium, raises the possibility that by 3200 b.c., equestrian nomads had begun their own pattern of raiding. If so, their inherent military advantage could have been sufficient to spark further consolidation behind walled enclaves. This time frame also coincides with the rise of the state and the emergence of true urban societies in Mesopotamia.
But although true warfare may have begun in acts of theft perpetrated by pastoral nomads, war among the agriculturalists would become something considerably different. Focused behind walled fortifications, social development in the Near East intensified and accelerated. Armed male elites, the first true armies, rose quickly to prominence, fostering governmental structures, unequal access to resources, and coerced organization of labor. Population dynamics took on an entirely new aspect. On one hand, settled existence and an almost exclusively carbohydrate diet promoted fertility and population pressure. Yet close quarters also encouraged epidemic disease, which, when combined with intensified but famine-prone agriculture, produced demographies with roller-coaster ups and downs.
Wars and armies acted as stabilizing agents to balance these swings in population. During periods of overpopulation, armies could conquer new lands, or, at worst, face destruction and no longer have to be fed. And when numbers fell, new laborers had to be appropriated--this need explains the ancient traffic in slaves and the repeated, coerced transfers of entire peoples. Yet war was never more than a crude equilibrator; it was simply the most effective available, and it could be consciously applied.
In Sumer, this dynamic led eventually to a balance-of-power relationship among societies, an enduring political form. In such a system, war not only addressed a society's internal issues but also enforced a balance among competing groups. And because one power's military advantage could be quickly countered through an alliance of competing powers and opportunism, the net result of this pattern was usually a rough equilibrium... or general frustration.
The rise of great imperial, despotic societies was of profound significance, if for no other reason than that the bulk of humanity came to live in them. Ancient empires were precariously poised to rise or fall based on the balance of population growth with resources and technology. This also formed war's center of gravity--these societies were not necessarily the most adept militarily (they often met with disaster), but they were the most in need of the demographic results that war might bring. Soldiers were the tokens of exchange, and battles--orchestrated to produce their death, capture, or return with more labor or land--were key mechanisms by which energy was transferred from state to state.
But imperial societies (contingent upon their origins, location, and internal dynamics) varied considerably in their dependence on war. Thus Egypt, sheltered geographically and blessed with environmental factors that moderated the swings of demography, gave more attention to building monumental architecture. Assyria, surrounded by enemies, came to be driven by war, pursuing it almost for its own sake until it was finally destroyed by belligerence. The very feature that made warfare a serviceable equilibrator--that it could be initiated as a matter of choice--also allowed it to become an all-consuming pursuit.
This was not China's fate. Here, the patterns of social and political evolution predisposed the Chinese to remain wary of the institution of war. Given the continuing pastoral threat from the steppe, the necessities of armies and defense could never be ignored. Yet they approached war gingerly, shackling it with all manner of intellectual and governmental restraints. There were costs, both in terms of military efficiency and demographic stability; but China would endure.
Perhaps most interesting from a theoretical perspective is the independent development of warfare in the Americas. Here the absence of a sufficient array of animals to support independent pastoralism, and the resulting urge among agriculturalists to huddle behind walls, caused social and political consolidation to take place in a less abrupt fashion, under conditions that reduced demographic instability. War was plainly part of the process, but its role was more exclusively political--a matter of conflict among elites, not peoples.
Finally, a few ancient societies, such as those of the Minoans and Phoenicians, clustered primarily along the Mediterranean littoral, managed to pursue a mercantile existence, retreating to the sea in the face of aggression. But the desirability of establishing and maintaining far-flung trade routes and entrepots logically called for some kind of protection, and this led to the development of navies. Yet these cultures appear to have resorted to force selectively and pragmatically--a sort of continuation of trade by other means. Though this approach might have set a sensible course for the future, in most parts of the world it was not an option. Large populations with access to only crude technology remained dependent on imperial agriculture; and thus war ground on, the clumsy balance wheel of this crude clockwork.
D. W. Anthony, D. Y. Telegin, and D. Brown, "The Origin of Horseback Riding," Scientific American 265 (1991); Lawrence Keeley, War Before Civilization (1996); Robert L. O'Connell, Ride of the Second Horseman: The Birth and Death of War (1995).
The Reader's Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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