No, Men Did Not Always Wage Wars

by donyapress

Debunking the myth of a wild and bellicose prehistory


Is human violence innate or induced by context? Today, anthropological and archaeological research enable us to provide a better answer to a question that divided the greatest philosophers. War, it seems, only broke out with the emergence of a production-based economy and the disruption of Neolithic social structures, about ten thousand years ago.

When it comes to human violence, two radically opposed conceptions vie with each other. English 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes thought the ‘war of all against all’ had existed from the dawn of time (Leviathan, 1651). In Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s view, wild man was prone to little passions and was drawn into ‘the most horrible state of war’ by the ‘nascent society’ (Discourse on Inequality, 1755).

The image of a violent and belligerent prehistoric man comes from the scholarly construction of evolutionary anthropologists and prehistorians in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It came to be engraved in our minds by echoing the assumption that humanity underwent a progressive and unilinear evolution. As soon as prehistoric men were acknowledged in 1863, their physical appearance and behaviours were compared with the ones of monkeys, gorillas, and chimps. To some scientists, this ‘tertiary man’ represented the missing link between the ‘inferior human race’ and the monkey. Then, the so-called theory ‘of migrations’, which appeared in the 1880s, contended that the succession of prehistoric cultures resulted from the replacement of populations settled on one land by others groups; it established the conviction that wars of conquest had always existed.

Without having carried out a precise analysis of their uses, the first prehistorians gave carved tools names with warlike connotations: sledgehammer, mace, knuckle-duster, dagger, etc. This preconception spread through World’s Fairs and the first museums’ exhibitions — the Artillery Museum, nowadays the Army Museum, set up in the Hôtel National des Invalides in 1871, houses collections of pre-, protohistoric, ancient, historical and ethnographic weapons as well as life-size models in arms and war costumes for each period. This presentation instils the idea of a cultural continuity in the visitor’s mind (…)

Source: Marylène Patou-Mathis, ‘Non, les hommes n’ont pas toujours fait la guerre,’ Le Monde