Ancient Weapons Throw Light on Humans’ History of Violence


Evidence of violent conflict among ancient hunter-gatherer communities has been analyzed by anthropologists.

While researching skeletons, weaponry, and rock art in the Atacama Desert coast of northern Chile, archaeologists uncovered 10,000 years of violent conflict among these ancient communities, a study published in PLOS ONE reported.

Hunter-gatherers were humans who obtained food exclusively from foraging or hunting. Until around 12,000 years ago, pretty much all humans alive practiced the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The communities were usually nomadic.

A compilation image shows the various types of weaponry and objects assessed by researchers, showing how violence occurred in hunter-gatherer communities.
Standen et al., 2023, PLOS ONE, CC-BY 4.0

Researchers already knew that interpersonal violence and warfare occurred in the lives of hunter-gatherers; however, this study now provides more insights into why, how often it occurred, and who it was between.

In Chile, the record of human populations goes back to 10,000 years. This means scientists were able to study conflict further back than ever before.

“Despite all the technological advances, humanity has not learned to resolve its conflicts in a different way than our millenary ancestors, in peace and without war,” the study said.

Signs of violent trauma, in the remains of 288 hunter-gathering individuals from 1450 AD —found in ancient burial grounds—were studied by researchers.

They also looked at patterns in various weaponry, as well as drawings and other artistic illustrations of life at the time.

The main finding was that the rates of violence over time were relatively static. Researchers also noted that there was no notable increase in lethal violence across the Formative Period, which started at around 1000 BC, the study reported.

This pattern is similar to violence rates across the Andean region.

It also appeared that violence was mainly occurring between local groups, rather than foreign communities.

These findings show that violence was a “consistent part of the lives of these ancient populations for many,” the study reported.

The researchers also theorize several reasons for this interpersonal violence.

Among hunter-gatherer communities, there was no centralized political system, the study reported. The researchers believe this may have been a factor contributing to “violent tensions.”

These hunter-gatherers also would have relied on resources from the natural environment, potentially invoking competition with other local communities.
“It’s also possible that violence was the result of competition for resources in the extreme environment of the desert, a factor which might have become exacerbated as farming became more prominent and widespread,” a release detailing the findings said.

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