The absolute beginnings of war are lost in the past. We can make some assessments of how war evolved, however, by considering the behavior of less advanced societies that survived into historic times and by studying the archaeological record.
We can guess that the small hunting and gathering groups that weathered the last ice age had cause on occasion to attack each other. Such attacks were probably for control of food sources, important raw materials (tool stone), water, trade routes, or perhaps locations of presumed religious significance. Prehistoric hunters equipped themselves with weapons to make their living. It was an easy step to turn those weapons on neighbors if the stakes to be won were sufficiently high.
It is possible that war and raids of this type were not common as the ice age ended because population densities were relatively low and human life was no doubt highly valued. But the increasing relative natural bounty and advances in technology made it possible for populations to grow. Some living areas were clearly better than others and more desirable. At some point the competition between groups became armed conflict.
In the 1960's, a burial site was discovered along the Nile in ancient Nubia that provided what may be the earliest skeletal evidence for prehistoric warfare. The site dated to between 12,000 to 4500 BC and included the remains of 59 people, including women and children. Forty percent of the skeletons were found buried with small flake points, thought to be arrowheads. Points were found embedded in the bones of four skeletons. Several individuals appear to have been executed, perhaps after already suffering other wounds. Seven skeletons had arms fractured in a manner consistent with warding off blows.
Increased economic incentives for war.
Competition and incentive for armed conflict between groups grew once the agricultural revolution began. By 6000 BC, good agricultural or grazing land must have increased significantly in value where the new food gathering activities were taking hold. The food disparity widened between the newly rising agricultural towns and the marginal communities in the hills or on quickly exhausted lands. Stockpiles of grain and animal herds owned by the first towns were a powerful attraction to the more primitive tribal groups. As the towns grew richer in goods through specialization of labor, their attraction as targets only increased.
When European explorers encountered the less advanced peoples of Africa and the Americas they made note of the occasional raiding attacks that native tribes carried out against each other. These raids served several purposes. They might have been demonstrations of strength and intimidation that were partly diplomatic. They might have been simple raids to acquire slaves, food, goods, or other commodities. They might have been wars of extermination or conquest to take by force more desirable lands. We assume that war began in a similar manner in those parts of the world where ancient civilizations first arose.
Archaeological evidence supports the theory that warfare accompanied the earliest beginnings of civilization. The oldest town sites yet excavated, such as Catal Huyuk in modern Turkey and Jericho in modern Israel, were fortified. Jericho was an excellent site near an easy crossing of the Jordan River. The people of these towns went to the expense of building walls or other fortifications to defend their food and other goods from neighbors less fortunate and more belligerent.
Both of these sites and other early towns show evidence of being sacked and destroyed. Levels of ash and crumbled masonry indicate a time when the buildings came down and were burned. In some cases, weapons and skeletons have been found intermingled within the ash layer. Long before written history begins, we have clear archaeological evidence of towns being attacked and destroyed.
The archaeological record indicates that between 12,000 and 8000 BC there was a revolution in weapons technology. During this period four new weapons first make their appearance-the bow, the sling, the dagger (short sword), and the mace. The bow and the sling were important for hunting, but the dagger and mace were most useful for fighting other humans. These four new weapons, together with the much older spear, were the principal weapons of all armies until around 1000 AD.
The bow may be the oldest of the new weapons. In cave paintings, it is clearly shown being used against both animals and men. The simple bow and arrow had a range of around 100 yards, double that of the thrown spear. The bow was especially useful for ambush and deadly when many bows were fired in a barrage. A single archer could carry many more arrows than javelins.
The sling is usually given little respect today but it actually had greater range, accuracy, and power than the simple bow. It was an important long- range weapon during the Neolithic period and for some time after. Excavations at Catal Huyuk show no evidence of arrows, only slings. Elsewhere in Anatolia, at Hacilar, sling projectiles were made from baked clay. Slingers using manufactured projectiles could achieve a higher accuracy than those throwing odd-shaped stones. Large fist-shaped stones could break bones or smash skulls, even those protected by armor. Xenophon states in the Anabasis that the slingers from Rhodes in his 10,000-man army of mercenaries had better range and accuracy than the Persian archers that opposed them.
The mace and axe.
The mace, one of the oldest weapons in humankind's armory can be traced directly down from the primitive wooden club. By the Neolithic period, the mace had been improved by the addition of a stone head to the club. Later, the stone head was replaced by a metal one. Early Egyptian reliefs show soldiers armed with maces as well as spears. Egyptian maces went through several designs, including a sharp edge that must have been intended to cut through leather or cloth helmets.
The development of leather armor made the mace less effective. One response to leather armor was the battle axe, a variation of the mace with a sharp cutting edge, made possible by the new technologies of copper and then bronze. Piercing axes had long blades (from edge to handle) and pointed edges. These could penetrate leather. Cutting axes has short blades but long cutting edges. They were most useful against opponents not wearing armor.Axes and maces both declined in use as better swords became prevalent, especially after 1200 BC.
Swords evolved from knives and daggers. These had been made from stone blades for thousands of years and then from copper and bronze. Prior to 1200 BC, daggers were carried mostly as secondary weapons by skirmishers. The sickle sword, shaped like the familiar farm implement, was popular in the Near East and Egypt but appears to be a clearly inferior weapon. It was not particularly useful for stabbing and not strong enough for cutting off limbs.
Around 1200 BC the first important sword was brought to the Mediterranean region. Archaeologists classified it as the Naue Type II sword and by 1100 BC it was the only sword in use in the Aegean. By the early Iron Age it was the standard sword also in the Near East. This revolutionary sword was over two feet long and sharply pointed, but narrow and two-edged. It could be used for slashing or thrusting. A powerful swordsmen could sever limbs or a human head. The Naue II sword was developed in either what is now modern Austria or Hungary. The early examples of this sword were made of bronze but by 900 BC a superior version was being made of iron. It remained the standard sword in the Mediterranean and Near East until around 700 BC.The Romans adopted a shorter sword that they encountered while fighting the Carthaginians in Spain in the third century. By the second century, the two- foot gladius was the standard close-range weapon of their legionary infantry.