This week Neil Faulkner looks at the origins of War and Religion in the Early Neolithic world.
The bodies of 34 people, half of them children, had been dumped in a 3 meter-wide pit. Two of the adults had been shot in the head. Twenty others, including children, had been clubbed to death. The archaeologists were in no doubt that this was the site of a massacre.
The Talheim ‘death-pit’ in south-west Germany had revealed a gruesome truth about the Early Neolithic world of 5000 BCE (before the common era). Humans had invented warfare.
In the beginning, there had been no war. For 2.5 million years, during the Old Stone Age, small bands of hominids had roamed the landscape seeking food by hunting, gathering, and scavenging. Meetings were rare, and clashes of any kind rarer still.
Only later, as numbers built up, were there occasional conflicts over resources. Cave art shows hunters with bows shooting not only animals but sometimes each other.
But this was not really war. War is large-scale, sustained, organised violence between opposing groups. There is no evidence for this before the Neolithic Revolution which began c. 7500 BCE.
Farming was a much more efficient way of getting food than hunting, so the population increased enormously in the New Stone Age. Palaeolithic fossils number in the hundreds, Neolithic skeletons in the tens of thousands. But herein was the danger.
Technique was primitive, productivity low, surpluses small. People lived close to the edge, prey to natural disasters like crop blight, animal disease, and freak weather. Early Neolithic farming communities were haunted by the spectres of famine, hunger and death.
To these ever-present dangers were added two ‘systemic’ problems rooted in the very success of the Early Neolithic mode of production: population growth and soil exhaustion. Numbers kept growing, but land was a finite resource.
As the goodness was taken from the soil and not replenished, new fields had to be hacked from the wilderness. As populations grew, existing villages could not feed everyone, and groups of pioneers headed off to found new settlements. As the last tracts of wilderness were cleared, the wasteful Early Neolithic economy found its limits.
Land hunger and food hunger could then drive neighbouring groups into conflict. Early farmers had communal property - fields, animals, storehouses, permanent homes - to defend in hard times.
This combination of poverty and property, scarcity and surplus, was the root cause of the first wars. The starving might eat by seizing the grain and sheep of their neighbours. The Talheim death-pit seems to bear witness to such a primeval struggle.
But if you want to fight a war, you need warriors, allies, and defence-works. Groups with more of these will defeat those with fewer. Groups that invest surplus in warfare will dominate those who do not.
Archaeologists now see the decades around 3500 BCE as the time of the first wars in Britain - only a few centuries after the start of the Neolithic Revolution in the island.
Great hilltop ‘causewayed camps’ were built. Windmill Hill in Wiltshire was the size of 15 football pitches and enclosed by three concentric rings of bank and ditch. It was probably used for political meetings, religious rituals and defence. It symbolised a new order - one that united people from distant villages in a single tribal polity.
At the same time, people were buried in communal tombs of monumental stone slabs and mounds of earth. West Kennet ‘long barrow’ in Wiltshire was 100m long and 20m wide. Built to impress, it was an assertion of territorial control. That it was necessary shows that control was contested.
Causewayed camps were places of worship. Long barrows were the mausoleums of the ancestors. The larger polities of the Early Neolithic were cemented together by collective belief and ritual.
Magic (an attempt to get what you want by mimicry) and religion (an attempt to do so by supplicating a higher power) had long histories.
Upper Palaeolithic hunters had painted game beasts on walls in the dark depths of their caves.
In the prehistoric mind, the symbol, the painted image, conjured the reality, the future kill.
Not only in art, but through dance, music, and personal ornament, magic was performed.
Choreographic movement, rhythmic noise, and dressing up embodied collective desires and hopes.
Psychically charged by ritual, hunters then resumed the food-quest with renewed confidence.
The human group - its cohesion, fertility, and survival - was also a matter of cult.
‘Totemism’ is a primeval amalgam of magic and religion: it equates the human group with an animal and then honours the animal to secure the well-being of the group.
Ancestor-worship is equally ancient: it conceives dead kinsmen as benevolent spirits hovering protectively over living progeny.
But full-fledged religion involves the worship of deities - the Sun, the Moon, the Earth-Mother. Alienation - lack of control over nature - then acquires its most elaborate expression.
Humans seek to protect themselves from forces they cannot control through entreaties (prayers) and bribes (sacrifices and offerings) to those who can.
Archaic forms of religion - totemism, ancestor-worship, cults of Sun, Moon, and Earth-Mother - survive ‘fossilised’ in later cult.
Much that we know derives from this. Artemis, Greek goddess of wild nature, was worshipped in Ancient Athens by dancing maidens dressed as she-bears.
Lupercus, an Italian god of the countryside, was worshipped in Ancient Rome by young noblemen who feasted in a cave and then raced around the city wearing the skins of slaughtered goats.
Religion took on new significance as Early Neolithic villages were welded into tribal polities. Competition and war over territory forced small groups to seek security in larger units. Common worship of totems, ancestors, and deities created new social identities. Shared beliefs and rituals fostered solidarity.
But the results could be murderous. The Early Neolithic causewayed camp at Crickley Hill in Gloucestershire was attacked and burned. Over 400 flint arrowheads were found around the perimeter. Many of the dead found in Early Neolithic long-barrows were killed by arrowshot or by clubs, picks, axes, or stones.
A combination of radiocarbon determinations (based on the decay of carbon-14 in organic remains) and ‘Bayesian’ statistics has produced new dates for these events. The construction of causewayed camps and long barrows and the advent of mass killing were broadly simultaneous. Between c. 3700 and 3400 BCE, a new order based on territorial control, tribal groups, large-scale ritual, and warfare was established in Britain.
This order empowered a new social layer of war-chiefs and high-priests. And from them, in the course of time, a ruling class would evolve.
Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.
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