Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Early civilisation, part 6: Art and war

One of the consequences of greater material wealth was the introduction of organised state violence into human affairs. Naturally, war was introduced to art, too — to better understand the art of war, we must begin by examining the nature of war itself.

The main controversy regarding war is whether or not it is an inevitable feature of human societies. The idealist response is to attempt to write warlike behaviour into our DNA, thus making it inescapable. One way of doing this is to stress our close genetic relationship with other animals. But crude analogies with other species, even our closest ape relatives, can only be taken so far — gorillas and chimpanzees are as peaceable as they are combative, and human evolution diverged from the great apes six million years ago. Our evolution owes much more to tool-making and social cooperation than it does to blood-soaked competition. Marxists accept that ‘human nature’ includes the potential for violence among our many behaviours, but we also have the potential to be peaceful; this only raises the question of how these potentials are encouraged by particular conditions. It does not follow that warfare is inevitable.

The ‘killer ape’?

The extreme view is that humans are a species of ‘killer ape’. This was proposed in the 1950s by the Australian anthropologist Raymond Dart with his theory of the ‘predatory transition from ape to man’, in which human evolution was predicated on violent competition. It was later built upon by the American anthropologist Robert Ardrey in his book African Genesis, where he wrote, “man had emerged from the anthropoid background for one reason only: because he was a killer” whose “natural instinct is to kill with a weapon”. This is the fundamental assumption behind William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies: that civilisation is a veneer that conceals bloodthirsty instincts. In fact, the idea is not, and has never been, taken seriously by anthropologists, as Dart and Ardrey relied upon the misinterpretation of tool and fossil evidence.[1]

Nonetheless the theory that humans have an innate propensity to violent conflict is useful, even necessary, for reactionaries and has persisted to the present, for example in the work of reductive socio-biologists. This persistence gives us absurd statements like this from war historian John Keegan:

Warfare is almost as old as man himself, and reaches into the most secret places of the human heart, places where self dissolves rational purpose, where pride reigns, where emotion is paramount, where instinct is king.[2]

That ‘almost’ is telling. The reality is that for the vast majority of human history there is little evidence for violence between humans at all, let alone war [3]. This is equally true of art. As R. Dale Guthrie pointed out:

Paleolithic art shows no drawings of group conflict, and there is virtually no indication from late Paleolithic skeletons of murderous violence. There is one Magdalenian skeleton from Le Veyrier, France, whose skull is marked with what appears to be a blow. A poorly preserved skull from Boil-Blu, France, likely of Aurignacian age, has a small flint embedded in the temporal bone. However, there are no Paleolithic ‘after-the-battle’ mass burials of warrior-aged males, which are common among later tribal groups.

Is it possible that what we have learned so thoroughly from history — the inescapability of war — is not the whole truth? Is it possible that warfare is not an inherent part of our entire past? That is what I propose.[4]

The period at the end of the Paleolithic during which humans created art lasted at least 30,000 years. So if warfare is so innate, why is it never depicted, especially given that it does appear later on? Its absence is extremely significant, as the Paleolithic was our formative period as a species and generally accounts for all but the last 10,000 of Homo sapiens’ years of existence.

Marxism does not dispute that the potential for aggression and violence is part of our nature as animals, and it would be foolish to claim that nobody in the Paleolithic ever fell victim to it. But there is a difference between acts of murder and warfare. There is no archaeological evidence of warfare before the Mesolithic, nor is war depicted in art, the only record left by preliterate peoples. This poses an insurmountable obstacle to theorists of the right. Even Lawrence Keeley, who dedicates a book to insisting that primitive society was not peaceful [5], offers no unambiguous evidence predating 10,000 years before the present.

If human society has not always practiced war, what changed in human society to introduce it?

The road to war

Paleolithic band societies subsisting from day to day had little material motivation to fight one another. On the contrary, when they were enjoying a small surplus, it was in their interests to share it with other groups, because those groups might help them in return when the circumstances were reversed. This is not to posit a blissful Golden Age, or to claim that violence between groups or individuals never happened in the Paleolithic; it is simply that the systematic group violence characteristic of warfare was unrewarding. There are images in Paleolithic art that represent hunting but that is very different to war, and we see nothing of the violence between human groups that is so prominent in the art of urban societies.

The key change that introduced warfare into human society was an increase in resources, which led to armed competition over them. The Neolithic Revolution produced great stores of food, valuable materials and long-distance trade goods that were worth fighting over. At the same time, it became possible for sedentary people or societies to own land, and therefore also to have it taken from them. This wealth required defending through the construction of forts and city walls — security was another of the various causes of the concentration of people and resources into towns. As early as 8000 BCE, stone walls two metres thick and protected by a trench were built around Jericho. It is in the Neolithic period that we begin to find evidence for systematic violence between communities, for example at Site 117 at Jebel Sahaba, Egypt dating to around 12,000 years ago, or the mass grave at Talheim in Germany dating to about 5000 BCE (though this evidence is not undisputed).

During the Neolithic and Bronze Age, warfare becomes a subject in art for the first time. Rock art in Arnhem Land in Australia from about 8000 BCE shows groups of human combatants. The rock art of the Spanish Levant, which dates to somewhere on the border between Mesolithic and Neolithic, features stick-like figures engaged in various activities including what look very like battle scenes, such as the confrontation between two groups of archers in the cave at Les Dogues.

Archers from Les DoguesImage of apparent combat between groups of archers. From Les Dogues in the Ares del Maestre, Spain. 8000 BCE or later.

As well as possessing a motivation for warfare, agricultural societies with food surpluses, highly skilled specialists, large populations, and strong social organisation had acquired the material basis for sustaining it. The surplus allowed the support of professional soldiers, and advanced techniques equipped them with armour, chariots, bronze weapons and siege engines. About 5000 years ago on the steppes of Asia, horses were tamed and soon became the tanks of ancient warfare. It is important to note however that technological advances were not causes of war: they simply made killing more efficient.

The military historian Richard Gabriel concluded: “This period saw the emergence of the whole range of social, political, economic, psychological, and military technologies that made the conduct of war a characteristic element of human social existence.”[6]

It would be wrong to claim that no hunter-gatherer society ever engages in warfare. Whereas anthropologists tend to subscribe to the view that warfare emerges with the development of surplus wealth through agriculture — also the traditional Marxist view — recent research has provided evidence of warfare between some hunter-gatherer societies. This is taken by the right as proof that anthropologists have been deluded and that peaceful human societies have indeed never existed. A response to this was offered by the anthropologist Douglas P. Fry, who follows archaeologist Robert L. Kelly [7] in observing that we may differentiate between ‘simple’ hunter-gatherer societies, which are “nomadic and egalitarian”, and ‘complex’, which are socially stratified and share features with sedentary societies, such as storing food, higher populations and permanent settlements.

Evidence suggests that the simple tends to precede the complex, and archaeologically speaking, complexity is very recent... Warfare is rare among simple egalitarian hunter-gatherers and pervasive among complex hunter-gatherer societies.[8]

Our thesis that competition over resources was a major cause of warfare still stands. Hunter-gatherers go to war for a variety of reasons, including slaving, territorialism, rights to fishing and hunting, and population pressure, most of which are ultimately conflicts over resources.

An additional defence of the materialist position was made by the anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson in his excellent article The Birth of War:

It looks as if, all around the world, what has been called primitive or indigenous warfare was generally transformed, frequently intensified, and sometimes precipitated by Western contact... Indigenous warfare recorded in recent centuries cannot be taken as typical of prehistoric tribal peoples.[9]

Conflicts that have been recorded by modern anthropologists, most notoriously the disputes among the Yanomami people of the Amazon recorded by Napoleon Chagnon, can not be taken as straightforward evidence of “the natural human condition of eons past” because external interference has altered social behaviour. Ferguson concludes for example that the Yanomami conflicts “seemed to have been fought over access to steel tools and other goods distributed by Westerners”. Extrapolations of the results of contemporary ethnographic research into a generalised ‘human nature’ must be made with appropriate caution and with regard to all the available evidence.

Marxist theory, which has traditionally rooted warfare in the surpluses of the Neolithic Revolution, can acknowledge that hunter-gatherer societies also experience war. The Neolithic Revolution is especially significant, however, because the societies that did not embrace it were marginal to the broad development of human history. The existence of armed conflict between modern ‘complex’ hunter-gatherer societies does not prove its existence among the hunter-gatherers of the Paleolithic, so the argument remains that war is not an innate human behaviour but historically conditioned.

Class and war

Some of the roots of class society lie in the resolution of disputes and crises. To take the example of Sumer: whereas decisions used to be taken by councils of elders, around 2800 BCE the Sumerians began to elect a lugal or ‘big man’ with special executive powers in order to resolve particular crises, such as wars. The more endemic warfare became, the longer the lugal remained in power and gained authority through his influence over the military and other social forces. Once he began to hand his position down to his children, monarchy had been born. Later, these monarchs sought to increase the extent of their wealth and prestige through success in war. As Childe wrote, “military conquest is one means of assuring the accumulation of a surplus of wealth.”[10]

Command of material resources and the promotion of war went hand-in-hand, therefore, with the development of class society. This was summarised by Engels:

The military leader of the people, rex, basileus, thiudans — becomes an indispensable, permanent official. The assembly of the people takes form, wherever it did not already exist. Military leader, council, assembly of the people are the organs of gentile society developed into military democracy — military, since war and organisation for war have now become regular functions of national life. Their neighbours’ wealth excites the greed of peoples who already see in the acquisition of wealth one of the main aims of life. They are barbarians: they think it more easy and in fact more honorable to get riches by pillage than by work. War, formerly waged only in revenge for injuries or to extend territory that had grown too small, is now waged simply for plunder and becomes a regular industry. Not without reason the bristling battlements stand menacingly about the new fortified towns; in the moat at their foot yawns the grave of the gentile constitution, and already they rear their towers into civilisation. Similarly in the interior. The wars of plunder increase the power of the supreme military leader and the subordinate commanders; the customary election of their successors from the same families is gradually transformed, especially after the introduction of father-right, into a right of hereditary succession, first tolerated, then claimed, finally usurped; the foundation of the hereditary monarchy and the hereditary nobility is laid.[11]

Leaving aside Engels’ rather crude comment about ‘barbarians’ who don’t want to work, this is an accurate account. So it is unsurprising that monarchs take pride of place in the works of art celebrating success in war.

Pharaoh Ahmose I fighting the HyksosPharaoh Ahmose I fighting the Hyksos.The Pharaoh is portrayed several times larger than both his enemies and his own troops, emphasising his exceptional status. You can see a similar image of Tutankhamun in battle here.

The new state structures created by class society provided the basis for the organisation and promotion of warfare, and saw a shift of allegiances from clans to state. This was assisted by the rise of organised religion, with the priesthood providing ideological justification for conflict by asserting the aristocracy’s divine imperative. If the cosmic order declares in favour of a war, who will dare to challenge it? No ruler explicitly declares a selfish class interest as their motivation for a war — the toiling majority who make up the soldiery stand to gain little or nothing from it, so the reasons are presented in terms of collective security, benefits and necessity. This practice continues today.

Another aspect of state structure was a coercive apparatus of which soldiers were an essential part — as Engels put it, “a public force which is no longer immediately identical with the people’s own organisation of themselves as an armed power.”[12] Lenin famously commented:

Engels elucidates the concept of the ‘power’ which is called the state, a power which arose from society but places itself above it and alienates itself more and more from it. What does this power mainly consist of? It consists of special bodies of armed men having prisons, etc, at their command.[13]

In Mesopotamia and Egypt we see the first armies in history. An inscription records of Sargon of Akkad that “5,400 warriors ate bread daily before him”, a probable reference to a standing army. With such armies the Akkadians, Babylonians, Assyrians and many other cultures began creating the first empires. In China, evidence like the defensive walls at Taosi dates war to at least the third millenium BC, and war consolidated the early dynasties. In Mesoamerica, some Olmec iconography may represent war, but the evidence is clear from 700 BCE with the fortifications, weapons and war images of the Zapotec.

In this context, neighbouring hunter-gatherer societies were either conquered or had to adopt the new mode of production themselves in order to survive.[14]

Marxism is sometimes misleadingly described as thinking that war is a result of class society (by Wikipedia, for example). In reality, Marxism recognises the totality of conditions — resources, dynasticism, religion and many other things play a role. Class is one of the most fundamental factors, which in turn conditions others. But it is contrary to Marxist theory to assert that war, or any other thing, can be reduced to class alone. Otherwise, explaining the existence of war in stratified but non-class hunter-gatherer societies would be impossible.

The art of war in early civilisation

We cannot of course survey the depiction of war across all cultures, so I will simply look at a few important examples. We have already mentioned the Standard of Ur, whose ‘war’ panel depicts chariots and troops from an unknown campaign.

Standard of Ur, war panelThe ‘war’ panel from the Standard of Ur. Sumer, ca. 2500 BCE.

Sumer, never a unified state like Egypt or Assyria, was in a constant state of competitive warfare, with each city fighting one another or making temporary alliances for control of access to water, or to the systems of dams and irrigation canals that had been dug in the fertile valley. The prisoners taken in war became slaves. On the bottom strip of the Standard, four-wheeled wagons drawn by horses ride over the bodies of their enemies, in the earliest known depiction of the martial use of the wheel; on the middle strip, we see troops in metal helmets herding prisoners; and on the top strip, the king stands amidst his forces as prisoners are led to him.

Another of the early artistic testaments to war in Mesopotamia are the steles. We have referred already to the Victory Stele of Narâm-Sin. Another is the Stele of the Vultures, a stone monument built in about 2450 BCE for King Eannatum of Lagash. At this time, the dominant rivalry in Sumer was between the city states of Lagash and Umma, who fought one another over rights to irrigation from the Tigris. The Stele celebrates a victory of Lagash over Umma, with the monarch himself in a wagon brandishing weapons.

Stele of the VulturesSection of the now fragmented Stele of the Vultures, made of carved limestone. Photo: Eric Gaba.

The Stele shows us that the Sumerians fought in disciplined formations — phalanxes with an eight-man front. In other words, these were trained, professional soldiers.

Among Mesopotamia’s most impressive illustrations of war are the extraordinary friezes of the Assyrians. At its height, the Assyrian empire controlled an area from Egypt and the Mediterranean to the entirety of Mesopotamia. The kings of Assyria ordered impressive sculptures to record their battles. Success in war was a matter of great pride to them, as Georges Roux observed:

Scores of reliefs, obviously intended to illustrate the written descriptions that ran endlessly on orthostats, on steles, on monoliths, on mountain rocks and around statues, represent soldiers parading, fighting, killing, plundering, pulling down city walls and escorting prisoners.[15]

The Assyrians mastered the art of the relief, a technique which they may have acquired from the Hittites of Anatolia. Using slabs of stone either imported or mined from local hills, Assyrian artisans used great precision and an excellent sense of design to carve decorative friezes into the walls and corridors of their buildings. Although highly stylised, they are full of movement and closely observed detail. The scenes depicted concentrate upon the king and his exploits in hunting and war, and function as a kind of propaganda to inspire admiration and fear in the ruled.

Assyrian battle sceneAssyrian battle scene. Photo: Kaptain Kobold (flickr).

Roux adds that alongside this parade of kings, slayings and humiliations of enemies, another kind of subject matter can be seen:

In this series of pictorial war records without equivalent in any country, among this almost monotonous display of horrors, must be set apart some reliefs which have no parallel in the inscriptions: those that show soldiers at rest in their camps and under their tents, grooming horses, slaughtering cattle, cooking food, eating, drinking, playing games and dancing. These little scenes, teeming with life, give the tragedy of war a refreshing human touch. Through the ruthless killer of yore emerges a familiar and congenial figure: the humble, simple, light-hearted, eternal ‘rank-and-file’.

The few surviving examples of mural painting, such as those from Tell Ahmar, suggest that the Assyrians were skilled too in this technique, which would have decorated almost all public buildings. These reliefs were not surpassed until those of ancient Greece, but the parallel reveals one of the Assyrian works’ most striking characteristics: none of the many human beings depicted in these friezes possesses individuality. Every face, whether of a king hunting lions or of a dying soldier, is identical — characteristic of the static art of early despotism.

The Assyrians built a big military empire, but their own turn came in 612 BCE, when their capital city of Nineveh was so completely destroyed by the Babylonians that it never recovered. None of the conquering peoples who marched one after another across the Fertile Crescent were able to impose their rule for more than a few centuries.

We could look at countless further examples of war in the art of ancient civilisation, from the prisoners of war depicted on murals at the Maya site of Bonampak to the Terracotta Army of China. What these works have in common is they are the product of a particular set of material conditions predicated upon agricultural surpluses and class-based state societies.


The idea that we cannot help fighting each other may seem convincing after the brutality displayed by Homo sapiens in two World Wars, Vietnam, etc. But many other species of animal kill each other much more frequently than humans, who, in view of their supposed aggression, are in fact extraordinarily co-operative and sociable. The existence of peaceable communities like the Mbuti of the Congo belie the claim that all humans are warlike (again, with the caveat that to be without war does not mean to be without violence altogether). The key consideration is how certain of our potential behaviours are encouraged and directed by society.

As with all theory, our explanation of war depends upon the political position of the theorist. Supporters of capitalist society like to suggest that war has always existed, because it is part of ‘human nature’ to compete violently with one another. From this perspective, one avoids confronting war’s roots in class, inequality and imperialism. But one would then have to argue that warfare ‘must’ have existed in the Paleolithic and that the missing evidence has either perished or is still awaiting discovery. Needless to say, this is of no scientific use. We could as easily claim that the ancient Egyptians bred brontosauruses and that we just haven’t found the bones yet. In order to understand history and human society as they actually are, we need to take a more scientific approach. For Marxists, there is no ideological obstacle to accepting the actual historical record.

Contrary to those who see us as ‘killer apes’, the evidence — or absence of it — encourages the conclusion that warfare is a comparatively very recent development based on concrete changes in material conditions. Overwhelmingly, warfare arises as a result of conflicts over resources, whether among some complex hunter-gatherer societies or in urban societies with large surpluses of food and wealth, more technologically efficient ways of killing people, and above all a ruling class that was the main beneficiary from organised violence. The legacy of art supports this.

As the practice of war is historically conditioned, there remains the possibility that further changes in those conditions could eliminate war altogether. This is only utopian if one believes in a fixed and eternal human nature unaffected by its environment.

[1] See for example Boyce Rensberger, ‘The Killer Ape is Dead’ (1973).
[2] John Keegan, A History of Warfare (1994).
[3] This may of course simply be down to the incomplete fossil record, and the difficulty of interpreting both the causes of injuries and the purposes of tools — but the fact remains. A number of skeletons from the Mesolithic and Neolithic, by contrast, have been found with injuries from projectiles and other instruments.
[4] R. Dale Guthrie, The Nature of Paleolithic Art (2005).
[5] Lawrence H. Keeley, War Before Civilisation (1997).
[6] Richard A. Gabriel, The Great Armies of Antiquity (2002).
[7] Robert L. Kelly, The Foraging Spectrum Diversity in Hunter-Gatherer Lifeways (2007).
[8] Douglas P. Fry, Beyond War: The Human Potential for Peace (2007).
[9] R. Brian Ferguson, ‘The Birth of War’, Natural History July/August 2003.
[10] Childe, Man Makes Himself (1936).
[11] Engels, Chapter 9 ‘Barbarism and Civilisation’ from The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Vladimir Lenin, from Chapter 1 of State and Revolution (1917).
[14] This is the probable reason why the hunter-gatherer societies that have survived into the present tend to be those who live in isolated locations, such as the island of Australia or the Amazon rain forest.
[15] Georges Roux, Ancient Iraq (1964, revised 1992).

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