Small population size and little need for competition is an excellent explanation for the lack of conflict during the transition to agriculture. However, there’s also another possible explanation – co-operation.

Jericho, 9000 BC

Jericho, 9000 BC

In my previous post I tried to gather together the evidence for violence in the transition from foraging to farming across the Near East. Much of it is known by academics but it’s rarely put together.

What the evidence appears to show is that there is a fall in violence during the transition to agriculture in the Near East and that this lasts for perhaps 2,000 years. The fall seems to start early, even with the first experiments in agriculture. However, violent conflict increases with the increase in inequality and more complex agricultural methods.

Such a pattern is recognisable in other instances of agriculture, for example in Eastern North America, with conflict reducing gradually around 1,000 BC and rising again around 2,000 years later around 1,000 AD.

The simple explanation

There is a perfectly simple explanation for the fall in violence as agriculture started. As Jonathan Haas argues for Eastern North America, the initial state of violence before agriculture was due to the land reaching its holding capacity. There was no spare land to feed more foragers. As with Robert Carneiro’s model, people turned inward to battle each other.

But when agriculture, or at least some sort of horticulture, started to be practised then the strain caused by food shortage started to ease. Individual groups no longer needed to be at each other’s throats. As this period of plenty started the fear of war lifted as everyone could feed themselves.

However, once agriculture became established then agricultural populations gradually rose. Eventually, there was a return to the old situation where the holding capacity of the land was reached, but now, because of agriculture, this was at a much higher population density. Tribes fought for space and food in the new, fully farmed landscape. Thus, conflict returned.

There is nothing wrong with this model. It’s explanatory power is excellent. Furthermore, Ian Kuijt has made a good case for rising populations all through this period in the Levant, something which only slowed or reversed at the time of increasing signs of violence, in the PPNC.

So why am I writing this post?

The problems

There are two things which are nagging at me:

  • Why is it that in some places in the world the transition to agriculture led to a fall in violence, as seen above, but in other places (in fact more often than not) it led to a rise? If the story above were true, shouldn’t a pattern of falling conflict be seen everywhere?
  • Why is it that during such a period of low food stress we see a rise in the uniformity of religion and evidence for increased trade between groups. Why would they need to bother?

For the second point this circumstance is particularly noticeable in the Near East. Trade in projectile points, obsidian and other minerals and stones (e.g. greenstone) as well as copper noticeably increases during the transition to agriculture, so much so that the Near Eastern Levant region was dubbed the ‘PPNB Interaction Sphere’ by Ofer Bar-Yosef and Anna Belfer-Cohen.

Additionally, a uniformity of culture and, in all likelihood, religion settled across the region, especially from Middle PPNB times, at the time when agriculture became reality.

This is quite extraordinary when it’s realised that many of the agricultural settlements were located around very localised, well-watered alluvial fans but were separated by large stretches of agriculture-free land. Why should these isolated farmers need to have much to do with each other?

Co-operation – the more complex explanation

Foraging was a relatively small-scale system, with groups of less than 100 operating in a way that they believed to be independent of other groups. Interactions with other groups were often for acquiring sexual partners. Groups were relatively mobile and tended to move to where the supply of food was most promising. Groups had little reason to be friendly with other groups. This pattern of behaviour changed when people started to settle in one place, therefore needed to rely more on the foods available locally.

Unreliable agriculture

Early agriculture was highly unreliable. If each group of people were simply to work with the cereals and, perhaps, animals that they started to cultivate or raise then the chances of catastrophic failure would be high for most settlements.

Most early farmers still relied to a large extent on hunting and the collection of grains. However, these were also of limited supply and, with the rising populations seen in early agriculture, local sources could have been exhausted quite quickly during a run of bad harvests for a settlement.

Pooling resources

However, an alternative to self-reliance would be co-operation with other groups. Like being a member of the Masons, a church or any other similar collective establishment, buying into a larger scale grouping than the local tribe allowed people a chance not to fail in their ‘start-up business’.

Religion provided a commonality between groups across the Near East. While they may have spoken different languages, they shared ‘PPN’ism, the religious rituals which led to particular burial rites, etc. These were important in letting people from different settlements know how to behave and interact with each other when they met.

Perhaps more importantly, in any settlements’ time of need due to crop failure, loans from other settlements could be made in grain or other surplus. These loans might be said to be gifts but were in effect to be paid back in due course, even if at low or zero rates of interest. Payment could be again made in grain or other surplus in better future years.

All of this may have been ‘accounted’ by the exchange of less useful gifts, whether stone or metal beads or some other items, these gifts being in recognition of the debt owed. In effect these would act as a form of money. Each settlement would have such items in their repertoire as insurance, a kind of ‘bank of last resort’ during a crisis.

Through such a process of mutual support, agricultural failure in any one settlement would not lead to catastrophe for its inhabitants. Better, higher yield grains and more productive animals could be brought in and, if successfully grown even passed on from community to community. Given enough time (say 2,000 years), individual settlements could become increasingly self-reliant.

The rise of independence

And this, of course, would be where the trouble started. As settlements became more independent, the need to be part of the larger system would fade. Groups would have less reason to deal with each other and more reason to return to the normal state of humanity – suspicion and hostility toward strangers.

Interestingly, the other consequence of this, apart from isolationism, would be the loss of importance of the gift items which were exchanged between groups. And, sure enough, one of the features of the Late PPNB is the burial of individuals with copper beads, stone pendants and other ‘luxuries’, something which had never occurred previously. These items were no longer essential to the greater community – they had become items of individual status and wealth.


What I’m arguing for here only makes sense if agriculture developed locally. If agriculture was imported, fully formed, from another area then there would be no reason to see this need for co-operation between groups, at least not for long. This may explain why the Eastern North American experiment with farming also showed the same pattern of falling violence, whereas many other locations did not.

What I’m further arguing is that warfare may be a result of there being only low levels of risk for the initiator. If you knew the risk was great that you’d lose you probably wouldn’t start a war. Early, experimental farming communities had everything to lose by picking a fight with their neighbours. Co-operation was the only sensible strategy. Those groups of farmers that didn’t co-operate with others, or even chose to be hostile to them, would probably die out quickly without the support of their neighbours.

Conversely, the increasing independance of communities as time went on, whether because of better grains or animals or manuring or improved cookery techniques (e.g. using pots to cook), meant that these groups were much less at risk if they didn’t co-operate. They had much less to lose by choosing to be aggressive and, perhaps, quite a lot to gain.

I’m not saying that communities were ever completely independent; such a state is extremely unlikely. Communities often need something, for example salt, from outside. It’s just that such trade could be done by middlemen, and groups need never worry about their acts of aggression preventing that trade.


Taking a view of co-operation like the one I’ve suggested above sounds a bit like those who said Europe was too interlinked for war in 1914. It’s true that this didn’t stop war breaking out. However, it’s also true that, from an economic point of view, WWI benefitted almost no-one in Europe. After half a century and the loss of millions of lives the concensus in Europe was for a return to co-operation. Half a century later and the mood appears to be turning daft again.

So maybe early farmers were just as daft, not taking potential risks into account either. They may simply have ‘learned’ not to fight through a process of artificial selection – choose to be the aggressor and you will die out, due to your supplies being cut off. We haven’t had that level of selection recently – if we choose to be the aggressor now we might lose the war but the effects are generally not terminal. Our method of learning has been through education, but education is not as harsh a tutor as being wiped out. This is perhaps why we keep making the same mistakes.

At other times in history the relative independance of groups or states has meant that the advantage was with the most aggressive aggressor (and, to a lesser extent, with the most docile and biddable). A way to keep yourself supplied was everything when launching a successful war. Either way, there is no simple rule for whether to be a ‘hawk’ or a ‘dove’ in your action – it all depends.


Bar-Yosef, O. & Belfer-Cohen, A. 1989 The Levantine ‘‘PPNB’’ interaction sphere. In: I. Hershkovitz (Ed.), ‘People and culture in change: Proceedings of the second symposium on Upper Paleolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic populations of Europe and the Mediterranean Basin’. BAR International Series 508(i) (pp. 59–72). Oxford: Archaeopress.

Eshed, V. et al. 2010 Paleopathology and the Origin of Agriculture in the Levant, Wiley Interscience.

Comments on fall and rise in violence at the transition to agriculture, p122?

Haas, J. 1999 The Origins of War And Ethnic Violence, In: ‘Ancient Warfare: Archaeological Perspectives’ (Carman, J. & A. Harding, eds.), Sutton, 11-24.

Kuijt, I. 2008 Demography and Storage Systems During the Southern Levantine Neolithic Demographic Transition, In: The Neolithic Demographic Transition and its Consequences (Bocquet-Appel, J.P. & O. Bar-Yosef, eds.), 287-313.




Does farming lead to violence, violence lead to farming, or was the period during and after the invention of farming in the Near East as peaceful as it gets?

unfunny cartoonYou’ll find many opinions on the role of farming on the origins of violence and of violence on the origins of farming in human history. I’m not sure how many of the current opinion holders have ever looked at the available data for the Near East, where the first transition to farming occurred. They really should.

As far as I can tell it was Ofer Bar-Yosef, talking about the first walls of Jericho back in 1986, who first drew attention to this data:

‘There is no archaeological evidence, in the form of burned settlements, the remains of mass massacres, or fortifications, for the existence of social aggression in the Levant before the 6th millennium B.C.

Prof. Bar-Yosef was looking purely at cultures which straddled the change from foraging to farming in his own neighbourhood, along the Levantine margin of the Mediterranean. He wasn’t looking further north and west at contemporary events in the foothills of the Taurus and beyond. I want here to extend that view.

Spotting conflict in the archaeological record

The aim of this post is to discuss the available evidence for violence at the foraging-farming transition in the whole of the Near East. To do this I need to discuss the evidence of fortifications or extensive destruction of settlements, usually by fire, and the clues from burials. Where other evidence is available I will use it. Sadly, the evidence of weapons is, as far as I can tell, of little use for this period, as these are too generic to indicate whether they are used for hunting or conflict.

For signs of violence, burials reveal either sharp blades and points apparently within body cavities or in bone, and other evidence of trauma (some kind of injury shown in the bone). Particular traumas that are often seen and may be associated with violence are ‘cranial depressed fracture’ (due to head bashes with a blunt instrument) and ‘parry fractures’ (ulna breaks, due to holding up arms in self-defence). However, any fracture could be the result of accident.

As much as anything else though, trauma studies reveal the variability of detail given in reports. The examples of trauma or weapon damage sited below are undoubtedly not all that have been recovered. This is why I have mentioned a lack of evidence only where studies have been done.

Furthermore, bones do not reveal soft-tissue damage, whether by violence or not. It is also difficult to analyse bones which have been subject to corrosion after burial. This means that any estimates of violence will be low compared to reality, although this will be true of other archaeological ages too.

Lastly, all dated quoted are approximate, calibrated dates.

The Late Epipalaeolithic (~12,750 to 9,750 BC)

Possible signs of conflict in the Late Epipalaeolithic (Natufian).

Possible signs of conflict in the Late Epipalaeolithic (Natufian).

In the Near East, the Late Epipalaeolithic is the time of the first evidence for settlement. Many of the excavations for this period are concentrated in the southern Levant, although other excavations in Syria and Iraq indicate that there are more to be found elsewhere.


Tell Qaramel, Syria (10,900-9500 BC) – Excavations by Ryszard Mazarovski’s team recorded five round towers within the settlement. They date from the end of the Epipalaeolithic to about the middle of the PPNA, around the time that initial farming experiments were taking place. The reasons for their construction are unknown.

Skeletal Evidence

Hayonim Cave (13,200-11,800 BC) – Of 48 individuals, two young men and a young girl showed evidence of cranial trauma (both of the men from the earlier half of the period, the girl from the later half). Another child showed a fractured jawbone. Other injuries include a fractured upper leg, fractured lower leg, and two cases of a broken foot.

El Wad (13,000-?11,000 BC) – A young man showed cranial depressed trauma. Other injuries include a broken jaw, a fractured hand and a fractured foot.

Kebara Cave (12,500-11,000 BC) – From Fanny Bocquentin’s study of of six adult males and twelve children, three adult males, all from the earlier half of the period, show serious injuries. One had a projectile buried in his spine. A slightly younger man had a cranial fracture on the top of his head, and the last had a skull impact that embedded a portion of skull in his brain.

Ain Mallaha (12,100-10,400 BC) – Of 102 individuals, an old man and woman and a younger man showed evidence of cranial trauma. Additionally, an adult female, of earlier date, had a projectile point buried in the front of her face. Other injuries included a possible parry fracture (ulna) toward the end of the period and a fractured hand and foot.

Rakefet (11,300-10,400 BC) – Of 4 individuals, one child, around 10 years, showed evidence of cranial trauma.

Zawi Chemi-Shanidar (10,600 – 10,300 BC) – Arkadiusz Sołtysiak sites evidence for healed cranial fractures in 4 out of 9 buried individuals (two men, one young woman and a child), described by the original investigators (Ralph Solecki and others) as ‘of malicious intent’.

Et Tin (?10,300-9,500 BC) – Of 5 individuals none was found to have serious injury, although this was based on only fragmentary jawbones.

Nahal Oren (10,300-9,500 BC) – Of 41 individuals, an older man and woman (from the second half of the period) had evidence of cranial trauma. If this is the same woman reported by Denise Ferembach in 1959, then it was fatal. Additional injuries include a rib fracture.

(By way of comparison, at cemetery 117,  Jebel Sahaba, Sudan, dated to at least 12000 BC and probably older, 40% of the 59 or so individuals showed signs of violent, possibly fatal, trauma.)

Much of the above data comes from the doctorates of Vered Eshed and Fanny Bocquentin, both based on material from the southern Levant. Eshed, in his analysis of the data, found that fractures in general were seen on about 3% of 200 skeletons analysed. However, skull fractures were much more common, seen in 9 out of 54 skulls analysed (about 17%). Bocquentin’s data shows that of 8 people showing signs of trauma suggesting violence 6 or 7 were from the first half of the period, including the two with projectile wounds. Whether this difference is significant would need further study.

PPNA to Middle PPNB (~9,750 to 7,400 BC)

Possible signs of conflict during the PPNA and Middle PPNB

Possible signs of conflict during the PPNA and Middle PPNB, with the extent of agriculture shown in green.

The Pre-Pottery Neolithic A (or PPNA) is the time when initial experiments in agriculture were tried. However, it was from early in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B (or PPNB) that agriculture appears to have become central to the survival of many Near Eastern communities. Even so, it was of a primitive form. I have lumped these two phases together as the skeletal evidence for them is often not distinguished in the literature.


Almost all of the Pre-pottery Neolithic settlements are built in areas without natural protection given by the landscape. Of all the settlements of this period so far found in the Near East only one has defensive structures. However, sites in the Anatolian highlands such as Aşıklı Höyük have  houses which are densely clustered with small windows and roof entrances. These have been taken by some, following James Mellaart’s lead, to indicate a defensive aspect.

Jericho (9,750-9,300 BC) – Kathleen Kenyon’s team found evidence for massive walls and a central tower here in the 1950s. The walls and tower were first constructed around 9,750 BC, around the beginning of the the PPNA. They went out of use by around 9,300BC.

The walls were interpreted by Kenyon as defensive structures, and have been taken as such by many theorists since. However, Ofer Bar-Yosef made a good case that the walls were in fact to defend the settlement against mudflows coming from upslope during flash-floods. This was based on the thickness of the walls being much greater on the upslope side, the rapid accumulation of mud against each phase of walls (rebuilt at about 100 to 200 year intervals), and the abandonment of wall building once the settlement had risen noticeably above the floodplain.

The reason for the building of the tower, as with that of Tell Qaramel, is unknown, but its central location in the settlement suggested to Bar-Yosef that it was not defensive.


Beidha (~7,900 BC) – There is evidence of fire destruction in Level IV, thought to be roof fires, that appears to have resulted in changes in house design after this time.

Skeletal Evidence

Nemrik 9  (9,600-?7,300 BC) – Of 28 individuals studied, Arkadiusz Sołtysiak found no evidence for cranial fracture or damage. Minor injuries to individuals included hands, a lower arm, a rib and a knee.

Körtik Tepe (~9,600 to 9,300 BC) – of 10 individuals identified healed depressed cranial fractures occur on 2 adult young men.

Jerf el Ahmar (9,500-8,700 BC) – 1 young adult female was found ‘sprawled’ on the cleared and cleaned floor of a burnt building with evidence of peri-mortem decapitation (the head is missing).

Ganj Dareh (8,300-7,500BC) – Of 49 individuals studied, 1 middle aged man showed depressed cranial fracture and one young woman a healed fracture on her upper leg.

Jericho (8,350-7,380 BC) – Of 477 individuals studied the injures seen, all minor and healed, included a rib and arm fracture, two upper leg fractures and a lower leg fracture. Steven A. LeBlanc asserts (in the unseen ‘Early Neolithic Warfare in the Near East and its broader implications’) that there were ‘a few… healed skull fractures’ but these are not mentioned by Glencross & Boz in their literature search.

Abu Madi, Ujrat el-Mehed and Wadi Tbeik (8,500 and 7,300 BC) – Of three early agricultural sites listed here, all from South Sinai, a rather confusing report by Glencross & Boz states 20 individuals studied and only one individual showing evidence of a healed rib fracture.

Yiftahel (?8,100-7,000 BC)- Of 3 plastered skulls dated around 7,900 BC one, probably an adult woman, showed evidence of a small, healed depressed cranial trauma. However, Vered Eshed found only minor skeletal fractures on 8 other individuals studied.

Abu Hureyra – (?8,600-?6,000 BC) Of 39 individuals, Sołtysiak found no evidence for cranial fracture or wounds.

Çayönü (8,200-7,400 BC) – of 626 individuals identified, 6 (5 including young adults) show evidence of healed cranial depressed fracture, 1 adult has evidence of a depressed fracture near the eye, there is evidence of serious bruising on a jaw, and there is also a parry fracture on a adult.

Aşıklı Höyük (8,200-7,400 BC) – of ?65 individuals identified, depressed cranial fracture is found on 1 mature man and, possibly, on a mature woman.

Musular (?7,500 BC) – of 8 individuals studied from this site, associated with Aşıklı Höyük, 1 showed depressed cranial fracture.

Ghwair 1 (?7,600-7,500 BC) – Probably from the final phase of the settlement (phase III), an incomplete skull (with forearm fragments) of an elderly female had a projectile point embedded in her jaw. This appears to be the most severe incident during this period. However, the burial is badly disturbed so the date could be later.

(Again, by way of comparison, the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer cemetry of Vasil’evka III, from the Middle Dnieper Rapids area in the Ukraine, dated to 9600 BC, contains two bodies with arrowheads imbedded in bones, one in the spine, one in a rib.)

Vered Eshed’s doctorate also highlights a further 137 individuals from this period, coming from 7 sites in the southern Levant: Abu Gosh (8,300-?7,500 BC), Gilgal (9,600-9100 BC), Hatoula (?10,200-9,300 BC), Horvat Galil (?8,700-7,800), Kfar Hahoresh (?8500-7000 BC), Nahal Oren (?9,100-8,600) & Netiv Hagdud (9,200-?8,000 BC). Of these, there was only one case of cranial trauma identified during this period (at the earliest site, Hatoula) and occasional minor trauma only in other cases.

Notably, Eshed concludes that overall trauma levels are unchanged between the Epipalaeolithic and the Pre-Pottery Neolithic. However, the evidence of cranial depressed fracture in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic is much lower, with just the 1 individual from Hatoula identified out of the 30 skulls studied (compare with the results for the Epipalaeolithic above).

Other indicators

Traces of human blood have been found at Çayönü on the floor of the ‘Terrazzo Building’ and the ‘Skull Building’. The ‘Terrazzo Building’ has a smooth floor with drainage channels, whereas the ‘Skull Building’ was where many skulls were placed. As pointed out by Tatiana Kornienko, similar buildings have been found along the Upper Euphrates River at Nevalı Çori & Tell ‘Abr 3.

Klaus Schmidt, the excavator of Göbekli Tepe, also drew attention to the apparent carving of a headless man with erection near the base of one of the upright stones there (the ‘Vulture Stone’ of structure D), interpreting it as a sign of a death-erection due to execution.

This itself raises the larger issue of decapitation in the Late Epipalaeolithic and Pre-pottery Neolithic. Evidence of skulls separated from the rest of the skeleton after decomposition is frequent in the Near East during this time. However, some of the evidence, especially the presence of some neck vertebrae showing cut marks, or the body from Jerf el Ahmar, suggests that some heads were removed from bodies at the time of death or shortly afterward.

Late PPNB to PPNC (~7,400 to 6,250 BC)

Possible signs of conflict in the Late PPNB and PPNC in the Near East.

Possible signs of conflict in the Late PPNB and PPNC in the Near East.

This is the time where more recognisable styles of agriculture, including the use of animals, became widespread and pottery started to be used. There is an increased tendency during this period for the development of ‘mega-sites’, large settlements, quite densely packed.


During the PPNC only one site has currently been shown to have walls. However, house-clustering becomes more common throughout the region, from Anatolia down to the Levant.

Tell Maghzaliyah (6,800-6,600 BC) Excavated by a Nikolai Bader’s Russian team in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a ‘massive enclosure’ was found in the final levels (14 and 15) of the settlement.

Ras Shamrah (later ‘Ugarit’, 7,500-7,000BC) – Excavated by Claude Schaeffer in the 1930s, this had a 5 metre high, earth cored, gravel and stone rampart which could well have been for sea defence.

From about 6,500BC more sites have walls or similar defences, including Hacılar, Kuruçay, Bademağacı, Tell Es Sawwan and Khirokitia, as well as Nea Nikomedia in northern Greece.


From around 6500 BC there are frequent signs of extensive fire, such as at Tell Sabi Abyad, Can Hasan, Yümüktepe, Hacılar, Bademağacı (mentioned below), Höyüçek and Çatal Höyük.

James Mellaart also mentioned possible ‘traces of disturbance from Çukurkent (~6700 BC), although what these are I couldn’t tell, so will not consider it further for the moment.


Lee Clare and his co-writers point out that this period, especially from around 6,500 BC, is associated with the rise in the occurrence of ‘sling missiles’ (rugby or american football shaped clay pieces) as the number of arrowheads falls, and that these missiles appear to occur frequently in areas with other indicators of conflict (e.g. Tell Sabi Abyad, Höyüçek and Çatal Höyük).

However, the quality of such missiles needs to be considered to be sure that they could always effectively be used as weapons against others. This is highlighted by Catherine Perlès, who argues for the use of poorly baked sling missiles to control livestock in a region of Greece with no other indicators of conflict in the centuries after 6,500 BC.

Skeletal Evidence

Basta (Jordan) (7,500 – 7,000 BC) – Of 29 adults, five had healed cranial fractures. Two fractures, one healed and one fatal, were also found on a boy of about 8-12 years.

Ain Ghazal (7,400-6,700 BC) – Of 7 individuals studied 1 man had a flint blade fatally embedded in his head, as well as broken bones, strongly suggestive of violence.

Çatal Höyük (7,400-6,300 BC) – of 670 individuals identified, 8, including two women, show evidence of what’s described as ‘head wounds’. One old female also shows a healed depressed cranial fracture. Other potential conflict related injuries include 3 parry fractures and a healed ulna fracture (a parry fracture too?). Other injuries include five fractured upper leg bones, one healed, a fractured rib, a shoulder fracture, a healed foot bone, ‘splinters of bone’ embedded in the elbow, and one individual with two fractured but healed lower leg bones and damage to the base of their spine.

Atlit Yam (?7,000-6,500 BC) – Of 60 individuals studied, Vered Eshed only found evidence for only minor trauma.

Nemrik 9 (7,000 – 6,500 BC) – from the final phase of site occupation there are arrow heads associated with the skeletal remains of several individuals which are thought to have been embedded in the bodies at the time of death. According to Brian Ferguson (perhaps quoting Gary Rollefson’s ‘Violence in Eden‘ comment), ‘One male skull contained two points, a second skeleton had a point in the pelvic area, and a third had a broken point next to a broken arm. These points are of a type that is unusual locally, suggesting that attackers had come from a distance.’

Bademağacı (7,100-6,200 BC) – of 48 individuals identified, 7 show evidence of depressed cranial fracture, mostly healed, but one, in the case of an older woman, probably a fatal blow. Other individuals show fractures around their hands and fingers. As well as this 11 people, including women and children, also appear to have been killed in a house fire late in the sequence (around 6300 BC cal).

Abu Hureyra (~6,900 -6,500 BC?) – the original excavators found the skeleton of one man with an arrow head in the chest region, suggesting a fatal shot (trench E, phase 6).

Tell Ain el-Kerkh (6,500-6,200BC) – Of 237 individuals at the site Akira Tsuneki & Sean Dougherty identified 127 adults, 10 men and 3 women showed skeletal trauma, 7 of them showing multiple injuries, possibly indicative of violence. 1 man had fatal fractures on his head and jaw, associated with signs of ‘boring’ (a weapon?). Three other individuals showed signs of skull trauma. Another man had healed fractures on his hand, wrist, shoulder, possibly with ‘other wounds’. Two women had forearm fractures, one with a broken shoulder, the other with several broken ribs and a broken foot. Most injuries were to the hands, feet and upper body. As well as these, a young man seems to have been killed by what in all likelihood was an accident, his thigh bone being badly broken.

Khirokitia (6,900-5,400 BC) – out of an unknown number of individuals identified, an adult man showed cranial depressed fracture, another showed a healed cheekbone fracture, and a third man several healed fractures, including the jaw and front and back of the head.


General patterns

All of the information above is, frankly, just a mess of fragments. While there is clearly evidence of some violence it certainly does not suggest that the period in question was a time of great conflict. Subsequent millennia (notably from around 5,000 BC) appear to have presented evidence of far more violence. Having said that, absence of evidence…

Whatever, there are subtle hints of patterns, as can be seen from the maps. Here are some that may exist:

  1. Violent conflict decreased during the Epipalaeolithic in the core regions of future agriculture, from about 13,000 BC down to 9,500 BC.
  2. During the period of transition to full agriculture levels of conflict were at theire lowest. However, adult human sacrifice, involving beheading, may have occurred in settlements along the Upper Euphrates River and into the Taurus mountains to the north and west.
  3. After 2000 years of relative peace, a rise in conflict starts from around 7,400 BC across the entire region, increasing in intensity gradually to about 6,400 BC.


Glencross & Boz have highlighted the presence of cranial depressed fracture (mostly healed) on a number of skulls during the transition to farming. From the data above it appears to be most common in young men, less common in both older men and women, and rare in young women and children…

(it should be pointed out, as Patricia Lambert has for California, that healed cranial fracture is a result of surviving the cause, so happened earlier in one’s life – therefore, for the sample above, fracture is likely to have happened generally when men were young, but when women were older).

It affects anywhere between about 1% and 20% of individuals studied, depending on the site. Due to variations in numbers studied, I’m not sure that it’s useful to compare numbers between periods. There may or may not be significance in its distribution along the northern margin during PPNA-MPPNB times.

Cranial depressed fracture is suggestive of 1) a forceful kick or blow to the head with a blunt instrument, 2) something heavy falling on one’s head from a height, or 3) of a fall onto one’s head from a height. If there is either a serious conflict or ritual (sacrificial) element to these fractures then it’s quite strange that most people survived the impact.

It’s perhaps most reminiscent of knocking someone out temporarily without fatal intent, like any good action adventure moment. One reasonable suggestion is that this is young men from within a settlement fighting amongst each other (as pointed out by Patricia Lambert – see comments below – solving an argument by clubbing someone can be a socially acceptable way of preventing someone getting killed, as seen in the Yanomamo of the Amazon).

Alternatively, it could even be the result of coming of age games, perhaps involving ‘fighting’ large, hoofed animals, within or between settlements . We still see the same idea in Pamplona and bullfights (this really depends on the shape of the depressions and could be easily disproved). Lastly, it could be a form of religious self-immolation. People do the funniest things, after all.

Lastly, the fact that some older women also experienced head injuries is, as Bonnie Glencross has pointed out, a possible sign that some of men’s less desirable habits are nothing new.

House Clustering

The pattern of house clustering, it’s initial occurrence at the northern margin of the agricultural zone (e.g. Aşıklı Höyük), and its spread south during the more rumbustious Late PPNB may well suggest a defensive element to the clustering.

With their small, high windows, roof entry instead of doors, and lack of large gaps between neighbouring walls, house clustering certainly seems like a reasonable form of defense instead of a perimeter wall. As James Mellaart said of Çatal Höyük ‘if an enemy succeeded in breaching the wall he found himself in a closed room from which the ladder had no doubt been removed with the defenders waiting for him on the roof.’ However, what is less discussed is how high the walls of the outer layer of houses were. If they weren’t that high I can’t help wondering what a quiet invader carrying a ladder could achieve.

Alternatively, or additionally, walls may have been designed to prevent the movement of animals, whether domestic or wild. This is possibly backed up by the use of ‘long walls’ within settlements of the southern Levant (e.g. Ain Ghazal & Atlit Yam) in the Late PPNB to PPNC.

Currently, the evidence can be read either way.


That’s a different kind of post.


Akkermans, P.M.M.G. & Verhoeven, M. 1995 An image of complexity: the burnt village at Late Neolithic Sabi Abyad, Syria, Am. J. Archaeology 99, 5-32.

Dating to around 6100 BC cal.

Banning, E. 2003 Aceramic Neolithic: Pre-pottery Neolithic, In: ‘Encylopedia of Prehistory, Volume 8: South and Southwest Asia’ (eds. P.N. Peregrine & M. Ember), Springer, p3-4

Bar-Yosef, O. 1986 The Walls of Jericho: An Alternative Interpretation, Current Anthropology 27, 157-162

The argument for flood-defence for the walls of PPNA Jericho.

‘There is no archaeological evidence, in the form of burned settlements, the remains of mass massacres, or fortifications, for the existence of social aggression in the Levant before the 6th millennium B.C. This is not to say that there were no rivalries that ended in some fighting, but the archaeological record as shown in the deep stratigraphies of many tell sites (such as Mureybet, Abu Hureyra, Bouqras, Ramad, Asswad, Jericho, Ain Ghazal, and Netiv Hagdud) was mainly formed by the natural collapse and subsequent rebuilding of adobe or mud-brick houses. The noncontemporary erection of mud houses (sometimes on stone foundations) created what is known in archaeological jargon as “spiral stratigraphy”; new building layers are not recognizable over the entire area of a given tell, each excavation area having its own sequence of building events. On rare occasions general planning can be seen (as in the case of Tell Bouqras), but it is in no way interpretable as rebuilding after total destruction caused by warfare.’

Bocquentin, F. 2003 Pratiques funéraires, paramètres biologiques et identités culturelles au Natoufien : une analyse archéo-anthropologique. PhD these. University of Bordeaux.

Page 456 presents a summary of findings on trauma in Natufian skeletons of Israel.

Bocquentin, F. & Bar-Yosef, O 2004 Early Natufian remains: evidence for physical conflict from Mt. Carmel, Israel, J. Human Evolution 47, 19-23.

Arrow stuck in spine of Epipalaeolithic man.

Clare, L. et al. 2008 Warfare in Late Neolithic/Early Chalcolithic Pisidia, southwestern Turkey. Climate induced social unrest in the late 7th millennium cal BC, Documenta Praehistorica 35, 65-92.

Discussion of the PPNC period sites of western Turkey.

Dougherty, S.P. & Tsuneki, A. 2016 Injury-Related Morbidity and Mortality in Neolithic Syria, 85th Annual Meeting of the Am. Assoc. Physical Anthropologists Abstracts.

More info on Tell Ain El-Kerkh.

Erdal, Y.S. & Erdal, Ö.D. 2012 Organized violence in Anatolia: A retrospective research on the injuries from the Neolithic to Early Bronze Age, Int. J. Palaeopathology 2, 78-92.

A very informative paper on Turkish trauma.

Eshed, V. et al. 2010 Paleopathology and the Origin of Agriculture in the Levant, Wiley Interscience.

Evidence of trauma (as well as disease and general health) in Levantine Natufian and Neolithic pops. I couldn’t find more detail on the one cranial trauma of the Neolithic, but it could be anywhere from PPNB to PPNC.

Eshed, V. 2001 From Foraging to Farming in the Holocene (The Pre Pottery Neolithic Period 8,300 – 5,600 B.C) in the Southern Levant: The Skeletal Evidence. PhD, Tel-Aviv, pp215.

Tables on p131-132 and 139-140 give individuals and sites for cranial trauma in Eshed et al 2010 (but in Hebrew).

Ferguson, R. B. 2015 The Prehistory of War and Peace in Europe and the Near East. In: ‘War, Peace, and Human Nature: The Convergence of Evolutionary and Cultural Views’ (ed. D.P. Fry.), p191-

A good review with interesting detail, including the Ghwair skeleton. However, I suspect that some of the dates are mis-applied between PPNA and PPNB.

Glencross, B. & Boz, B. 2013 Representing Violence in Anatolia and the Near East During the Transition to Agriculture: Readings from contextualized human skeletal remains. In: (Knüsel, C. & Smith, M. eds.) ‘The Routledge Handbook of the Bioarchaeology of Human Conflict’, Routledge, p90-108.

Excellent source of info. The table is terribly formatted, however, with inconsistent dating and information on Çatal Höyük lost due to wrapping text causing information lines to go out sync.

Hammer, E.L. & Arbuckle, B.S. 10,000 years of pastoralism in Anatolia: a review of evidence for variability in pastoral lifeways, In: Nomadic Peoples (web verson), pp43.

Review of early attempts at pastoralism.

Kansa, S.W. et al. 2009 Whose Bones are those? Preliminary Comparative Analysis of Fragmented Human and Animal Bones in the “Death Pit” at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic Settlement in Southeastern Turkey, Anthropozoologica 44, 159-172.

Cannibalism in Late Neolithic (5800 to 5400BC) Turkey.

Knapp, A.B. 2013 The Archaeology of Cyprus: From Earliest Prehistory Through the Bronze Age, Cambridge, pp640.

See p127 for discussion of walls and possibly conflict-related injury at Khirokitia.

Kornienko, T.V. ? 2015 On the Problem of Human Sacrifice in Northern Mesopotamia in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic, Archaeology, Ethnology and Anthropology of Eurasia 43, 42-49.

Human sacrifice evidence at Jerf-el-Ahmar, Cayonu.

Kozlowski S. K. 1989 Nemrik 9, a PPN Neolithic site in Northern Iraq, Paléorient 15, 25-31.

Inhabited between 9000BC and around 6500 BC. Evidence of violence from arrow wounds happens in the latest phase (at the end of occupation).

Kuijt, I. & Goring-Morris, A.N. 2002 Foraging, Farming, and Social Complexity in the Pre-Pottery Neolithic of the Southern Levant: A Review and Synthesis, J. World Prehistory 16, 361-440.

Reference to architectural trends (e.g. house clustering and ‘long walls’).

Lahr, M.M. & Haydenblit, R. 1995 The Human Remains from the site of Et-Tin, Israel. Paléorient 21, 97-111.

Maisels, C.K. 1999 Early Civilisations of the Old World, Routledge.

p126 – Tell Maghaliya levels 13-14, final levels, show evidence of circuit wall. These date perhaps 6800-6500BC.

Maisels, C.K. 2005 The Near East: Archaeology in the ‘Cradle of Civilisation’, Routledge, pp256.

Of Tell Maghzaliya: ‘A defensive wall, whose footing consists of edgewise limestone blocks up to 1.5m thick, and which incorporates at least one tower, runs along the western slope of the tell, closing off the settlement…’

Mazurowski, R.F. et al. 2009 Chronology of the Early Pre-pottery Neolithic Settlement Tell Qaramel, Northern Syria, in the Light of Radiocarbon Dating, Radiocarbon 51, 771-781.

The towers of Tell Qaramel (lovely name).

Mellaart, J. 1967 Çatal Hüyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia, McGraw-Hill, pp232.

p68-69 for quote.

Moore, A.T.M., Hillman & Legge 2000 Village on the Euphrates: from foraging to farming at Abu Hureyra, Oxford, pp585.

See p268 for description of individual with arrow in Abu Hureyra, p255 and 257 for estimated chronology.

Peterson, J. 2002 Sexual Revolutions: Gender and Labor at the Dawn of Agriculture, Rowman Altamira, pp192.

See p82 to 84 for reference to Natufian (unseen), Basta and Ain Ghazal trauma.

Peterson, J. 2010 Domesticating gender: Neolithic patterns from the southern Levant, J. Anthropological Archaeology 29, p249-264.

Perlès, C. 2001 The Early Neolithic in Greece: The first farming communities in Europe, Cambridge, pp356.

Roper, M.K. 1975 Evidence of Warfare in the Near East from 10,000-4,300 BC. In: (Nettleship, M. A. & Givens, D. eds.) ‘War, its Causes and Correlates’, De Gruyter, p299-344.

Schmidt K. 2006 Animals and headless man at Göbekli Tepe. Neo-Lithics 2, 38–40.

Simmons, A.H. & Najjar, M. 2006 Ghwair I: A small, complex Neolithic community in Southern Jordan, J. Field Archaeology 31, 77-95.

Simmons, A.H. & Najjar, M. 2003 Ghuwayr I: A Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Settlement in Southern Jordan: Report of the 1996-2000 campaigns, Annual Report of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan 47, 407-430.

P90 of the 1st and p422 of the 2nd contain details of a projectile point in a mature female skull. The report makes clear the uncertain context of the burial implied in the paper.

Slon, V. et al. 2014 The Plastered Skulls from the Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Site of Yiftahel (Israel) – A Computed Tomography-Based Analysis, PLOS One.

Solecki, R.S. et al. 2004 The Proto-Neolithic Cemetery in Shanidar Cave, Texas A&M, pp234.

Sołtysiak, A. et al. 2015 Human remains from Nemrik, Iraq. An insight into living conditions and burial customs in a Pre-Pottery Neolithic village, Paléorient 41, 101-114.

Doesn’t mention the arrow heads but does discuss trauma.

Sołtysiak, A. 2015 Antemortem Cranial Trauma in Ancient Mesopotamia, Int. J. Osteoarchaeology

Sites evidence for trauma in one of the three documented Preceramic sites of Mesopotamia. Zawi Chemi (Zagros PPNA) has ACT in 4 of 9 buried individuals (two men, one young woman and a child) (42%). Of the 39 in Abu Hureyra (PPNA) and 28 in Nemrik 9 (PPNA & PPNB), no-one has ACT (0%). Chalcolithic sites 12% (74 individuals). Normal Bronze age rates in Anatolia and Jordan quotes as between 9 and 30%. His Early Bronze age rates are about 6%.

Tsuneki, A. 2011 A glimpse of human life from the Neolithic cemetery at Tell el-Kerkh, Northwest Syria, Documenta Praehistorica 38,83-95.

References for other dates and places

Bachechi, L. et al. 1997 An Arrow-Caused Lesion in a Late Upper Palaeolithic Human Pelvis, Current Anthropology 38, p135-140.

A skeleton from Sicily, dated to some little time before 14,000 BC, so Palaeolithic.

Lahr, M. M. et al. 2016 Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya, Nature 529,394–398.

Meiklejohn, C. et al. 2009 From single graves to cemeteries: an initial look at chronology in Mesolithic burial practice, In: Mesolithic Horizons (McCartan, S. et al. eds.), Oxbow, 639-649.

Dates of Vasil’evka III site as 9310-9990 BC cal.

Shaw, I. & Jameson, R. 2002 A Dictionary of Archaeology, Blackwell, pp640.

Information of Vasil’evka III burials. ~p607

Stock, J.T. et al. 2005 F-81 skeleton from Wadi Mataha, Jordan, and its bearing on human variability in the Epipaleolithic of the Levant, Am. J. Physical Anthropology 128, p453-65.

Evidence of man tied up with hands and feet at the back, then buried face down, dated roughly 15,000 BC. Drawn attention to by Glencross and Boz.

Additional references

Lambert, P.M. 1997 Patterns of violence in prehistoric hunter-gatherer societies of coastal southern California, In: ‘Troubled Times: Violence and Warfare in the Past’
(eds. Debra L. Martin, David W. Frayer), Psychology, 77-109.

Very interesting comparative study of evidence for healed cranial fracture, which shows many similar features in terms of age and sex distribution. There is also a talk by her on this on youtube.

References not using evidence

Elliot, S. 2012 The Walls that Did Not Come Tumbling Down: Are the Early Neolithic Walls of Jericho the First Evidence of Warfare? RUSI J. 157, 72-79.

Probably not.

Rowthorne, R. & Seabright, P. 2010 Property Rights, Warfare and the Neolithic Transition, TSE working paper

Prisoner’s dilemma theory of agriculture adoption individual pro’s vs defence cons, which assumes defence was important.




Fatal Epidemics of the Bronze Age

October 25, 2016

Fatal epidemics in the Eastern Mediterranean have been going on since at least the start of the Bronze Age. However, the best evidence for big outbreaks is in 18th century and 14th century BC. After about 500 BC historians occasionally took the trouble to chronicle the fatal epidemics they experienced. However, due to a lack of historians […]

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