The spread of violence across Chalcolithic Europe and the Near East

by Edward Pegler on 19 April, 2011

From further reading I think I might be wrong with this post. Sites such as the walled Tell Maghzalia (levels 13-14) near the upper Tigris, which date to perhaps 6000bc (around 7000BC), suggest that walls were necessary here long before I’d thought here. Other early walled sites include Tell es-Sawwan III (5200bc – around 6200BC) and Hacilar I and II,  Turkey (around 5000bc – 6000BC). Also, burning at Can Hasan 3, Turkey and, more particularly burning and bodies at Mersin XX, Turkey, around 4800bc (5800BC) make a perhaps stronger case for earlier violence.

What was happening in Neolithic and Chalcolithic Europe and the Near East between 5500BC and 3500BC to make it an apparently much more violent place? Are foragers to blame?

Gebel el Arak knife, Naqada III period, Egypt

I feel there’s something I’m missing here.

Read most books about the prehistory of Europe and the Near East and they will mention various key moments, such as the dawn of agriculture, the first smelting of copper and the beginning of iron-working.

One such event is the ‘secondary products revolution’. This is the late Andrew Sherratt’s idea that around the beginning of the fourth millennium BC many innovations were introduced into European society from the Middle East, including wool sheep, dairying, carts and perhaps even horses.

To be honest the dating of many of these innovations is in some flux and some of these innovations are likely to turn out to be much older (e.g. dairy farming). Yet to say that this was the big event of the time seems to be ignoring the elephant in the room. For something else seems to be going on with the farmers of both Europe and the Near East that appears to have had a profound effect – the spread of violence.

What evidence can be used to indicate violence?

Four lines of evidence could potentially indicate violence. These are: 1) signs of deliberate wounding on buried individuals, 2) the presence of fortifications such as walls and ditches around settlements, 3) extensive burning layers at settlements, and 4) pictorial or written records of violence. While the evidence for 1 and 4 is fairly unequivocal when trying to spot violence, the evidence for 2 and 3 is much more questionable.

Fortification is increasingly being recognised for what it is in archaeology. However, there are enclosures and ditches which have nothing to do with defence and never did, for example drainage ditches, livestock enclosures or terraces. Therefore the evidence for defensive purpose needs to be clear.

As for burning this is much more complicated. There is evidence for burning in many sites across Europe and the middle east. Small scale burning, say of an individual building, cannot really be blamed on violence. However, even large scale conflagrations of whole towns can happen easily without conflict. Some even argue for the ritual burning by people of their own buildings and towns. While I can believe in individual houses being burnt for religious reasons I admit I struggle more with the idea of ritually burning a whole settlement.

The strange calm of the Near East Neolithic (9000-5500BC)

Neolithic Jericho, in modern Palestine is perhaps the earliest town anywhere in the world, dated to somewhere before 8000BC. This was in the Pre-pottery Neolithic A (PPNA) at a point when farming was not yet a full-time occupation.

At this time the town had a wall. This would not be much of a surprise to anyone who knows his or her Bible, although it’s actually some six or seven thousand years before the trumpety events described there. Strangely, there are many archaeologists who would rather that this early version of Jericho had no walls.

Why? Because it doesn’t fit. Current evidence suggests that there was nothing like it in the Near East or Europe for another 3000 years. It seems to be pretty much the only wall that anybody knows of in the early Neolithic. It stands out so oddly in the context of the times that Ofer Bar Yosef has argued perhaps it’s only defensive purpose was to keep the river out. Perhaps he’s right. Whatever, the next set of walls at Jericho date to the end of the fourth millennium BC, a point to which I shall return.

Zoot forward a thousand or so years, to Çatalhöyük in Anatolia, and you would find a huge settlement with perhaps eight thousand inhabitants. All of them lived in box-like houses with entrances through the roof, these houses crammed in like sardines. Yet so far no evidence of a wall has shown up. People have made excuses for this, saying that perhaps the packed nature of the town was defensive. Maybe, but it’s certainly not a defence technique used in later times.

Hunting scene from Çatalhöyük

Also, while the paintings on the walls of this settlement do include scenes of violence and manliness, the conflict seems to be between man and beast. There are scenes of hunting and scenes of animals picking over dead people. But there are no scenes (as far as I know) depicting people fighting each other.

In fact there seems to be little evidence for violence either in these early Neolithic settlements nor in the bones of the buried. To quote one recent paper^, discussing the Levant:

“This lack of fortifications around settlements is especially striking given the tendency throughout the PPNB period [8500-6000 BC] toward rapid population growth and settlement nucleation—factors that should, it would seem, encourage raiding and warfare.”

I’m not saying that people didn’t kill each other – I’m sure they did. A Neolithic Miss Marple would probably have been kept quite busy enough. I’m just saying that killing didn’t seem to happen on a large scale. Furthermore, if people did kill each other they chose not to be proud enough to paint it on their walls.

Mesolithic violence

It is perhaps worth comparing this situation with that of contemporary Mesolithic Europe. Lepenski Vir and Schela Cladovei, in Serbia, the Balkans, have evidence of occasional (but not common) trauma in individuals resulting from occasional violent interactions. Dates are largely, but not exclusively, from before the arrival of farmers to the area sometime in the late seventh millennium BC.

However to the north, in Germany, there is evidence for a pre-farming massacre in Ofnet Cave, dated to around 6200BC. Other evidence, albeit more limited, has also been cited for Mesolithic violence in Europe (e.g. in Denmark). However, much of this is from the later Mesolithic.

Something nasty in the Chalcolithic (5500-3500BC)

The first settlers into Europe appeared to take more precautions than their Near Eastern equivalents, although the significance of these precautions has been disputed. The Tavoliere Plain in southeastern Italy has evidence of largish settlements (e.g. Passo di Corvo) surrounded by ditches which date perhaps to the mid sixth millennium. Also Nea Nikomedeia in Macedonia, dated to around 5800BC, has similar features. Whether these are defensive is difficult to say.

Perhaps these precautions were wise. Nearing the end of the sixth millennium BC something horrible happened in Germany, Austria, France and Italy. A kind of ‘institutionalised’ violence appeared within the farming community, resulting in incidents of maiming, killing and probably cannibalism on a relatively large scale (e.g. burials at Talheim, Schletz-Asparn, Vaihingen, Herxheim and Fontbrégoua Cave). There is also evidence of trauma in burials from Liguria in Italy, perhaps dating to the sixth millennium BC (although exact dates are difficult to find).

Around the same time clearly defensive palisades started to appear around settlements on the North European plain from the Balkans to the North Sea coast (as detailed by Lawrence Keeley). By the early to mid fifth millennium BC fortified settlements such as at Dimini were appearing across the Greek mainland and the Balkans. By the late fifth millennium BC these kinds of defences, with extensive evidence of burning, were present as far east as the Pontic Steppe (Tripolye 1B).

In the far west, Britain shows burial evidence of violent conflict from the beginnings of farming, around 4000BC. Evidence of burials containing frequent arrow wounds also occurs in Spain by the fourth millennium BC.

To the south east in southern Iran, around the beginning of the fifth millennium BC, there is evidence of burning and desertion at Chogha Mish, and there is also evidence for burning at Susa around the end of the millennium (although either or both of these may be chance events). By the first half of the fourth millennium BC settlement fortifications were being built as far east as the Kopet Dag in Turkmenistan (KD5).

By 3600 BC burial evidence indicates organised and violent conflict at Tell Brak and Hamoukar in Syria. Slightly earlier, around 4200 BC, there seems to have been violent attack at settlements like Tepe Gawra (XII) in northern Iraq.

Seal from Choga Mish, late 4th millennium BC

Seal from Choga Mish, late 4th millennium BC, depicting a siege

In southern Iraq, Uruk period cylinder seals of the late fourth millennium BC show, for the first time, what appear to be pictures of captives and slaughter. Similarly, by the second half of the fourth millennium BC in Egypt, Naqada III period palettes again show scenes of human captivity and slaughter (e.g. the Gebel el-Araq knife, the Narmer Palette) unlike anything seen before.

For comparison – prestige in the Chalcolithic (5000-2500BC)

A much less detailed story can be told of changes in burial patterns to include elite burials. Elite burials are those where an individual is buried with too much valuable stuff to be tasteful.* Burials in the Early Neolithic were not elite. They often show evidence of ritual. However, they contain either just the body or the body with occasional personal items or tokens.

Around the turn of the fifth millennium BC elite burials appeared in Eastern Europe (e.g. Varna in Bulgaria) and in the Pontic Steppe (e.g. Khvalynsk). These consisted of abundant copper and gold, and usually contained weapons.

By way of comparison, what might be called ‘prestige’ burials have also been found in Sudan, dating to the fifth millennium BC (e.g. 12). These contain what would have been considered valuable coloured stones. Like the burials above they occur within extensive mixed cemeteries and are thought to be associated with pastoralists. However, they are not elite, in the same way as those of Europe.

By the beginning of the fourth millennium BC elite burials had spread to Syria (e.g. Tepe Gawra) and by the end of the millennium to Egypt. Not until the third millennium BC is there concrete evidence of kingship and elite burials in southern Iraq.

In the west of Europe a similar, though delayed, pattern is seen, with elite burials spreading across the north European plain between 3500 and 3000 BC and reaching Spain and Britain in the middle of the third millennium BC.

Overall this pattern is similar to that of the spread of violence but appears to be later. It’s earliest manifestations also seem to be located in different places, to the east and, perhaps, to the far south. It may, therefore, have different causes.

Long term consequences

If what the evidence of violence suggests is a real effect (and this is a VERY big if), then it seems to come at a crucial time in the development of Near Eastern societies. The beginning of the Uruk period, around the end of the fifth millennium BC, is when Urbanisation took effect in Iraq and Syria. While this appears to predate the evidence for violence this could simply be a result of missing data. However, it may not.

The existence of temples in southern Iraq dates back to the Ubaid period in the sixth millennium BC. On the other hand the earliest evidence for kings in southern Iraq does not appear until the end of the Uruk period, perhaps a little before 3000 BC. Is it possible that the emergence of kings resulted from introducing warfare into an economic system which was ticking along quite happily already? A similar idea could be extended to Egypt or Iran.

The advent of high status individuals and violence in such a changed society might have had a very damaging effect on trading systems, closing down existing routes. Of course, a new demand for high value items, often taken out of circulation in burials, may have stimulated trade too. There is much for discussion here. However, that is for a different post.

Why violence then and there?

There are a number of possible reasons why such a rise in violence could have occurred over the period in question. Some are outlined below.

The case for Marxist revolution

A revolution resulting from inequalities in the system is possible but unlikely. One of the main observations of Early Neolithic life is the lack of inequality observed in settlements. In fact, inequality seems only to have increased by the end of this period.

The case for copper economics

From the late sixth millennium BC onward copper started to be smelted in the Balkans. Significant copper smelting was taking place here from the fifth millennium. At the same period copper smelting also started in Iran.

One reason for the spread of warfare and prestige may have been an increase in demand for high status goods among farming or non-farming peoples. However, high value goods from the Early Neolithic, such as obsidian and native copper, do not appear to have driven the same effect.

Alternatively, the smelting of copper could have changed the economic conditions of peripheral locations such as Germany and France for the worse, resulting in violence.

The case for climate

David Anthony has argued that the increase in violence in the Balkans around the later fifth millennium BC was due to coming out of the Holocene Climatic Optimum. However, the climate data appear to me to show that Eastern Europe was at the peak of the HCO at the time. If anything, the weather was getting warmer in Germany during its troubles in the late sixth millennium BC.

On the other hand, from about the beginning of the fourth millennium BC there was increasing aridity in southern regions such as Egypt, Iraq and Arabia. Such aridity could, as argued by Robert Carneiro, lead to warfare and the rise of military leaders.

The case for invasion

This is a tricky one. The obvious question should be “who were the invaders?” They might have been the Indo-Europeans, with more agressive “male-dominated” tendencies than the existing populations, as advocated by Marija Gimbutas and others. The current preferred homeland of such invaders is the Pontic Steppe, north of the Black Sea, where a prestige culture seemed to be emerging at the beginning of the fifth millennium BC. However, some of the dates here are simply too early for their models. Additionally, evidence from Germany at least suggests that groups of farmers were fighting each other before this time without external help, so such an idea wouldn’t work for everything.

The case for foragers

The spread of warfare seems to have started not in the Middle East’s farming heartland, as might be expected, but on the periphery of the farming world, particularly in Europe. This is where farming met foraging. Genetic studies suggest a significant or dominant component of the genes surviving in northern Europe come from forager stock, especially those on the female side. Forager societies have a poor reputation for violence, both within and between groups. It is possible that the incorporation of foragers into farming societies tipped the balance to more violent societies.

The case for the ‘Secondary products revolution’

The increased possibilities opened up by using animals for dairying, wool or blood probably created the first fully pastoralist societies. Perhaps the infiltration of these pastoralists into existing farming societies created an increase in tension and violence. Whatever, there is no evidence for fully pastoralist cultures in Northern Europe when the earliest violence took place, nor for several hundred years afterward.

Foragers, farmers, economics and the secondary products revolution

There are, of course, many other possibilities: for example a shortage of females in society leading to aggression, improved weapons technologies or just a change in habits. You may be able to think of many others. If I were to make a guess as to what was happening I would probably suggest a mix of elements from the above list. What they were I couldn’t say. However I am, of course, prepared to make a wild guess.

A wild guess

Early farmers of the Near East were ‘domesticated’ to be non-agressive to other groups. Unlike the forager populations around them aggression between groups was something that was selected against (see ‘Domesticing humans by artificial selection‘). Due to rapid population expansion in these farming populations the Near East became dominated by relatively non-agressive farmers until around 5000 BC.

When farming, and farmers, expanded into Europe, some farmer’s sons settled in frontier areas where they took wives from the local forager populations (e.g. in northwestern Europe). In other areas foragers were acculturated to partial forms of farming such as pastoralism, involving herding of animals, using the new techniques of milking and blood letting (e.g. in the eastern Balkans and Pontic Steppe).

Such actions led to a crisis when high prestige or improved technology goods started to become available in the Balkans and beyond. Aggression and competition now became a notable influence in these marginal farmer and forager-farmer populations. Through limited invasion, multiplied by the ‘founder effect’ (the tendency of strong males to have many offspring), these mixed forager-farmer genes spread back into the Near East. This caused a fundamental change in society towards something more warlike, where warring elites and prestige might arise out of the new conditions.

This explanation is glib, old fashioned, simplistic, sounds a bit Nazi and is probably plain wrong. However, I think some thought needs to be given to the events of this period as something’s going on, particularly in the Near East, which I feel is being ignored.


*The earliest phase of what could be called ‘elite’ burials comes from the beginning of the Upper Palaeolithic, in a period often called the Gravettian, around 26,000 BC (which really deserves a post of its own). Burials of what appear to be special individuals occur in places such as northern Italy (e.g. ‘Il Principe’ from Arene Candide), the Czech Republic (e.g. Brno 2) and Russia (e.g. Sungir). The valuable stuff in these cases consisted of abundant shell or ivory beads. Some might understandably argue that this is not valuable stuff at all. However, it probably was for the time. Such burials were, as far as I can tell, less common throughout the remainder of the Palaeolithic and were pretty much non-existent in the early Neolithic farming communities of the  Near East and Europe.


Alizadeh, A. 2008 The Development of a Prehistoric Regional Center in Lowland Susiana, Southwestern Iran.

Bocquentin, F. & Bar Yosef, O. 2004 Early Natufian remains: evidence for physical conflict from Mt. Carmel, Israel. Journal of Human Evolution 44, 19-23.

Davis, B.A.S. et al. 2003 The temperature of Europe during the Holocene reconstructed from pollen data, Quaternary Science Reviews 22, p1701-1716.

Keeley, L. 1997 Frontier Warfare in the Early Neolithic, In: Martin D.L. & Frayer, D.W (eds) “Troubled Times: violence and warfare in the past”, OPA, p303-320.

Keeley, L. Database of linear band keramic defence sites.

Le Bras-Goude G. 2010 New radiocarbon dates and isotope analysis of Neolithic human and animal bone from the Fontbrégoua Cave (Salernes, Var, France). Journal of Anthropological Science 88, p167-78.

Márquez, B. 2010 Projectile points as signs of violence in collective burials during the 4th and the 3rd millennia cal. BC in the North-East of the Iberian peninsula, Digital.CSIC, p321-325.

Parker, A.G. 2006 A record of Holocene climate change from lake geochemical analyses in southeastern Arabia, Quaternary Research 66, p465-476.

^Parkinson, W. A.  & Duffy, P.R. 2007 Fortifications and Enclosures in European Prehistory: A Cross-Cultural Perspective, Journal of Archaeological Research 15, p97-141.

Perlès, C. 2001  The early Neolithic in Greece: the first farming communities in Europe,  Cambridge, pp370.

Pettitt, P.B. et al.2003  The Gravettian burial known as the Prince (“Il Principe”): new evidence for his age and diet

Roksandic, M. 2006 Violence in the Mesolithic, Documenta Praehistorica 33, p165-182.

Rothman, M.S. 2001 Tepe Gawra: the evolution of a small, prehistoric center in northern Iraq, University of Pennsylvania, pp460. (p75)



{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt December 5, 2016 at 5:15 am


You have cited The Horse, the Wheel and Language in another article, but what do you think of the “horse violence” concept therein as a way to explain the timing of the increasing violence in Europe. If I remember the argument- the introduction of horses made raiding far away people (unlikely to be trade partners or relatives) easier. This forced many to abandon settled life, just as it did in North America after the Spaniards introduced the horse.

So what were they fighting over? I think that cattle as being more likely a target than trinkets of copper or amber, women or pottery filled with eincorn beer, although nothing can be ruled out. Raiding seems pretty opportunistic in historical records. If it is mainly about cattle though, a cattle enclosure could also be “defensive” architecture.



Edward Pegler December 6, 2016 at 4:50 pm

Dear Matt

Thanks for the excellent comment. David Anthony still seems to be in a minority in dating the riding of horses as early as he does. I’m not saying he’s wrong, but there’s not many backing him up for very early dates. If it’s not horse riding causing the problem then I think something about the improved agricultural system may be important. That may well have something to do with cattle. Their significance in all this is probably large, but for what reason I don’t know, perhaps pastoralism or agro-pastoralism. The independence that agro-pastoralism gives people may make them mobile and quite aggressive (?cattle-raiding). However, currently, that’s pure speculation.


John Rudmin August 28, 2013 at 4:53 pm

With certain exceptions such as the enigmatic Ofnet Cave, it seems to me that the overwhelming rise of violence corresponds roughly with the arrival of pottery in the Neolithic. The use of pottery also seems to be associated with unprecedented expansion of sedentary population. One explanation could be that the pottery leads to a revolution in food storage, resulting in population expansion, eventually leading to pressures (territorial, or driven by crisis, such as famine), which at some point “snap”. And then after that, of course, are revenge attacks, and eventually the rise of “strong men” for protection, hence the elite burials.


Edward Pegler September 2, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Dear John

I think that’s a rather interesting view. My sense when I wrote this article (some time ago) was that something was happening a little later (maybe 4500 BC as opposed to the 7000 BC ish that divides the PP from the pottery Neolithic). Either way it seems an idea to pursue.

best wishes



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