Why people started killing each other

Kyrylo Danylchenko

The early Paleolithic period was a difficult time for humanity, still unintelligent, unorganized, and primitively armed one. But it was a time of peace. On those human skeletons more than 15 thousand years old, scientists find only marks of teeth, claws, and animal horns. And then something seems to have happened to the people, and the remains started to show traces of battle injuries, mutilations, and torture.


Paleolithic: 15,000 years ago and earlier
Mesolithic: 15 to 8 thousand years ago
Neolithic: 8 to 5 thousand years ago

Skeletons of Stone Age people with skulls fractured by blunt objects and bones pierced by arrows have been found in the Cave of the Children (Italy), in the Maszycka Cave (Poland), in Sardinia (Italy), in Sierra de Atapuerca (Spain), at the Wadi Kubbaniya site and in the Jebel Sahaba cemetery (Egypt). At the Wadi Mataha site (Jordan), a man was buried with his hands and feet tied behind his back. A large oval hole was cut out of his forehead while he was still alive.

What turned our ancestors into murderers?

Stone Age. Detail
The Stone Age, painting by Viktor Vasnetsov (detail), 1882–1885

Reason 1. Global warming

12 thousand years ago, the last ice age ended. The huge masses of ice that covered the modern territory of Canada, Scandinavia, Great Britain, northern Germany, and Poland melted. The level of the world’s oceans rose, and the land was flooded.

The North Sea separated Britain from Europe, and the Mediterranean broke through the isthmus between Europe and Asia Minor. Millions of tons of salt water poured into the freshwater Novoevksinskoye Lake and flooded its fertile, inhabited shores. This is how the Black Sea and the Bosporus Strait were formed. Perhaps this catastrophe was the prototype of the Great Flood.

Abrupt climate change shifted the borders of areas suitable for hunting. Competition for resources between tribes and groups of hunters intensified. Violence was inevitable.

Reason 2. Demographic boom

By the end of the Paleolithic period, the world already had its current borders. There were practically no large areas left on the planet that were favourable for life but not yet inhabited by people. And there were more and more people.

While the number of hominids hardly reached 1 million, the early spiecies of modern humans 12,000 years ago numbered more than 5 million. Even the abundant lands of the  Fertile Crescent lacked resources to feed such a crowd by gathering alone. Hunting did not help. By this time, megafauna had already been wiped out in Europe: rhinos, mammoths, giant deer and beavers.

The growth in the number of eaters provoked conflicts within clans and the disintegration of communities. Migration of groups in search of better land led to clashes with outsiders.

Rock paintings from the caves of southeastern Spain. а — wounded archers, b — ambush, c — archery, d — fight, е — brawl. Source: Antiquity journal / ancient-origins.net

Reason 3. Weapon of mass destruction


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Omnivores avoid bloody battles for food. They find food more easily and rarely go hungry, so they prefer not to risk their health in fights. A snarl, a threatening posture, a short clash, and they part their ways. Clashes between the Cro-Magnons with their stone scrapers, choppers, and spears followed the same rules.

The first archaeological evidence of fighting between people coincides with the time of widespread use of bows. A stick with stretched veins could send death a hundred meters away.

Seven to eight thousand years ago, in caves on the Mediterranean coast of Spain, people began to draw war. This is the oldest known battle painting, and it depicts archers. The participants of the first known war in Europe fought in the same way. It took place on the territory of modern Ukraine.

Near the villages of Vasylivka and Voloske in the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, about a hundred people were buried 7–13 thousand years ago. Most of them were men. 20 percent of the skeletons show signs of violent death, a very high percentage for Stone Age cemeteries. Arrowheads were found in the rib of one and in the spine of the other deceased.

The bow is convenient for a sudden attack from a distance or from ambush. With the advent of this weapon, the chances of killing the enemy and staying alive increased.

Reason 4. On the way to the gods

At the Jordanian site of Wadi Mataha, in the Italian Cave of the Children, and in many other burials, signs of the emergence of religion are found. The Cro-Magnon people put stone bowls, animal corpses, pollen, and ocher in their graves as a gift to the spirits or for a comfortable transition of the deceased to the world of the dead.

Totem animals in Africa, the Egyptians’ ban on eating fish, funerals after the death of leaders, the exile of women during menstruation — all these rituals and taboos originated in the Stone Age. See disrespect for customs? Kill. Want to make it rain, remove a curse, or get rich loot? Kill again.

The emergence of a primitive faith gives rise to a plethora of reasons for conflict.

The remains of a group of hunter-gatherers killed in modern-day Kenya about 10,000 years ago. The photo shows a human skeleton with multiple skull injuries. Source: Marta Mirazón Lahr / IN-AFRICA Project / University of Cambridge
The remains of a group of hunter-gatherers killed in modern-day Kenya about 10,000 years ago. The damage to the skull is consistent with a blunt instrument. Photo: Marta Mirazón Lahr / IN-AFRICA Project / University of Cambridge
The remains of a group of hunter-gatherers killed in modern-day Kenya about 10,000 years ago. The photo shows the skeleton of a woman with fractures in the knees. It is assumed that her hands were tied. Source: Marta Mirazón Lahr / IN-AFRICA Project / University of Cambridge
The remains of a group of hunter-gatherers killed in modern-day Kenya about 10,000 years ago. The position of the female skeleton's hands indicates that they were bound. Source: Marta Mirazón Lahr / IN-AFRICA Project / University of Cambridge

Reason 5. Emergence of property

To feed 5 million mouths, humanity had to evolve. The Neolithic Revolution took place.

About 10-15 thousand years ago, people began to domesticate sheep, goats, and the ancestors of dogs. Agriculture was born. Millstones and seeds of cultivated wheat, which cannot reproduce without human intervention, found in Iran date back to the 10th millennium BC.

What can be taken from a group of gatherers? A much more desirable target is the farmers with their food reserves set aside for the winter. While some milk the goats and pour grain into the barn, others learn to throw darts and shoot bows. This drama of redistribution of surplus will be perpetual.

When the soil around the settlement is depleted, the farmers themselves are ready to move on. They carry the seed in sacks behind their backs. The inhabitants of the fertile land they like are killed. Slaves are not needed, because primitive agriculture can provide food only for the owners.

Increased population density, transition to a settled way of life, division of labor, and the emergence of cults. All this stimulated the development of human civilization and at the same time made us the best killers on the planet.