An analysis of thousands of ancient skeletons has revealed intriguing details about the history of violence millennia ago, specifically in the Middle East.
A study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior documents evidence showing that interpersonal violence in the region during the pre-Classical period (around 12,000 to 400 B.C.) fluctuated over time, peaking roughly between 4,500 and 3,300 B.C.
The study authors came to their conclusions after studying more than 3,500 individual human remains from the Middle East’s pre-Classical period. The findings of the research shed new light on the question of how violence developed over long periods of time in early human history.
It has often been claimed that interpersonal violence—which includes assault, killing, slavery, torture, punishment, feuds and so on—has declined over millennia and more rapidly since the Age of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.
This idea has been challenged, although so far no consensus has been reached among scholars. Given that homicide statistics are available only for recent historical periods, and because conflict records are often subject to biases, the understanding of long-term violence trends remains limited the further researchers look back in time.
“This situation has generated highly polarized narratives about the early history of violence,” the study’s authors wrote. “Indeed, the scholarship on the origins of warfare split into two major factions: the so-called ‘pacified past’ group or ‘doves’—thinking that violence in human history picked up only after the Agricultural Revolution and the rise of states; and the other viewing warfare as pervasive in prehistory, that is the ‘hawks.'”
“Although the hawks/doves division fueled much debate between the 1990s and early 2000s, nowadays a more nuanced picture is emerging,” the authors said.
In the latest study, Giacomo Benati, a researcher at the University of Barcelona, Spain, and colleagues put together a dataset detailing skeletal remains from 3,539 individuals dated to 12,000 to 400 B.C. These remains were found in seven Middle Eastern countries: Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan.
The researchers used the database to assess the amount of interpersonal violence across the period by documenting the proportion of skeletons that showed evidence of trauma to the skull or weapon-related wounds.
The results suggest that interpersonal violence in the pre-Classical Middle East reached a maximum between 4,500 and 3,300 B.C., during the Chalcolithic period. The authors then observed a steady decline in violence during the Early and Middle Bronze Ages (3300 to 1500 B.C.) before it increased again from the Late Bronze Age to the Iron Age (1500 to 400 B.C.).
The researchers propose that the spike in violence during the Chalcolithic period may be connected to the emergence of the first centralized proto-states in the region and a shift from occasional feuding to large-scale, organized conflict.