Sex Differences in Prehistoric Conflict
A contrast in modes of violence
“The central fact of military theory is that war is a sociological device, and weapons are merely tools used to facilitate its practice,” Harry Holbert Turney-High wrote in his famous work, Primitive Warfare: Its Practice and Concepts. On that note, Neolithic female remains associated with arrow points are remarkably rare. This is because during the transition from hunters and gatherers to farmers and pastoralists, the arrow was primarily a sociological device of men.
Consider the San Juan ante Portam Latinam burial pit near Laguardia, Spain, in the heart of Basque country. The site, which was discovered by accident in 1985 when a vineyard owner was constructing a road, turned out to be a communal graveyard from about 3000 BC. Sheltered under a rock overhang, the pit may have been used for centuries until the overhang collapsed. Digging it up required patient years of painstaking work, and then the results needed decades to process.
What finally emerged from the data is a distinct, possibly foundational period of violent male death associated with arrow wounds.
Whereas copper objects were becoming fairly common at this time, arrow points were still shaped from stone in much the same way they had been for tens of thousands of years. Archaeologists working with the evidence doubt that stone arrow tips found within the remains were funerary objects. Rather, they were inside the corpses at the time of burial because the arrow wounds had been inflicted at the time of death. Twelve skeletons were found with clear evidence of fatal arrow wounds, or debilitating arrow wounds with other fatal trauma. Most of these people were shot from behind, with the arrow up-angled, suggesting they were prone or crawling away from the person who shot the arrow into them. Every one of these skeletons that can be sexed has been identified as male.
We cannot know the exact circumstances that explain this “war layer,” so-named by the archaeologists and anthropologists who worked the site together. It is the bottom layer, and therefore the original burial at the site. These men may have been killed in a battle or they may have been victims of ambush. They may have died together, or just close together in time individually, victims of an ongoing feud. Whatever the lost story behind the violence that killed them, the arrows were clearly aimed at males alone.
Moreover, the consensus of anthropology and archaeology is that males committed almost all prehistoric interpersonal and intergroup violence. Men killing men over who knows what: the stuff of history, if only someone had been able to write it down.
This is not to suggest that women did not suffer violence in prehistory. On the contrary, female skeletons do show signs of trauma, although at half the rate of men. Rather, the violence inflicted on women during the Neolithic was primarily theft of labor: sexual and reproductive labor on one hand, farming and pottery production labor on the other. This differential threat matrix shows up primarily in the absence of remains. For example, around 5000 BC a small community located near Aspern-Schletz in modern Austria was stormed and wiped out. Remains were scattered, showing signs of death by execution followed by animal activity on the corpse, indicating that no one was left to bury the dead. Males of all ages died. Old women died, too, but no females at sexual maturity were identified among the remains. We are left to speculate that they were carried away from the settlement to serve the ends of the men who wiped it out.
As a contrasting example, consider the famous Tallheim massacre site, which is contemporary with Aspern-Schletz. Despite their defenses, the Tallheim settlement appears to have been surprised at dawn and overwhelmed, its residents pushed to the ground and killed with adzes. In the burial pit, DNA of one female victim of the annihilated community was identified as originating from the Stuttgart area, about 30 miles away, which would explain why the pottery style found at the site resembles pottery from that area. We do not know if she was a bride in a marriage transaction, or a prize carried away in a raid. The implications of evidential ambiguity work both ways. For the purposes of conflict history, there is no difference between trading partners and enemies: we fight and trade with the same people at different times. Whatever bound the two communities together may very well have also been responsible for the war that destroyed one of them.
Many of our earliest sources on prehistory blame fights over women for various wars in their own recent past, suggesting that this differential threat matrix was universal to prehistory. For example, Herodotus begins his account of the Greco-Persian wars with an explanation that the wife-stealing of Phoenician men led to the Trojan War, and then to the Greco-Persian conflict. Similar accounts come from all over the world. Nevertheless, even when women are the object of war, the war itself remains a male domain everywhere we look. This cannot be explained away as a cultural construct.
It is pure foolishness to pretend that biology plays no role in human conflict, and yet it is fashionable in our time to imagine that ideology alone drives intergroup violence. Male chimpanzees do not need ideology to systematically hunt down and wipe out all the males in a competing group. A conflict policy formulated without clear regard for the friction of sexed differences will always be unintelligible, ultimately failing the society that implements it, and not because of some ephemeral partisan difference.
War is primarily a male sociological device. We forget this at our peril.