How War Began

How War Began

How War Began

How War Began


Have humans always fought and killed each other, or did they peacefully coexist until states developed? Is war an expression of human nature or an artifact of civilization? Questions about the origin and inherent motivations of warfare have long engaged philosophers, ethicists, anthropologists as they speculate on the nature of human existence. In How War Began, author Keith F. Otterbein draws on primate behavior research, archaeological research, data gathered from the Human Relations Area Files, and a career spent in research and reflection on war to argue for two separate origins. He identifies two types of military organization: one which developed two million years ago at the dawn of humankind, wherever groups of hunters met, and a second which developed some five thousand years ago, in four identifiable regions, when the first states arose and proceeded to embark upon military conquests. In carefully selected detail, Otterbein marshals the evidence for his case that warfare was possible and likely among early Homo sapiens. He argues from analogy with other primates, from Paleolithic rock art depicting wounded humans, and from rare skeletal remains with embedded weapon points to conclude that warfare existed and reached a peak in big game hunting societies. As the big game disappeared, so did warfare-only to reemerge once agricultural societies achieved a degree of political complexity that allowed the development of professional military organizations. Otterbein concludes his survey with an analysis of how despotism in both ancient and modern states spawns warfare. A definitive resource for anthropologists, social scientists and historians, How War Began is written for all who are interested in warfare and individuals who seek to understand the past and the present of humankind.


Much of my knowledge of warfare came from books that I read before I was fifteen years old. A favorite book of mine from childhood, which I still have, is The Book of Indians by Holling C. Holling. I read about the lives of Indian children in four regions. I learned that the warfare of the Indians of the Northeast, the Great Plains, the Northwest Coast, and the Southwest of the North American continent was serious. These Native Americans attacked each other’s villages and inflicted heavy casualties when they could. For example, a girl in the Northeast alerts her village to an advancing enemy war party. In the ensuing battle the enemy raiders are annihilated, with high casualties to both sides. Or, a boy in the Southwest spots enemy raiders climbing the mesa on which his village is located. By prying a boulder loose and rolling it down upon the attackers, he nearly wipes out the enemy. Plains Indian warfare was a staple of my youth. As a third grader I organized an expedition to a wooded area to get the poles to build a tepee to use in a class play. A classmate had a genuine Plains Indian war bonnet, which I wore.

I learned that the Roman legion and the Macedonian phalanx were awesome military forces. In junior high and high school I took Latin. In second-year Latin the class read Caesar’s Gallic War. A year later I read Harold Lamb’s Alexander of Macedon. I remember the end of World War II and the Korean War—an era of deadly warfare.

Much of what I have read about warfare since I was fifteen I now know to be incorrect. War has been reformulated. For example, the warfare of native peoples has been renamed “ritual war.” Guerrilla warfare—once deemed a deadly form of combat that had brought to power Mao Tse-tung in China, Fidel Castro in Cuba, and Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam—has become “low intensity conflict” (LIC). War itself has been defined by members of the Department of Defense to exclude killing— by defining war as the pursuit of national interests. If civilians are killed, that is called “collateral damage.”

Warfare is serious. It is armed combat. Combatants and noncombatants alike are killed. Warfare occurred in prehistory, in history, and it occurs at the present. Using euphemisms such as ritual war, LIC, or collateral damage does not alter the lethality of war. When someone is killed, whether it be by club, missile, or explosive, a family or kinship . . .

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