Warfare and Society: Archaeological and Social Anthropological Perspectives

By Ton Otto; Henrik Thrane et al. | Go to book overview

10 Fighting and Feuding in Neolithic
and Bronze Age Britain and Ireland

I.J.N. THORPE

Although this paper concentrates on evidence from Britain and Ireland, it is inevitably situated within a far wider theoretical debate, which mostly sets the British and Irish material within a universal or at least pan-European framework. The specifics of the data examined here are therefore weighed against these general models as well as being assessed in their own terms.

Origins are always attractive subjects, and the origin of war in early prehistory is no exception, having been considered recently from the viewpoint of biological anthropology (e.g. Wrangham 1999), social anthropology (e.g. Otterbein 1997; Kelly 2000), military history (e.g. Keegan 1993; O’Connell 1995), history (e.g. Dawson 1996) and archaeology (e.g. Keeley 1996).

Of these fields, the most interest in early war has been shown by anthropologists of varying kinds, as it is central to that elusive quality, ‘human nature’. Strangely, archaeology has largely been an onlooker in this argument, which has almost entirely been fought out using evidence from contemporary societies (with Ferguson 1997 an important exception).

The most influential of these general theories have been various approaches within evolutionary theory (see Laland and Brown 2002 for a clear guide to the similarities and differences of the different schools), the materialist approach (e.g. Ferguson 1990) and cultural evolution (Dawson 1999; 2001).

Within evolutionary theory the particular strand which has shown most interest in the origins of human conflict is evolutionary psychology. This is because evolutionary psychologists see humans as shaped by an ancestral environment long past, dubbed the environment of evolutionary adaptation (EEA). The EEA broadly equates to the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic (e.g. Cosmides et al. 1992; Pinker 1998: 42), with the development of agriculture marking a crucial break. Thus any pattern to be discerned in Neolithic or Bronze Age warfare has its origins in earlier times and should clearly fall into line with one of the three main competing theories for warfare situated within evolutionary psychology – territorial, reproductive and status competition.

The territorial model originates in modern times with E.O. Wilson, who argued from the sociobiological perspective that ethnocentricity was a product of natural selection (1978: 119):

Our brains do appear to be programmed to the following
extent: we are inclined to partition other people into friends
and aliens, in the same sense that birds are inclined to learn
territorial songs and to navigate by the polar constellations.
We tend to fear deeply the actions of strangers and to solve

-141-

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