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The Evolution of War: A Study of Its Role in Early Societies

The Evolution of War: A Study of Its Role in Early Societies

by Maurice R. Davie

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Thorough, highly informative and exhaustive study presents an exceptional collection of cases examining such topics as warfare as the business of one sex, religion as a cause of war, and war for the sake of glory. Cannibalism, human sacrifice, blood-revenge, and other factors in warfare among primitive peoples are also expertly examined.


Thorough, highly informative and exhaustive study presents an exceptional collection of cases examining such topics as warfare as the business of one sex, religion as a cause of war, and war for the sake of glory. Cannibalism, human sacrifice, blood-revenge, and other factors in warfare among primitive peoples are also expertly examined.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Military History, Weapons, Armor
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The Evolution of War

A Study of its Role in Early Societies

By Maurice R. Davie

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-16221-8




FROM earliest times to the present, man has always fought and has always had weapons, both natural and artificial, with which to decide his conflicts. Of the various lines of evidence supporting this conclusion, that of written history admittedly shows man's tremendous preoccupation with war. Another indication is furnished by traditions handed down from an age before the art of writing was known, traditions partly mythical but also partly historical—mixtures of real memory and mythic fancy. The study of comparative mythology has added many indubitable facts about early man. As Tylor has said, "What the poet relates may be fiction, what he mentions is apt to be history." Bearing in mind this difference between the theme and the setting, many authors have reconstructed for us the life which these ancient peoples lived. Mythologies abound in recitals of wars and the superhuman deeds of warriors, and in them war holds the chief interest in life. Though the events related must be discounted, incidental details as to weapons, mode of warfare, and the like—facts which belong to the setting rather than to the theme—supply us with invaluable information.

Another source of information is the study of ethnology, or the customs, beliefs, and characteristics—in short, the culture—of less civilized races of the past and present who are unable to give a written account of themselves. Although the practice of restricting ethnology to a study of the cruder cultures of peoples without a knowledge of writing may be somewhat illogical and artificial, it serves many practical purposes. This source of information is of the greatest value and importance in any sociological study, as it offers "distance and detachment." The customs, mores, and natures of uncivilized peoples may be studied objectively and even dissected, as our own culture cannot be, since we are both the observers and the observed. Moreover, since the primitive condition of mankind was one of utter barbarism from which some peoples have independently raised themselves, the study of less civilized races is of peculiar value; it shows social factors in their elementary and primitive forms and gives a basis for scientific study free from bias, moral judgments, and a priori assertions. As Wissler expresses it, "One of the great values to be derived from the study of different peoples is the attainment of a perspective, or a horizon, from which we begin to see our own culture from the outside." The old doctrine that savages have degenerated from a "golden age" of higher civilization has been definitely disproved by Lyell, Tylor, and Lubbock. While there are cases in which nations have retrograded, existing savages are not the descendants of civilized ancestors. In fact, culture is a worldwide phenomenon, and "the somewhat naive distinction that is usually drawn between primitive cultures and those of the historical nations is an arbitrary one, so far as the real characteristics of the phenomena are concerned." "Who is there," asks Goldenweiser, "to tell us where civilization ends and the original nature of man begins, or what would be left of man were civilization removed?" Lippert, in support of the ethnological method of studying the evolution of society, says: "When we see developing in one group as a product of known factors a custom which has existed in another group since prehistoric times, we may fill out the prehistory of the latter on the basis of our knowledge of the former. The universality of this method affords us the assurance that we are not going astray in applying it." As the bulk of this volume is concerned with primitive warfare, suffice it for the present to say, with Spencer, that "in the lives of savages and barbarians the chief occurrences are wars."

Prehistoric archaeology makes it possible to reconstruct an earlier stage in the evolution of society than that represented by existing savage tribes, and to find still more primitive traces of warfare. The records here consist chiefly in the artifacts. These are of peculiar value, for "we cannot have more certain evidence of man's existence than the implements which he has shaped and used." Practically everything else, save some cave art and a few human remains, has long since perished. While prehistoric man left no account of his warfare, he did leave behind weapons which testify that he fought and that he was no mean adversary.

That primeval man made use of weapons is but natural, for, after the quest for food, his greatest need was to defend himself. "The savage has to drive off the wild beasts which attack him, and in turn he hunts and destroys them. But his most dangerous foes are those of his own species, and thus in the lowest known levels of civilization war has already begun, and is carried on against man with the same club, spear, and bow used against wild beasts." The very earliest weapon was undoubtedly the stick or stone picked up at random and as occasion demanded. We must assume that primitive man took this step in his self-defense, since even apes use sticks and throw stones at those who intrude upon them. "It seems, then, that the Pliocene precursor, if we suppose him ever so little more intelligent than the modern chimpanzee, would have no difficulty, when he crossed the boundary and became human, in arming himself with the following weapons ... rough shillelaghs of wood, some for throwing and others for use in the hand; lances and spears of bamboo, and later of wood hardened in fire.... He might also possess throwing-stones. Unfortunately, if the reader will glance over this list of weapons, the only tool which we could possibly expect to recognize after a thousand years would be the stones. Everything else is perishable and would vanish, leaving no trace of his real armoury."

The stone casually picked up afforded an effective missile as well as something to strike with, and it is used in this primitive way by many savages today. When man discovered the art of chipping and fashioning his implements, he came to possess better weapons and developed into a more dangerous fighter. Of all stones, the most utilizable is flint, because of its hardness and mode of fracture. Other stones, and also horn and bone were used by early man. To be sure, in his rudimentary culture implements were hardly differentiated, and almost any artifact could have been used for both purposes—as weapon and as tool. Among the finds of the Paleolithic or so-called Old Stone Age which were probably used as weapons, may be mentioned the following: stone cleavers and knives; blades of reindeer horn, bone, and flint; lance heads of flint, bone, horn, serpentine, quartz, and other materials; and even the bola. The bow and the ax, contrary to the opinion of the earlier authorities, were unknown in Paleolithic times. Many of these weapons were undoubtedly used for other purposes than war, since they were relatively unspecialized.

The war club must have been one of the earliest weapons, though, being made of wood, it has left few or no traces. Hardly a savage tribe exists today which has not used or does not still use the club as a weapon, and we are forced to the view that Paleolithic man used a similar implement. It was present in the armories of ancient civilizations and lasted on into the Middle Ages in Europe, "when knights still smashed helmets in with their maces."

The Neolithic or New Stone Age brought great improvement in stone industry. It was characterized by the technique of grinding and polishing, which produces a stronger and straighter edge, and by the introduction of new implements. In Paleolithic times polishing, in the rare instances where it occurred, was not a part of the shaping process as it became in the Neolithic. Even in the latter period, however, the new technique was applied only to certain implements, especially those of the ax class. The flint dagger or poniard—"the veritable chef d'oeuvre of Neolithic art"—a weapon apparently differentiated for use in war and the precursor of the sword, was always chipped rather than ground or polished. In this period the flint ax was invented and improved, the spear continued in use, the bow and arrow were introduced, and indubitable arrowheads of stone and bone make their appearance. In the lake dwellings of Switzerland, northern Italy, and elsewhere, are found lance points of flint and bone, arrowheads of bone, flint, and other materials, battle-axes of serpentine, and flint axes and knives, all of Neolithic technique. Among the prehistoric relics of Japan are stone swords or daggers, arrowheads, spearheads, and shields. Not Japan alone, but India, China, Syria, and every country of Europe had its stone age, while the museums of London and Berlin contain many stone weapons of Mesopotamian and Egyptian origin. The Stone Age continued far into historical times among many Aryan peoples, while numerous savage tribes today are on a comparable stage of development.

That early man knew the meaning of war is also evidenced by his selection of community sites for the protection they offered and by the fortifications which he erected. In Neolithic times "village communities, more or less in touch, were spread like a network all over Europe, and perhaps all over Africa," and the strongholds constructed on water and land attest the insecurity of life. Of the former, the best examples are the lake dwellings of Switzerland, though similar pile dwellings have been found in Italy, Germany, Austria, France, and elsewhere. They were built chiefly for protection against enemies and rapacious animals, and their value for these purposes may be inferred from the cases of pile dwellers among savages today.

Among prehistoric land strongholds, Jähns mentions barricades formed by trunks and branches of trees, hedges, or inclosures, and also walls of earth and stone. In early America, the most common type of fortification, as judged by the remains in the mound area of the United States, seems to have been the so-called hill fort, where defensive walls of earth or stone surround a peak or hilltop or skirt a bluff headland, as at Fort Ancient, Ohio. In the western highlands of Scotland are found "vitrified forts," which may also be included among Neolithic strongholds. It has been suggested that these were made by inserting wood between the stone blocks and burning it, with the result that the stone was partly melted into a firm vitreous mass. Similar fortifications have been found in Bohemia, Belgium, Brittany, Normandy, and Lusatia. In Denmark, Meisner found relics of prehistoric fortresses, the older ones without, the later ones with ditches. An ancient fort of remarkable strength has been discovered in Korea. Similar remains have been unearthed elsewhere, and they all bear silent witness to days of strife and warfare of which we have no other record.

The so-called Bronze Age succeeded the Stone Age in some places and introduced many improvements in the instruments of warfare. Man had become acquainted with metals, a fact which Schrader regards as one of the great turning points in culture history. With bronze weapons came real warfare, for, as Elliot says, polished stone implements may be useful in building pyramids and dolmens, but they are not very satisfactory as weapons of war. With the acquisition of bronze, war took on a more modern character. The same author maintains that the invention of bronze axes, daggers, and swords altered the history of Europe. In Egypt, "the Hyksos may well have owed much of their success to their bronze scimitars."

The value of bronze weapons lay in the fact that the metal provided a harder substance, took a sharper edge, and permitted a longer blade. Copper implements were used earlier and concomitantly, but the alloy was superior because harder and more malleable. Many bronze weapons, such as axes, daggers, arrowheads, and javelin points, were merely imitations of similar implements in bone and stone. This is a typical example of culture inertia—the tendency of cultural traits to persist. The bronze battle-ax, however, presents a new departure. It has three chief forms: the celt, a sort of knife, and the battle-ax proper. The celt was used for hand-to-hand fighting and throwing. The second form under the name of Framea was the oldest national weapon of the Germans. One form of the simple ax, used in the hand and also thrown, was the Franziska, the dreaded weapon of the Franks. The sword likewise makes its appearance in this period. Jähns thinks it was the first weapon used exclusively for war. He traces its evolution from the knife, but according to Déchelette, "The first swords of the age of bronze are only poniards, the blades of which, owing to the continual progress of metallurgy, have gradually been lengthened." Bronze poniards or daggers have been found in many places, and in Switzerland, Japan, and elsewhere there have been unearthed good specimens of bronze swords, which bear out the relation between the two-edged dagger and the sword. Just before the Hallstatt period the dominant weapon was the leaf-shaped sword, combining the advantages of thrust and cut. Myres has described it as follows: "Its long flat tang running the full length of the handle and furnished with lateral flanges gave the structural security of a girder where this was most absent from all earlier blades. Its occurrence as far to the south-east as Egypt, along with other mid-European types, all belonging to the period of the great sea-raids of the years about 1200 B.C.; in Cyprus where it was eventually manufactured locally; and as far west as Spain and Ireland, is the best proof of its efficiency as a weapon. From it were developed not only the specifically 'Hallstatt' swords of the tenth, ninth and eighth centuries, but the swords of the Greeks of classical times, and less directly that shorter Spanish sword which was eventually adopted by the Romans." With the bronze sword came accessories such as scabbards, chapes of swords, hilt guards, and pommels.

Defensive weapons undoubtedly existed much earlier, but as they must have been made of leather, wood, or fiber, they have, of course, disappeared. Since stone is obviously not adaptable to such uses, it is not until the Bronze Age that we find defensive arms among the artifacts. Dechelette gives a full discussion of bronze helmets, cuirasses, bucklers, arm guards, and finger stalls. Munro found bronze helmets and arm and leg guards in the ancient tombs of Japan. According to MacCurdy, the bronze shield is practically confined to the British Isles and Scandinavia.

The use of iron constituted another great advance; iron blades could be made longer and stronger. It is not to be understood, however, that all peoples have passed through, or must of necessity pass through, the three successive stages of stone, bronze, and iron, which represent the archaeological reconstruction of European prehistory. In Africa, for example, the age of iron followed directly upon that of stone.


Excerpted from The Evolution of War by Maurice R. Davie. Copyright © 2003 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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