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Evolution of violence. Discoveries from the Middle East

Recent archaeological research on violence in the ancient Near East draws a new perspective on the changing face of human aggression. Researchers analyzed data on 3,539 human skeletons dated between 12,000 and 400 BC. The results suggest that levels of violence did not undergo a uniform rise or fall but oscillated at different points in history. What triggered these waves of violence?

The non-obvious history of violence. What pushed the ancients towards aggression?

A Polish researcher, Arkadiusz Sołtysiak, PhD, DSc, Assoc. Prof. from the University of Warsaw is one of the authors of a study published on 9th October in Nature Human Behaviour [1]. The results show that the level of violence varied according to the region of the Middle East and the era from which the remains came. The researchers point to correlations between the increase in aggression and the formation of new social institutions (cities and quasi-states), as well as climatic factors.

“[…] As long as we have sufficiently abundant skeletal collections, we are able to estimate the level of violence in different ancient human groups based on the frequency of injuries resulting from the use of weapons. In particular, blows inflicted with blunt or sharp-edged hand weapons can leave characteristic marks on the bones, above all on the cranial vault.” — explains Arkadiusz Soltysiak, quoted on the University of Warsaw website. [2] 

Previous theories about living in the Middle East area have been roughly divided into ‘dovish’ and ‘hawkish.’ Proponents of the former claimed that ancient civilizations lived in harmony. The latter believed that people in the early days of settlement were characterized by brutality and warlike approaches. The published results suggest that the reality was much more complex.

In the paper described here, the researchers focused on the Middle East between 12,000 and 400 BC. Analyzing the remains of more than 3,500 people, they looked for signs of interpersonal violence, particularly head injuries. The results indicate that violence peaked during the Chalcolithic period (4,500-3,000 BC), declined during the Early and Middle Bronze Age (3,300-1500 BC), and increased again over the next 300 years and remained high into the Iron Age (1,200-400 BC). [1]

The initial increase in traces of violence observed on Chalcolithic skeletons is linked by scientists to the formation of the first cities. The gathering of people into larger clusters was linked to a multi-year episode of drought. The inequalities and power struggles of the elites that arose in the cities fostered conflicts that the institutions of power in the first formative phases were not yet able to control. (e.g., the army).

The decline in the number of traces of violence, on the other hand, indicates the solidification of states and the development of ways to maintain order. The Early and Middle Bronze Age is frequently referred to as the first ‘golden age’ of Mesopotamia, the Levant and neighbouring territories. During this period, bureaucratic and legal arrangements were already known, codes existed, and many projects required the cooperation of large groups of people.

The renewed spike in violence in the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age (1500-400 BC) was the result of another dry spell that lasted about 300 years. Food shortages triggered struggles for resources and migrations in search of new sources. Combined with the invasions of the Sea Peoples, this triggered a crisis of social institutions in the Near East and the collapse of the Hittite and Mitanni states.

Timeless Wisdom: Unearthing Insights from Ancient Skeletons

As the authors point out, their study adds to the existing literature in at least three respects.

  • Researchers have developed a new way of conducting research with integrity, using a combination of anthropology and historical econometrics methods.
  • The study extends knowledge of an extremely significant period and place in the history of civilization (the ancient Near East).
  • The results indicate that early state institutions were able to effectively reduce violence after a period of increased violence, which was one of the key advantages of forming states and being their citizens.

The findings, published in the prestigious Nature, shed light not only on the past but also help to understand contemporary conflicts. The analysis allows us to see that variable factors, from politics to climate, influenced the dynamics of violence in past societies, and parallels can also be identified in contemporary events.

“[…] People may be less inclined to be aggressive both when the state does not control their behavior – as in the Neolithic – and when there is a strong state policing order – as in the Bronze Age[…].” — doctor Sołtysiak notes. [2]


[1] “Violence trends in the ancient Middle East between 12,000 and 400 BCE”, J.Baten, G. Benati, A. Sołtysiak, 9.10.2023, Nature Human Behaviour, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-023-01700-y, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-023-01700-y.epdf?sharing_token=DlR59Q8vFCPz1Iq8TeCIS9RgN0jAjWel9jnR3ZoTv0OKyAVMuIKVUu3CqPi6YyliV65jqorO1bDGAhBUmJDIZRikRAK_fmj-g5EpHmBbZoB0IzPfBS0U_UdgsvwjJHtO3rB8XfMgzOzRmCQguNo_EZvB0EBXi7PtWtWIIVGg_N3iN9uZzTRbo21iLaMo_5Gm8tH3EO-THtWLLVfr4Av01g%3D%3D&tracking_referrer=elpais.com

[2] Publication in Nature Human Behaviour, University of Warsaw website, https://www.uw.edu.pl/publikacja-w-nature-human-behaviour/, (date of access: 10.09.2023).

Marcin Szałaj
Absolwent kognitywistyki na Uniwersytecie Marii Curie-Skłodowskiej w Lublinie. Dziennikarz i copywriter, który od lat na bieżąco śledzi wszystkie doniesienia ze świata nauki i działa na rzecz jej popularyzacji.
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Marcin Szałaj

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