What causes violence? Africa (11,700 BC to 3,000 BC)

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What Causes Violence?

Human violence is as old as humanity itself. Humans have always been prone to violence ever since their debut on the planet. There is evidence that human warfare occurred even before the invention of agriculture, around 12,000 to 14,000 years ago in northern Sudan (an area known as Site 117, Jebel Sahaba, Sudan). There have been discoveries of ancient caves which hold paintings illustrating human violence and conflicts.

Violence and fighting were always predominantly perpetrated by males. Females rarely ever took part, but were most times victims rather than perpetrators, a fact that still holds true even today.

It is very likely that the bulk of lethal violence that occurred during the Holocene were perpetrated by hunter-gatherers. Nomadic foragers, on the other hand, were unlikely to have indulged in actual warfare although feuds were very common.

Holocene and human advancement at the time

The Holocene period refers to a period from 11,700 calendar years before present (bp) to 3,000 BC. Present means 1950. The Holocene is a period that followed the Pleistocene.

The Pleistocene period in lay English is the “Ice age” and a geological period covering 2.58 million to 11,700 years ago.

Humans had already advanced to some extent during the Holocene. There were organized groups and cooperative behaviour within them. Humans had acquired a level of sophistication and had started to observe animals and other people. Art had already been invented including paintings, and for aesthetic purposes like ornaments. Humans had begun organizing burials and learnt how to make things such as paint, clothes, tools and of course weapons.

Weapons of prehistory

Humans invented various weapons that were used to perpetrate violence during the Holocene; spears, spear throwers, bow & arrows, the javelin, axes and clubs were especially popular. Humans invented shields of which its sole purpose was for use in human combat.

Of all known hunter-gatherers, only Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherers failed to invent the bow and arrow, they made up for it though by inventing the boomerang, which was still pretty much an effective long-distance weapon[1].

Hunting weapons made human aggression lethal. Male hunter-gatherers went around everywhere always armed, they were always prepared to kill should any conflict arise irrespective of time or place. These made them particularly very dangerous.

It should be noted, however, that killing a fellow group member was frowned upon and morally condemned.

Use of violence

Socio-political behaviour particularly ethnocentrism is a major cause of intergroup conflicts; where one group refer to themselves as “we” and refer to other groups as “them” or “they” in other words affirming that they are superior and others inferior or not of importance.

There were predominant factors that forced the use of lethal violence during the Holocene era.

Capital Punishment: According to Christopher Boehm, a cultural anthropologist, during prehistoric times almost half of the capital punishment meted out to victims in nomadic foraging groups were to discourage bullying. Nomadic foragers did not tolerate dominance or a single individual bossing others around.

Other reasons capable of landing one a punishment of such magnitude are incest, breaking sacred supernatural beliefs, stealing or cheating[2].

Ancient Cave Painting Depicting an Execution (SOURCE: https://www.humansandnature.org/prehistoric-capital-punishment-and-parallel-evolutionary-effects)

Capital punishments were applied to those considered by their group to have committed extreme and intolerable, or otherwise inescapable acts. This was usually carried out as a way to cope with or control the excesses of social deviants within groups. Also, it was intended to encourage altruism and more co-operative behaviour. Such killings are often carried out after a strong communal affirmation of the severity of the victim’s actions. In other words, it has to be the will of the group, which is necessary if such punishment is to be seen through.

Even today such scenarios continue to play out in society, in cases of jungle justice or mob action.

Feuding: Within groups, all male foragers are prone to taking blood revenge for the death of a fellow kinsman. This also applies to conflicts between two different groups, irrespective of whether the groups share the same or different cultures.

Sometimes a single retaliatory killing resolves the conflict, other times it heralds a chain of other killings. Feuding can escalate to raiding or even warfare.

Raiding: Raiding was also used to perpetrate violence. They are usually sudden and sneaky attacks that heavily rely on the element of surprise. In raids the imbalance of power is kept not by numbers but by surprise.

The ultimate objective is to quickly launch attacks and retreat without incurring casualties. A raid is considered unsuccessful if any of the raiders is fatally hurt.

Raiding is usually inspired by squabble for natural resources, females, or other trophies. Raiding was widespread all across the globe especially raiding for females by hunter-gatherers. There are also revenge motivated raiding.

Warfare: Prehistorical warfare engenders all sorts of philosophical debate. But according to Christopher Boehm, any conflict between groups that goes beyond feuding or raiding is termed warfare.

Genocidally motivated attacks were a global phenomenon, an example of such is the discovery of more than 20 skeletal remains dated to be about 10,000 years old at the lagoon shore of Lake Turkana, Kenya. The scene of the discovery suggested the massacre of one group of hunter-gatherers by another group.

It should be noted that serious warfare although widespread, was still far from being a universal affair such as in the case of raiding. All the different hunter-gatherer cultures of the world experienced human violence but not all of them indulged in conflicts that escalated beyond feuds.

There are cultures in which humans employ a sought of warfare rules of engagement that were used to reduce casualties. Such as in New Guinea where warring parties would line up and shout threats and curses at themselves but effectively stay out of striking range from each other. Sometimes there were a few casualties. There are also cases where warring groups each chose a single fighter to represent them, instead of the whole group engaging in the conflict.

The consequences of small-scale warfare are various. It may go on indefinitely especially if it was instigated by revenge motives. It may fade away on its own, other times one group might just move away.

Outcomes of wars on such a scale were usually casualties on both sides and one side taking over the enemy’s natural resources or territory.

Conflict resolution

It should be noted, however, that although there was a very high prevalence of violence during the Holocene, there were still cases of conflict resolution between groups.

Not everything resulted in war, humans sometimes co-operated with their neighbours and each other to resolve conflicts that otherwise might have escalated to feuds or wars. Negotiations may have been carried out directly or sometimes with the help of third parties.

Fighting foraging groups sometimes call a truce, which often leads to peace meetings. There are also cases of payments, compensations or prisoner exchanges, this was invented by hunter-gatherers.

Injury patterns

There are predominantly two types of injuries associated with this period; head injuries usually caused by clubbing or a blunt object, and injuries dealt to the body with lethal intent by projectile weapons like darts, spears and arrows[3].

Males within the ages of 25 to 40-years were the ones with a majority of the injuries, it is also the same age brackets for the women, although with far lesser casualties.

The Fractured Skull of a 10,000-year old Skeleton Found on The Shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya (SOURCE: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/science/prehistoric-massacre-ancient-humans-lake-turkana-kenya.html)

There are other instances involving violence some of which set humans apart from other mammals and perhaps any other organism on earth.

Humans are the only specie to signal clearly to other members of their social group that they have killed an individual[4]

Other instances that required violence are suicide, euthanasia, intergenerational disputes, family disputes, infanticide, rituals, lawlessness or criminality.

While Africa invented various things such as burials, religion, art, painting, fishing, mathematics, astronomy, tools, language, and cooperative behaviour, they also invented weapons, projectile weapons as well as close range weapons, and left evidence of the various forms of violence, sometimes for the administration of group justice through capital punishment.

In stone age Africa (14,000 BC to 3,000 BC), violence came with group cooperation and inventive minds. It enabled punishment, feuding, raiding and war.


  • James Gorman – Prehistoric Massacre Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers

Published by The New York Times, Jan 20 2016(https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/21/science/prehistoric-massacre-ancient-humans-lake-turkana-kenya.html)

  • Christopher Boehm. University Of Southern California – Warfare and Feuding in Pleistocene Societies. University of California Television (UCTV) Recorded on 05/16/2014. Series: “CARTA – Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny” [7/2014] [Humanities] [Science] [Show ID: 28344]) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRsQDfgwP08
  • Kim Hill. Arizona State University – Male Violence among the Aché and Hiwi Hunter-Gatherers. University of California Television (UCTV) Recorded on 05/16/2014. Series: “CARTA – Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny” [7/2014] [Humanities] [Science] [Show ID: 28344] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRsQDfgwP08
  • Patricia Lambert. Utah State University – Bioarchaeological Perspectives on Male Violence in Prehistory. University of California Television (UCTV) Recorded on 05/16/2014. Series: “CARTA – Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny” [7/2014] [Humanities] [Science] [Show ID: 28344] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRsQDfgwP08


  1. C.Boehm, May 2014
  2. C.Boehm, May 2014
  3. P. Lambert, May 2014
  4. K. Hill, May 2014

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