The emergence of human warfare: Current perspectives

Am J Phys Anthropol. 2019 Jan;168 Suppl 67:141-163. doi: 10.1002/ajpa.23751. Epub 2018 Dec 21.


The origins of warfare have long been of interest for researchers across disciplines. Did our earliest ancestors engage in forms of organized violence that are appropriately viewed as approximations, forms of, or analogs for more recent forms of warfare? Assessed in this article are contrasting views that see warfare as being either a product of more recent human societies or a phenomenon with a much deeper chronology. The article provides an overview of current debates, theories, and methodological approaches, citing literature and data from archaeological, ethnographic, genetic, primatological, and paleoanthropological studies. Synthetic anthropological treatments are needed, especially in efforts to inform debates among nonacademic audiences, because the discipline's approaches are ideally suited to study the origins of warfare. Emphasized is the need to consider possible forms of violence and intergroup aggression within Pleistocene contexts, despite the methodological challenges associated with fragmentary, equivocal, or scarce data. Finally, the review concludes with an argument about the implications of the currently available data. We propose that socially cooperative violence, or "emergent warfare," became possible with the onset of symbolic thought and complex cognition. Viewing emergent warfare as a byproduct of the human capacity for symbolic thought explains how the same capacities for communication and sociality allowed for elaborate peacemaking, conflict resolution, and avoidance. Cultural institutions around war and peace are both made possible by these changes. Accordingly, we suggest that studies on warfare's origins should be tied to research on the advent of cooperation, sociality, and communication.

Keywords: Pleistocene; violence; warfare.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Animals
  • Anthropology
  • Europe
  • Female
  • History, Ancient
  • Hominidae*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Violence* / ethnology
  • Violence* / history
  • Warfare* / ethnology
  • Warfare* / history