14 – And Moses was wroth with the officers of the host, with the captains over thousands, and captains over hundreds, which came from the battle.
15 – And Moses said unto them, Have ye saved all the women alive?
16 – Behold, these caused the children of Israel, through the counsel of Balaam, to commit trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, and there was a plague among the congregation of the Lord.
17 – Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him.
18 – But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.
– King James Bible, Numbers 31
In the 20th century the Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas posited that the emergence of pre-Christian European culture went through two phases after the Mesolithic. First, there were the Neolithic Old Europeans who brought agriculture. Then there were the Kurgan people from the steppe, who brought Indo-European languages and warlike patriarchal values to the continent.By the 1990s many archaeologists had turned against the Kurgan model of Indo-Europeanization, leaning rather toward the proposition that the Old Europeans themselves were Indo-Europeans. I believe that the latest work in genetics, utilizing powerful statistical inference techniques leveraging genomics and computational biology, and ancient DNA, suggest that Gimbutas was right in terms of the role of the Kurgan people as promoters of Indo-European culture in Northern Europe. Even those who supported the Kurgan hypothesis, such as David Anthony, were apparently shocked at the magnitude of the genetic turnover.
But Gimbutas probably went very wrong is the idea that Old Europeans were a peaceful and matriarchal society. First, though there are matrilineal societies, and matrifocal societies, to my knowledge there are no matriachal societies which are analogs to the patriarchies you might find in the modern Arab world or ancient Athens (and frankly, most agricultural and post-agricultural societies). Certainly there were societies where powerful women were shaping the course of events. This influence may even be institutionalized (I’m thinking of the Iroquois as an instance of a case). But there were no societies where rulers were exclusively women and men were forced into roles of total passivity in matters of war and politics, and property as a class.
That’s the truism as informed by what we know from surveying cultures in the historical record and extant today. But there is a spectrum of empirical phenomena in terms of magnitude. During the Roman Empire the women of the Latin West continued to have liberties and freedoms that were customary for them during antiquity (the power of the Julio-Claudian women and Theodora seem less shocking when considering the public prominence of elite women during the Republican period, which some ascribe to the role of Etruscan women in their society). When the focus of Roman power shifted toward Constantinople in the 4th century, one visible marker distinguishing elite women of western cultural affiliation, as opposed to those who were of the Greek nobility, is that the latter were often veiled, perhaps echoing the seclusion of ancient Athenian women of good family.
Similarly, though Japanese civilization is influenced, perhaps even derived, in large part from Chinese civilization, one major distinction between the two is that the in the ideal and often in practice the Chinese have subordinated military values to civilian ones to an exceptional extent for a pre-modern society. In contrast, the Japanese developed a military aristocracy which eventually superseded the civilian nobility. This results in the anachronistic romanticization of a martial ethos such as in bushido, which has no clear analogy in the Chinese world view. Obviously here I am not saying that the Chinese were a purely pacific people. And there were ages when martial values were ascendant, for example the early Tang. But the fact that the founder of the Song dynasty, a general, encouraged a demilitarization of his ruling class makes much more sense in light of the ethos of Chinese elite culture going back to the end of the Warring States period. In contrast, the Western aristocracy, often directly descended from Germanic warlords, have retained an ethos where physical violence and competition is more meritorious. The emergence of firearms necessitated a shift away from direct front-line combat to minimize casualties, and a channeling of energies into patronage of high culture and foppish self-cultivation. But even today the princes of the House of Windsor continue to serve in military professions, putting the role of the soldier in Western society in stark relief as one of esteem.
I bring this up to reiterate that though we see the past through a dark mirror, we must filter its probabilities through what we know of societies today, and those that are historically attested. Human phenomena is not infinitely flexible, but exhibits modal peaks across the distribution of possibilities. Our expectations should not be uniform and agnostic. The Old Europeans may have been gynocentric pacifists, but if they were then they were sui generis among human societies. As time machines are not feasible we will never truly know in a direct sense what they were like. Rather, we must look to aligning material remains with theoretical expectations given what we know about the nature of human societies. Interpretation will always occur. The key is to obtain the proper framework to generate true inferences. In Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization the author observes how the objects which might be useful as weapons in graves have often been interpreted as “ritual” markers of status, as if conspicuous consumption was always the primary form of status competition. Written in the 1990 War Before Civilization was a seminal work taking on the neo-Rousseauan model head-on, that war was somehow a contingent invention of civilization. A terrible mistake.
A recent paper in PNAS puts the final nail in the coffin of this strong form of the neo-Roussseauan paradigm, which now has little support even from scholars such as Brian Ferguson. The paper is The massacre mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals new insights into collective violence in Early Neolithic Central Europe:
The Early Neolithic massacre-related mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten presented here provides new data and insights for the ongoing discussions of prehistoric warfare in Central Europe. Although several characteristics gleaned from the analysis of the human skeletal remains support and strengthen previous hypotheses based on the few known massacre sites of this time, a pattern of intentional mutilation of violence victims identified here is of special significance. Adding another key site to the evidence for Early Neolithic warfare generally allows more robust and reliable reconstructions of the possible reasons for the extent and frequency of outbreaks of lethal mass violence and the general impact these events had on shaping the further development of the Central European Neolithic.
The body of of the text engages in a deep osteological analysis, but in the language of the street, “they fucked these people up.” In particular, the victims seem to have had their lower extremities maimed or crushed. If they were still alive when this occurred then it was clearly a form of torture. If they were dead, then it was clearly a spiteful mutilation of the dead, and the valence has to be symbolic rather than utilitarian. The victims in the assemblage exhibited a curious demographic pattern. There were infants below one year of age, as well as young children, but no older children or adolescents. The only two adult women were over the age of forty. The rest of the adults killed were men.
We can’t know what happened with certainty. These were preliterate people. But with what we know about the nature of human culture it seems that an obvious narrative presents itself. As noted in the paper this was an LBK site. But, it seems that the community was on the border of two LBK trade networks (as inferred from the distribution and character of material remains). On the frontier of agricultural production, when land is in surplus, one can imagine that there was little inter-group conflict between LBK coalitions. What we would probably term “tribes.” Additionally, there was almost certainly a “meta-ethnic frontier” which Mesolithic hunter-gatherers, who we now know were genetically and physically very distinct from the LBK people (naively projecting genetic variance statistics, their difference was in the ballpark as that between modern Chinese and Northern Europeans, Fst ~ 0.10).
But what happens when Malthusian constraints begin to close in? In the Moral Consequences of Economic Growth Benjamin Friedman suggests that in American history economic stagnation and stress lead to greater xenophobia, and reduced openness. And one doesn’t need a deep history lesson to observe what occurred in Europe during the 1930s. Retrenchment invariably leads to turning back to collective units of organization and protection. Once the LBK reached a stationary state, which reduced marginal returns to labor input, and likely produced increased sensitivity to environmental perturbations, then it is entirely expected that “inter-group competition” would emerge as one of the ways in which the carrying capacity would maintain a “check” on numbers. Sedentary agriculturalists must scramble for scarce resources. There’s no running off, at least at this stage of social complexity.
The fact that the LBK turned on each other should condition our understanding of how the transition to the Corded Ware may have occurred. The Y chromosomes of the LBK period are very different from what we find in Bronze Age Europe. The most reasonable model I believe is that these lineages did not go silently into the night. As they did to each other, so was done unto them. In J. R. R. Tolkien’s work there are allusions to the coming Fourth Age of Middle Earth, an age of men. The rise of agricultural mass society was the age of men in our world. Hunter-gatherer societies were no idyll, but due to their small scale, and complementarity in economic production, the relationship between the sexes was not one of male domination, where women were property to be traded as chattel. But concentrated and sedentary units of economic production that arose with village life became an inevitable target of extraction from collective groups of males, who translated their significant superior upper body strength into a reign of coercive terror. That coercion was translated into reproductive success, which is evident in the explosion of a finite set of Y chromosomal lineages on the order of ~5,000 years ago. The common R1a1a ancestor of Daniel MacArthur and myself was the original O G thug.
In evolutionary genetics R. A. Fisher introduced the idea that when selection pressures come to bear upon a population, large effect mutations may increase rapidly in frequency to increase population mean fitness. But, these mutations are not without cost, one reason that they were likely at low frequency in the first place. For example, one of the most well known adaptations to malaria famously has a very large segregation load in terms of a recessive disease. Evolutionary theory predicts over time that the adaptation will be less genetically disruptive. New mutations which allow for adaptation without the costs may emerge, or, other mutations may arise to “mask” and “modify” the deleterious effect of the initially favored allele.
When John Maynard Keynes purchased the papers of Isaac Newton he was shocked at the proportion of the great physicists writings devoted to matters occult and esoteric. Keynes declared that Newton was the ” last of the magicians, the last of the Babylonians and Sumerians, the last great mind which looked out on the visible and intellectual world with the same eyes as those who began to build our intellectual inheritance rather less than 10,000 years ago.” In opening the new age with his beautiful system of rational science, Newton nevertheless reflected an ancient ethos which persisted down into the modern period.
The Jewish people have been critical in the development of a universal ethical monotheism in the West, part of the broader evolution away from the supernatural systems of the Bronze Age that occurred across the Axial Age. But the Hebrew Bible preserves within it a world far removed from the divine Logos, a God of law and morality. The angry and jealous sky god of the Hebrews also enjoins upon them genocide of other tribes. Though the Hebrew Bible is pregnant with the possibilities of religious ethical universalism, the voice of the prophets’ righteous indignation raw with rage alive in our age, and channeled through the gentler voices of Hillel and Jesus, it also is a record of a parochial and peculiar people, who wash their hands of their atrocity by attributing it to the capricious and vindictive will of their god. If Moses and Joshua did exist, they almost certainly would have more in common with the war-chiefs of early Neolithic Europe, 4,000 years before their time, than men such as Constantine, who 1,300 years later promulgated a universal religion for a universal empire.
Ancient Egypt, with its autocratic god-kings, was arguably one of the end-points of the Neolithic experiment with mass culture and ideology. So were Shang China and Mycenaean Greece, with their human sacrifices to propitiate the gods. Increasing primary productivity by an order of magnitude, which farming did, resulted in the emergence of huge amalgamations of humanity, and we as a species are culturally creative enough to have come up with adaptations. Literacy, cities, and social stratification, were all responses to the stresses and pressures that the opportunity of mass society presented. The emergence of powerful menacing and extortionate patrilineages was another. This was a world of gangs, thugs, and the question was not whether you would become a thug, it was whether you would be a thug or a victim of a thug. They were necessary, inevitable, cultural mutations against the background pressures that agricultural imposed upon humanity.
But as per Fisher’s model, mutants with deleterious consequences invite their own response. They are tamed and civilized by a scaffold of modifiers. The brutal gods which were but reflections of human vice and caprice were drafted in the service of primal human psychological impulses forged during the Paleolithic, reciprocity and egalitarianism arose against the background of brutality beyond imagining unleashed by the social dislocation that was a consequence of agricultural society. The men and women shaped by the Hebrew prophets and Christian Church Fathers, the rishis of the Upanishads and the Chinese sages, they are all closer to us 2,000 years later, then they were to their own forebears only a few hundred years earlier in their own past.
These models operate in the world between one of naive innate cognitive reflexes and pure cultural inventions generated without reference to the functional constraints of our minds and environments. The independent experiment of the Aztec Mesoamerican society suggests that the same stage of brutal social order that had occurred during the Neolithic was playing out in the New World. The Aztecs were engaging in ritual cannibalism and human sacrifice in a manner not seen in Old World civilizations since the Bronze Age. Some inventions are inevitable, emergent properties of the intersection of our biobehavioral toolkit and our species’ incredible cultural flexibility. Though we may believe ourselves to be far beyond the LBK people, the Nazi gas chambers or the more recent events in Rwanda suggest that the same mental reflexes of coalition-building and competition can be co-opted toward organized violent ends even today. Peace is possible, but violence is always imaginable.
Addendum: This Azar Gat article argues for the reality of war among hunter-gatherers, extensively citing what we know about Australian Aboriginal culture on the eve of European settlement. It would indicate that the only thing separating our Pleistocene ancestors from ourselves in terms of violence would be scale and organization, with ideology a novel handmaid.