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Although in Atapuerca and in many other places bones from hundreds of thousands of years ago have been found with remains of lethal and deliberate bruises (the oldest, from the Sima de los Huesos, is about 430,000 years old), it is impossible to determine the origin of collective and organized violence, that which over time and depending on the context we call war. However, as explained by the archaeologist at the Institute of Sciences of the CSIC Alfredo González Ruibal, who has excavated in sites around the world, there is no evidence of it until the appearance of the modern human being.
"When we think about human evolution, we usually do it in a positive key, in achievements that are unblocked, as we would say now: bipedalism, language, food production, metallurgy ... But every achievement has its dark side. It also happens with the cognitive revolution that the appearance of anatomically modern humans supposes: the same intellectual capacities that make Altamira possible – complex communication, a notion of cultural identity and a certain degree of abstraction – make organized collective violence possible.
Violence that the researcher goes through in great detail in Scorched Earth (Crítica), a journey through the archaeological traces left by the human conflicts of the Paleolithic until today that is born of his intention to discover and record why our species has been killing itself since its origins. "Wars have always been more than battles: they are forms of social organization, landscapes that are transformed, rituals, everyday objects and all those people who suffer them. Archaeologists do not excavate data, but lives discarded by violence in a mass grave or in a razed village. It's hard to forget people when what you find is not a document with figures, but their own bones."
Archaeologists do not excavate data, but lives discarded by violence in a mass grave or in a razed village.
So whether in medieval battles like Aljubarrota, ancient sieges like those at Dura (Syria) and Himera (Sicily) or in the trenches of the Somme in World War I, the anxiety, fear and brutality inherent in war are always the same. "There are forms of excessive violence that seem not to have changed much over time: in the Neolithic, as in the twentieth century, we see massacres of non-combatants and savage forms of cruelty. What changes is the way it is practiced, the ideas that promote and justify it and the scale of the massacres," he explains.
To speak of war, there has to be a certain duration in the conflict, there has to be two or more clearly defined sides, an institutionalization, a warrior identity and weapons of war themselves. "In the case of Europe, this takes place around the fourth millennium BC, between the end of the Neolithic and the beginning of the Metal Age, a period that, not by chance, coincides with the development of social differences and the emergence of great leaders."
The first genocide?
From that time dates one of the largest and best documented mass massacres – today we would say genocide – in history, which led to the end of the culture of Banda Ceramics, the first Neolithic society in Central Europe. "For a series of generations around 5,000 BC, the populations of what is now Germany and the surrounding territories were dedicated to annihilating themselves almost without any restraint," says the archaeologist. "Entire villages were razed, women and children were massacred and cannibalism was even practised. It is difficult to know what motivated the apocalypse, but it was probably a combination of causes, including an ecological crisis: harvests were getting worse and the chances of migration minimal."
By 5000 B.C., entire villages were razed, women and children were massacred, and cannibalism was even practiced.
This is not the only case. Similar collapses have occurred in other societies. At the end of the second millennium BC, the culture of the ancestors of the Pueblo Indians, in the southwest of the United States, began to collapse in a context of climate crisis while extreme forms of violence were generalized, with collective murders, torture and cannibalism. "The ends of the historical cycle can lead to more just and free social formations, but they can also end in a bloodbath, when the social mechanisms that prevented forms of extreme violence disappear. We have seen it in Iraq or Syria in recent times," says González Ruibal.
Because one of the many clichés that this essay denies is that violence and tolerance towards it have been progressively decreasing throughout history. Rather, it is about cycles. "A widespread idea is that primitive (tribal) peoples practice war more and more savagely than civilized (state) peoples. But the truth is that the archaeological evidence of collective violence in state societies is usually more abundant and of a much larger scale, "says González Ruibal, who adds that there are historical periods "unjustly stigmatized without much justification", such as the High Middle Ages.
Victims of the Isaaq genocide perpetrated by the Siad Barrie regime in Somaliland
"A study of skeletons found in excavations showed that the number of deaths due to violence in the early Middle Ages remained more or less the same compared to Roman times and also the health of the people improved. And the beginning of modernity witnessed violence of considerably greater intensity and scope than in preceding centuries, with the wars of religion and European expansion."
Many of our preconceptions, he argues, have to do with the fact that we know little about history beyond the West. For example, "we tend to think that humans apply cutting-edge technology in the first instance to the military field. But this is not so in many cultures. Pre-Columbian societies, for example, knew the metal, but used it for ornaments and religious ceremonies, not to make weapons. Also in sub-Saharan Africa a highly sophisticated steel industry developed at the same time as in Europe, but unlike here it was mainly applied to agriculture: "At the beginning of the Iron Age what we find most are hoes and axes, not weapons".
The end of the war?
These facts make the archaeologist optimistic, despite the crudeness of his essay. "Archaeological narratives, like historical ones, inevitably condense time. When it comes to violence, we may be led to think that history is nothing more than a succession of massacres and atrocities. A rather depressing image," he summarizes. "But the truth is that, if this were the case, archaeologists would find many more mass graves and levels of destruction than we found. And the truth is that, for every settlement razed in a war, we find 10 that were peacefully abandoned."
Actually, we should ask ourselves how we managed to live without massacring ourselves for so long.
"We haven't been killing each other non-stop and, when we have, it's not always been without restraint. Societies have routinely found ways to delimit conflict, and this is something we forget, perhaps because avoiding genocide is less impactful than genocide itself. And we are more struck by the century in which the people of the Banda Ceramics were massacred than the 500 or 600 years in which they lived peacefully," reflects the author. "Looking only at excess is a mistake. We should ask ourselves why at certain times and in an exceptional way we have massacred ourselves without limit, but also how we have managed to live without massacring ourselves for so long. History and archaeology offer some answers to those questions."
Is it possible, then, the utopia of arriving at a society that rejects violence, as was thought in eighteenth-century Europe? González Ruibal thinks so. "Over the past 5,000 years the intensity of violence has varied greatly by region. Conflict is inherent to the human being, but war, especially the total war of the contemporary age, is not. Just as the war had a beginning, it may have an end. Could we reach a total rejection of collective violence as a species? Maybe so, at least the largest-scale one. Let's think that today the ruler of no country boasts of exterminating civilians or looting other countries (even if they do), but quite the opposite. That would be unthinkable 2,000 years ago," he reasons.
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