Ancient Oaxaca From Nomadic Foraging to Warring State

Kent Flannery and Joyce Marcus report no evidence for group conflict among the small nomadic bands that foraged in the Valley of Oaxaca in southern Mexico between 10,000 and 4000 BP. Toward the end of this period, the transition from hunting and gathering to sedentary villages was under way. By 2800 to 2450 BP, three rival chiefly centers existed in the Valley of Oaxaca, buffered

Historical Foraging

Figure 5.2 By the time of Christ, Zapotec civilization was already flourishing in the Oaxacan highlands of Mexico. The capital of the ancient state, Monte AlbSn, was built in an easily defensible location on a string of three mountaintops that command spectacular views in all directions. Monte Alban's main plaza includes many temples, a large ball court, subterranean passageways, and a distinct arrow-shaped building, shown here, which may have had important astronomical purposes. (D. P. Fry photo collection.)

from each other by unoccupied zones. Near the end of this period, one center, San José Mogote, was attacked and its main temple burned. The survivors relocated to the mountaintop called Monte Albân (Figure 5.2) and began constructing defensive walls, some 3 kilometers in length. Monte Albân was to become the capital of the Zapotec state. This state waged war with a professional army and by about 1700 BP had expanded its domain some 150 kilometers beyond the Valley of Oaxaca.21

Figure 5.2 By the time of Christ, Zapotec civilization was already flourishing in the Oaxacan highlands of Mexico. The capital of the ancient state, Monte AlbSn, was built in an easily defensible location on a string of three mountaintops that command spectacular views in all directions. Monte Alban's main plaza includes many temples, a large ball court, subterranean passageways, and a distinct arrow-shaped building, shown here, which may have had important astronomical purposes. (D. P. Fry photo collection.)

The foregoing archaeological time sequences illustrate how warfare may originate in particular areas and increase along with the development of sociopolitical complexity. These sequences show a recurring pattern. First, among simple nomadic foragers there is no archaeological evidence for warfare. Then, as some hunter-gatherer societies make changes toward increasing complexity, sometimes, but not always, warfare makes an appearance in the archaeological record.22 With the development of states, the archaeological record often shows increases in the frequency and intensification of war, a phenomenon that may be exacerbated by population pressures or environmental change.

Specialists who have evaluated the archaeological evidence regarding warfare have reached similar conclusions. Recall that Keeley, who is emphasizing warfare, pins down the time frame for warfare as within the last 10,000 years.23 Haas concurs: "Archaeologically, there is negligible evidence for any kind of warfare anywhere in the world before about 10,000 years ago."24

In Figure 5.3, the oldest evidence for warfare is put in time perspective. Clearly, war is a very recent development. The archeological record documents that war becomes more frequent and intensifies with the development of the state level of sociopolitical organization, beginning a mere 5,000 to 6,000 years ago.

Regarding the lack of any indications of warfare in the archaeological record much beyond the 10,000-year mark, it has sometimes been said that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. However, as archaeological data have accumulated from many corners of the world, it is now clear that warfare does leave definite marks.25 Brian Ferguson observes: "Where a cultural tradition is known from many sites and skeletons, absence of any

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Increasingly Numerous Examples of War

Figure 5.3 War and the Evolutionary Timeline

Lawrence Keeley is correct when he points out that some war existed before civilization, that is, before the development of states. However, when viewed in the time frame of human evolution, civilization is an extremely recent development (dating from only 6,000 years ago at the earliest). Human precursors within the genus Australopithecus are 5 million to 6 million years old. With relatively small brains, the australopithecines walked erect on two legs. The genus Homo is about 2 million years old and shows an increased brain-size-to-body-size ratio over time, the first evidence of stone tool manufacture, and the first controlled use of fire. The species Homo erectus preceded Homo sapiens in time. Archaic Homo sapiens dates from at least 200,000 years ago, while anatomically modern Homo sapiens (modern humans) appears in the archaeological record only in the last 40,000 to 50,000 years. Agriculture was developed during the last 10,000 years, the period corresponding with the first archaeological indications of warfare. The first states, early civilizations, appeared about 5000 to 6000 BP (3000 to 4000 BC). From this period onward, there are ample examples of warfare in the archaeological record. The rest of the story, literally, is history—and thus archaeologically very recent.

sort of evidence suggesting war can indeed be taken as reasonable evidence of war's absence."26 Furthermore, as we have just considered, many areas show the clear sequential development of war over time. Unambiguous fortifications around settlements, specialized weapons such as clubs and daggers not used for hunting, depictions of martial scenes in artwork, a substantial number of burials with projectile points either embedded in the bones or else lying within the frames of skeletons, evidence of massive fires followed by a change in cultural artifacts, a reduced number of male remains buried in cemeteries (suggesting significant male death elsewhere), and repetition of such findings across the archaeological sites of an area—these and other indicators show the presence of warfare. And when multiple lines of evidence point in the same direction, we can be fairly certain that warfare was occurring.

Knowing that warfare leaves an archaeological trail means that when we have an archaeological record with no indicators of warfare, this information tells us something meaningful as well. Ferguson points out, "If we were talking about anything less ideologically weighted than war, such as the origin of agriculture or settled village living, no one would take seriously a claim that such might have existed in distant millennia. The time of origin would be simply, uncontroversially fixed at the point of the earliest evidence."27

Aside from what the archaeological record tells us, there also is a series of compelling, logical reasons to explain why warfare was a rare anomaly during all but the last tiny fraction of human prehistory. For one thing, the social organization of simple nomadic hunter-gatherers, the only form of social organization for the vast majority of human prehistory, is simply not conducive to making war. As we will consider in the next chapter, an association between warfare and the complexity of social organization has been replicated in many cross-cultural studies.28 We also have just seen how prehistoric archaeological sequences from around the world show that war and social complexity go hand in hand. In coming chapters, we will explore in greater detail why the paucity of warfare prior to the agricultural revolution should be no surprise based on what we know about nomadic hunter-gatherer social organization and lifestyle.

The archaeological sequences that we have just considered show that beliefs about warfare being very ancient are not linked very closely to the observable evidence. Cultural belief systems include presuppositions about human nature. Consequently, beliefs that war is an intrinsic part of human nature, that humans are naturally aggressive or have instincts for war, and the like tend to be accepted as part of a cultural belief system. However, turning to facts, a careful examination of cross-cultural data in Chapters 2 and 3 showed that warfare, while common in recent centuries, is not a cultural universal. In actuality, many nonwarring cultures exist (Appendix 2). Similarly, the belief that "there always has been war" does not correspond with the archaeological facts of the matter. The earliest unambiguous evidence of warfare dates from less than 10,000 years ago, and war becomes more common with the rise of the state several millennia later. After reviewing the archaeological record, Leslie Sponsel reaches the conclusion that "during the hunter-gatherer stage of cultural evolution, which dominated 99 percent of human existence on the planet. . . lack of archaeological evidence for warfare suggests that it was rare or absent for most of human prehistory."29 Keeley might see Sponsel as attempting to pacify the past, but on the other hand, recall that Keeley exaggerated the evidence for warfare by including, along with prehistoric war, cases of homicide and some other questionable examples. When it comes down to the actual archaeological evidence, however, Keeley acknowledges the very recent time frame for warfare.30 Sponsel's conclusion about the rarity or absence of warfare for most of prehistory, while perhaps contradicting popular beliefs as to the great antiquity of war, nonetheless is in accordance with the archaeological facts.

Continue reading here: War and Social Organization From Nomadic Bands to Modern States

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  • christina
    When did homosapens first appear?
    10 years ago
  • Marko
    Why the ancients warred?
    10 years ago
  • Carl
    What might be another term for "nomadic foraging"?
    11 years ago