Experts Have Found Proof Of An Ancient War That Lasted 100,000 Years

War is nothing new for human beings. Our newspapers are full of stories about conflicts around the globe. And many of us have forebears who fought in world wars in the past century. But archaeology has started to reveal warfare that would put even the world wars into the shade, and a genocide that was almost total.

Although war itself did not begin in 2,700 B.C., the first we have a record of did. The early nations of Elam and Sumer in southwest Asia clashed, and Sumer was triumphant. Its leader, Enmebaragesi, was the king of Kish, a city that from time to time led Sumer. And he enjoyed the victory, carting off Elam’s weaponry as spoils of war.

Indeed, the area of Mesopotamia, where Sumer could be found, had a history of close to unending conflict. The fighting didn’t even end when the Akkadian king Sargon the Great created an empire that included the whole region. He had to battle revolts and invading peoples. Plus war gave birth to Egypt, some claim, when southern pharaoh Manes conquered the north. Who said love makes the world go round?

Well, not war commanders, that’s for sure. And China , respectively, became so fond of fighting that one of the eras in its history is called the Warring States Period. That eventually saw the country unified by the state of Qin, led by Shi Huangdi. And of course the Romans conquered much of the “known world” by military force, some of their conquests overlapping with those made in earlier times by the Greeks.

The sounds of the clash of arms echo throughout the ages, with history littered with bloodshed. But there’s no reason to believe that conflict began with the written record. Because both our genes and the remains of our ancestors reveal that war might have a long prehistory too.

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That prehistory begins on the continent of Africa. Because this is where human beings evolved, and it’s where most of the evolution of human ancestors occurred, too. Our earliest ancestors left their remains in Africa, with fossils of those who existed two to six million years ago dug up there.

Humans’ ancestors were apelike creatures called australopiths. And in 1960 researchers uncovered fossils in Tanzania that were somewhere between them and us. These were the remains of Homo habilis, hailed as the first species that could be said to be truly human. One descendant of H. habilis may have been Homo erectus: unquestionably human.

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Perhaps as many as 20 varied species evolved that could be described as humans. However, how they are all connected is a subject of dispute, and it’s not clear which left successors and which just vanished. The fossil record is that bad! Most did not have any descendants at all, but of course at least one did: our own species.

Possibly 600,000 years in the past, one of the human populations in Africa divided into two groups. One stayed where it was and would in time evolve into modern humans – that’s us. The other set off on a journey that ended in Europe. They were Homo neanderthalensis, more commonly known as the Neanderthals.

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Some call the Neanderthals “our cousins.” Because it seems we had a common parent with them: known to some researchers as Homo heidelbergensis. It most likely had evolved from H. erectus. Curiously, all these species probably existed at the same time, with H. erectus not going extinct until about 135,000 years before the present.

It’s not certain exactly when modern humans – Homo sapiens ­– and the Neanderthals split, and some believe that the division occurred at least a million years in the past. But split they did, and the outcome was separate populations. Plus in recent times we’ve discovered that the species that became the Neanderthals also evolved an Asian branch called the Denisovans.

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The existence of the Denisovans was extrapolated from “alien” DNA in ancient bones that seemed not to belong to Neanderthals. Then in 2010 geneticists found that a few bits of bone and tooth discovered in a Siberian cave indeed contained Denisovan DNA. And perhaps a third group existed: the dwarf Homo floresiensis. They had long feet for one thing – weird.

Most scientists believe that those left behind in Africa evolved into modern humans who then spread out into the world. Another proposed way that human evolution may have happened – called the “multi-regional” model – envisions humans evolving in various places after they had already moved out of Africa.

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In the multi-regional model, the evolved humans intermixed, and the result was the humans you see today. But the evidence from genetics supports the “out of Africa” model of evolution. Mind you, the species that definitely did Africa long before modern humans, also left their own trace: because a small percentage of us still have miniscule amounts of Neanderthal or Denisovan genes.

The oldest fossils of humans that have similar bodies to ours are two skulls found in Omo National Park, southwest Ethiopia. They date back 195,000 years. In the big picture of the Earth’s prehistory, this is comparatively recent times. As we mentioned, ancestors of humans from six million years ago have been found.

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Archaeology has shown us that the original migrants from Africa did not particularly thrive. Indeed, they teetered on the edge of becoming extinct. And they may have numbered no more than ten thousand at their lowest ebb. But things would change for the human species, and the reason may surprise you.

In the distant past, about 70,000 years back, a supervolcano erupted in Sumatra, Indonesia. Mount Toba’s explosion likely caused a “nuclear winter” and an ensuing ice age that lasted a millennium. It’s possible that humans only emerged from the big chill by cooperating and forming close-knit kin groups, becoming in time tribes.

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Once they’d learned to cooperate with each other, humans started to do much better. A second wave left Africa, and this time they really were like us, both to look at and in how they behaved. They soon spread across the globe, and their numbers ballooned. So much so that there are several billion of us today!

When our ancestors left Africa, they did not simply wander into an empty world. No, some of the ancient humans who had left before them still lived across the globe. Among them were the Neanderthals, named after the Neander Valley, the spot in Germany where their fossils were first discovered.

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The Neanderthals had a sloping forehead and big ridges for their eyebrows. And the middle of their faces was wide, home to a massive nose which allowed them to warm and humidify the cold air that they breathed. Indeed, the frigid climate that they lived in had led them to evolve to be rather short and stocky, although they had equally large brains as we do.

And the Neanderthals managed to create tools from bone and stone that had complicated designs. Plus they could use fire, possibly utilising the flames that’d been ignited by lightning. It’s even possible that they knew enough chemistry to create their own firestarters. Certainly they had a type of medicine that they used on themselves, and in their downtime they created art works.

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So these were not the simple brutes that they have been portrayed as, but a successful offshoot of the human evolutionary line. And they flourished in Europe after their first appearance 250,000 years back. However, by 28,000 B.C., they’d vanished. Sad how life sometimes turns out, ain’t it?

Meanwhile, modern humans spread rapidly into the Near East, with their remains turning up in Israel, buried possibly as many as 130,000 years ago. At the same time, humans may have been leaving tools in what is now the United Arab Emirates. Some 60,000 years ago, they had reached Sumatra. But when they tried to move from the Near East into Europe, there was a stumbling block.

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Just like our ancestors, Neanderthals had learned the value of cooperation. They hunted big game in groups. But they were apex predators, with very little threat in their environment from other predators. So overpopulation always posed a threat to them, and it’s likely that they would fight over territory.

This desire to acquire and defend territory is not restricted to humans. Chimpanzees also fight over it. Males of the species will gang together and go out to fight with rivals, behavior that closely resembles war between humans. This suggests that cooperating in aggressive conflict evolved in our shared ancestor, more than seven million years in the past. So Neanderthals, too, are likely to have done the same.

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Because archaeology shows that Neanderthals deployed weapons at least to hunt game. They would gang up on animals and bring them down with spears. Even mammoths were not too big for the plucky hominins. And it seems difficult to believe that beings so accomplished with weapons wouldn’t have used them to defend their territories.

Plus there’s evidence of that. A skeleton uncovered at St. Césaire, France, which dates back 36,000 years, has a curious feature. Its skull bears a fracture that healed. Not surprising given the dangerous times, but forensics shows that it was likely made by a sharp tool. In other words, the skeleton is that of a man who was speared in the head.

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Actually Neanderthal skeletons often show signs of damage that later healed or bones that degenerate after being hurt. It’s possible that they received injuries from the animals that they were hunting. But an intriguing possibility is that they bear the scars of ancient club attacks or spearings. Humans of the same age show the same kinds of scarring.

More typical of wars are fractures caused when men parry blows. Neanderthals have a lot of arm breaks, possibly caused when they tried to ward off spear strikes. And one skeleton found in Iraq shows that its owner suffered a deep spear wound in the chest. Traumatic injuries are common in younger Neanderthals, in patterns that seem to indicate small but lasting conflicts between tribes: in other words, a long war.

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But most strongly suggesting that there was an ancient war is the boundary between territories. Whereas elsewhere on Earth, the modern humans spread rapidly, eradicating any species that pre-existed, in the Neanderthal-inhabited areas they made slow progress. So it seems that the Neanderthals fought back, resisting the flood of modern humans for as many as 100,000 years.

This seems a clear answer to why modern humans stayed in Africa for so long. After all, they didn’t encounter an environment that was overly dangerous for them. But what they did find were territorial – and armed – creatures that were determined to stop them from taking their land.

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After all, the early modern humans first left Africa as many as 200 millennia before now, but they would not see the Neanderthals disappear for more than 150,000 years. According to The Conversation.com, Homo sapiens pushed into Neanderthal territory in Greece and Israel, before being forced back. But finally the pressure would tell.

Because archaeology reveals the ebb and flow of the two populations. Skeletons found at the same sites are of both types, thousands of years apart. Even as recently as about 50,000 years ago, Neanderthals could still be discovered in the Middle East, as finds at Kebara cave in Israel show.

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Why didn’t the two species just live alongside each other? While they may have done for long periods – and the mixture of their genes shows that they must have been in contact – the human population alone must have grown. Needing land for the increased population, the humans fought over territory.

The conflict lasted for tens of thousands of years. And it seems that for most of that time, Homo sapiens must actually have been on the losing side. At least, both sides had the same sorts of equipment and likely fought in similar ways. But the Neanderthals prevailed for most of the war.

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How did the Neanderthals do it? To begin with, they likely knew the land. They’d been there for many millennia. And they had larger eyes, which probably meant that they could see better in poor light. Above all they were strong and bulky, which meant that they posed a dangerous proposition if you got close to them.

But they did lose in the end, although we can’t say what the reason for their defeat was. Perhaps it was simply that Homo sapiens developed weapons that allowed them to strike the Neanderthals from a distance: clubs that they could throw, bows, and equipment that allowed spears to be launched from further away.

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Another theory is based on what the two sides ate. This has been revealed by studying isotopes left in their skeletons. These reveal that Neanderthals gained almost all their protein from meat, whereas the humans began to expand their diet to such things as fish. This broader diet allowed bigger populations, and perhaps led to the Neanderthals being overwhelmed by sheer numbers.

Whether an outcome of better diet or better weapons, the humans eventually destroyed the Neanderthals, who no longer inhabit the Earth. It didn’t happen quickly, so we shouldn’t imagine weak or peaceable enemies. Instead humans had met fierce resistance that lasted for many thousands of years before the Neanderthals went extinct.

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But it wasn’t all war, and the Neanderthals are still with us albeit in a different way. Some people from Europe and Asia have within their genomes proof that humans and Neanderthals were able to mate. In other places, other “ghost” species have contributed their DNA to the human mosaic. Overall, though, there’s still a lot we don’t know. Thanks Mr. fossil record!

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