Violence in pre-history is unequivocal but how much and how far back is more contentious. Often it comes down to belief, and often one's belief in the shape of modern societies. My experience of violence in martial arts and combatives training means that I am far more likely to believe that violence is not a native or natural state for humans though I will make the bold step and acknowledge that this is a belief. In the ring or even "for real" combat is largely a case of not being overwhelmed by your own instinct.
While Primate males frequently fight over females, studies in human primitive societies have shown that violence does not correlate with reproductive success, Moore (1990) Knauft (1987) Kelly (2000: 20–35) . Moreover studies of primitive farmers in New Guineau have cast doubt on whether land/resource pressures initiate or intensify conflict.
The Graves at Wetwang Slack in Yorkshire featured three individuals who had been killed by spear thrusts. This was an Iron Age grave and violence at this time was endemic. The report mentioned that death from violence was probably higher given that a lot of human is pretty squishy. This reasoning is often given to inflate or suggest higher violent death rates among prehistoric groups. The problem is that the "squishy bits" are not really good targets. A quick or even slow perusal through medieval fighting texts with show that the head and "upper openings" are the main targets. The legs are attested to in many medieval sources (though without a shield geometry make them a risky proposition) with the arms (especially the sword arm) also being favoured. The iron age graves from Danebury, which represent men killed in battle, show repeated injuries given and very often healed injuries sometimes of real severity. This is a pattern repeated at many medieval battle graves. Wounds caused by inter-person violence concentrate on the upper left side of the body given a right handed assailant. In modern times 53.8% of stabs are to the upper body and 11% to the arms (bateman 2003).Contrary to what Hollywood tells us it takes a serious amount of injury to incapacitate a person and it is extremely rare for a person to receive one wound.Everything that will result in a quick death is well protected by bone. Defensive wounds to the hands and arms are also common as on Oetzi the tyrolean punchbag. Bone wounds especially defensive "parry" wounds are open to interpretation
Wounds and especially wounds that result in death should be regarded as archaeologically visible and to have a definate signature. Though wounds delivered by projectile may be harder to distinguish from accidents it muct be remembered that there are clear indications on prey animals (junkmans) that shots were (often successfully) aimed at chest cavities even under difficult circumstances such as stellmoor. The arrowhead embedded in Oetzi is a good example of this.
1; Violence leaves clear indicators and is archaeologically visible.
Violence in the Paleolithic is at considerably lower levels than in later periods. In fact outside the oft cited site at Jebel Sahaba violence is pretty hard to find. The presumably awful events at Jebel Sahaba took place during an especially trying period of climate fluctuation and may represent severe stress and resource depletion in the area. We can't discount the low rate of preservation from the Paleolithic but we might expect to see at least some evidence given some of the high levels of violence cited by authors such as Steven Pinker (1998). It is in fact not unreasonable to expect to see something like 15%+ of the skeletons bearing wounds. There are some clearly human caused wounds from the Paleolithic including the epigravettian graves of woman from Sicily wounded in the hip (she survived) and a child from the Grotte des Enfants with a flint point in its back. The child was buried with other unwounded children. Before sapiens there are a few examples of wounded hominids, the Neandertal burials from Shanidar are good candidates for accidents though the blade injury might be suspicious.
Cannibalism or at least excarnation in Hiedlebergensis is supposed at Atapeurca and a number of Neanderthal sites. At Atapeurca at least it appears to have been conducted in a relatively rich environment.Some skulls from this site have numerous fractures though the cannibalised remains represent younger individuals (3-18).
During the Holocene, war dominated all artistic records, both pictorial and mythic. This domination makes the lack of any such pictorial record during the Paleolithic even more notable. This is an extraordinary distinction. The palaeobiologist R. Dale Guthrie, arguably the world’s leading authority of Palaeolithic art, comes to this conclusion: “This shortcut to stored bounty by raiding the wealth of others became a universal tribal phenomenon: warring conflicts constitute most of recorded and mythic Holocene history. But Palaeolithic art shows no drawing of group conflict, and there is virtually no indication from late Palaeolithic skeletons of murderous violence.”(source)
2; evidence for violence is rare in the Paleolithic there is no clear evidence for neanderthal beyond possible survival cannibalism. Remains at Atapeurca suggest ritual or conflict cannibalism. Unequivocal evidence of violence is extremely rare.
The Mesolithic in Europe marks the transition from the Paleolithic to the adoption of agriculture at differing rates through the continent. Other Continents use differing markers to distinguish adoption of lifestyles, for example pre-post columbian in North America. The Mesolithic was marked by a general warming with several intervals of severe cold like the Loch Lomond Stadial. Aveline's hole is a Mesolithic site of European tundra while a few thousand years on Star Carr represents a Mesolithic forest-marsh site.There was significant environmental pressures as well as some land loss. Dogger land in the North Sea was inundated while land previously ice locked was exposed. For humans the period marks a greater use of marine resources and a growing use of consistent, reliable sources of nutrition like hazelnuts. Health remained good but stature decreased somewhat particularly in North Western populations The grasslands had gone replaced by dense forest which may have made a big-game dependent culture impossible. There appears to have been greater sendentism with semi permanent dwellings in Scandinavia and Britain, possible territorial markers are also known.
Much of the Mesolithic appears to be humans adapting to astonishing environmental uncertainly with stored resources and possible territories giving a further impetus for violence. Violence rates for some Mesolithic sites correlate well with Eastern Woodland sites in North America, with even wound types being similar. It is unclear what impact the farming societies were having through the tradeways of Europe but it would seem likely that there was a bow-wave of hunting and territory pressure as farming encroached.
There is plenty of good evidence for violence in the Mesolithic of Europe and North America. Including endemic "tribal" conflicts and even mass burials/massacres. Interestingly the dramatic Ofnet cave incident occured during the transition from hunting to farming and may reflect intense social pressures.
Even though there may be a clear rise in cases of violence through the Mesolithic (the late Mesolithic features many wounded males) even with similar pressures and resources bases violence does not appear to have occurred at similar rates or even to have been universal.
3; Territoriality, resource and population pressure and clear unequivocal inter-person violence occur in the Mesolithic. Rates of violence were not universal.
Biological theories of violence "war is the natural state of humanity" would imply that rates of violent interaction be roughly consistent over time and space. The archaeology does not support this view. Indeed consistently valid biological or evolutionary reasons for violent behaviour are quite hard to determine from contemporary groups (cashdan 2001). It should also be noted that in data sets dealing with Primitive violence such as use by Keegan and Keeley foragers, horticulturalist, pastoralist and even states are all mixed up.in the oft cited Data sets "true" hunter gatherers give lower rates of violence than for horticulturalists and this in a background of severe resource and cultural pressure.It should also be asked how much hunter gatherer violence is "legitimate" self defence from expansionist neighbours. The Kalahari Bushmen were driven into the desert by a full on genocidal assault by their African neighbours and then the European settlers. Hadza have to defend themselves from Datoga and Maasai, and Northern Aborigines defended the trade territories they had established with Indonesians. Would this level of violence exist in an environment with no farmers? Would the "New York" levels of murder be present if the resource pressures, Government oppression, alcoholism and flat out desperation didn't exist? What would New York's murder rate be like if there were no hospitals?
The conflation of these groups doesn't necessarily weaken the arguments made by these writers that big state is safer than small state or tribe but it does weaken the case against endemically high violence rates through humanity's history. It is also annoying.
4; Modern Hunter Gatherers live in the modern world and are compromised models for past behaviour. Farmers, hunters and pastoralists are often conflated despite being radically different societies. Statistics obtained from Modern data sets are not reflected in the archaeological record.
Now for some controversy........
"only spazzes start fights, technical term.... most people can't fight" (Richard Grannon)
In the 18th century military tests showed that at a hundred yards a musket was about 75% effective. This was considerably higher than could be achieved on a battlefield. Blenheim (1704) gave 25% Fontenoy (1745) gave about the same, this is at ranges of 30 yards! At longer (100 yards) ranges accuracy dropped to about 2-5%. Considering the effectiveness of weapons casualty rates from history are often low particularly for the
5; Fighting is difficult, physically and psychologically.
Why is it important? Aside from the fact that it is an interesting subject in its own right, our view of our ancestors reflects how we feel about ourselves and our society. Evolutionary biology is often cited as "evidence" for various facets of modern human behaviour with varying degrees of merit and appropriateness. My own view is that violence is a human response to some situations rather than a state of mankind, most importantly to me is that even in the same situation some cultures will use violence and others will not and that we ultimately have a choice in how we act.