Why do we kill each other? A Spanish archaeologist explains the origin of the war

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For more than in atapuerca and in many other places bones from hundreds of thousands of years ago have been found with remains of lethal and deliberate contusions (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, what over time and depending on the context we call war. However, as explained by the archaeologist at the CSIC Institute of Sciences Alfredo González Ruibal, who has excavated in sites around half the world, there is no evidence of it until the appearance of modern humans.

“When we think about human evolution, we usually do it in a positive key, in achievements that are being unlocked, 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 supposes the appearance of anatomically modern humans: 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 covers in great detail in scorched earth (Crítica), a journey through the archaeological traces left by human conflicts from the Paleolithic to today that is born from his intention to discover and consign why our species has been killing each other 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 from them. Archaeologists do not excavate data, but lives torn apart by violence in a common grave or in a devastated town. It’s hard to forget people when what you find is not a document with figures, but their own bones.”

For this reason, be it in medieval battles such as Aljubarrota, sieges from ancient times such as those of Dura (Syria) and Hímera (Sicily) or in the trenches of the Somme in the First World War, 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 20th 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 talk about war, there must be a certain duration in the conflict, there must be two or more clearly defined sides, an institutionalization, a warrior identity and weapons of war itself. “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 Agea period that, not by chance, coincides with the development of social differences and the emergence of great leaders”.

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