We sometimes think human prehistory was much more peaceful than today. But by studying evidence—like human remains, ancient pollen from lake beds, and rock art—archaeologists have revealed that conflict between ancient human societies was widespread. From the world’s earliest war cemetery to burnt Bronze Age cities, here are just a few examples of prehistoric wars and battlefields.
1. Jebel Sahaba War Cemetery // Sudan
The 13,500-year-old Jebel Sahaba Cemetery in Sudan’s Nile Valley shows the oldest evidence of inter-group violence in human society. People were buried there over time, rather than in one go, suggesting it’s not a cemetery resulting from a single war or battle. Archaeologists studying the bones of the 61 people found there have discovered that 45 percent of them died as a result of violence from humans; some even had the remains of flint arrowheads still embedded in their bones. Others showed signs of violent injuries that had healed, indicating this society often encountered conflict. Another interesting aspect of the site is that the evidence of violence is shared equally, with people of both sexes and all age groups displaying signs of a gruesome death.
What was the reason for the violence? The dominant theory has to do with climate change. At the end of the last Ice Age, this region of Africa became colder, drier, and a lot harder to live in. Hunter-gatherers were forced closer to the limited resources of the Nile Valley. People competed for access to hunting, fishing, and foraging areas. They may have battled for the best spots, and the area around Jebel Sahaba became a rare oasis of plenty.
2. The Tollense Valley Battle // Germany
The Tollense Valley Battle is probably one of the most dramatic examples of a likely European Bronze Age warrior culture. Around 1200 BCE, two groups clashed at a narrow river crossing leading to the Baltic Sea in northern Germany. After the battle, which may have included several hundred people, the remains were left to decompose around the river’s edge. When archaeologists excavated them between 2009 and 2015, they discovered human and horse remains with flint arrowheads embedded in them and puncture wounds from spears.
Using a process called isotope analysis, archaeologists analyzed the chemical composition of the victim’s teeth to find out where they came from. The results showed most of the people who died here were not local: They had instead grown up hundreds of miles away. Most of the remains were of young men and there was a difference in the personal belongings and weaponry of the different victims. Some had bronze jewelry and expensive bronze weapons, implying they were part of a distinct warrior class. Some researchers dispute the warrior hypothesis, however, and think that the victims may instead have been a caravan of merchants attacked by brigands.
3. The Crow Creek Massacre // United States
The Crow Creek settlement was founded around the year 900 CE by Arikara people escaping drought conditions on the Great Plains. The site was close to the Missouri River in central South Dakota and grew to a significant size. However, around 1325 CE, at least 400 people were slaughtered in a massacre and the settlement was destroyed by burning. Following the killings, the human remains were likely exposed for a time before survivors returned and gathered all the victims into a large group burial. Archaeologists who have studied the remains also note that many of the victims appear to have suffered malnourishment, indicating that the conflict may have been a result of competition over scarce resources in the area.
4. The Talheim Death Pit // Germany
The Linearbandkeramik (or LBK, named after their pottery style) is one of Europe's oldest farming cultures. Beginning in 5500 BCE, they emerged from the Danube region and spread through central Europe, sowing wheat where there was once forest and cutting down trees to make their distinctive longhouses.
The LBK may have practiced massacres and cannibalism starting around 5200 BCE, possibly due to population size and increasing inequality. One of the best known of the massacre sites is the Talheim Death Pit, dated to 5000 BCE, in the village of Talheim in southern Germany. Discovered in 1983, the site consists of a pit containing skeletons of 34 men, women, and children. The skulls show the kind of traumatic injury that we would expect from someone being hit by a blunt weapon, which LBK people often used.
Isotope analysis revealed that the women in the group were from elsewhere. Along with evidence from similar sites suggesting victims of LBK massacres were mainly adult males, the Talheim Death Pit findings have led some researchers to believe LBK warfare stemmed from raiding parties kidnapping women from other settlements.
5. Arnhem Land Rock Art // Australia
Some evidence of prehistoric conflict comes in the form of rock art: images carved into the walls of caves and rock shelters. In Arnhem Land in Australia’s Northern Territory, these images are up to 10,000 years old, making them the oldest pictures of fighting in the world. Curiously, they show hunter-gatherers fighting each other; hunter-gatherers are often thought to be peaceful, in contrast with farming societies that compete for land.
Arnhem Land’s rock art showing human figures is quite rare. Men wearing head-dresses are shown fighting with the trajectories of spears and boomerangs thrown towards other people, and some figures are shown pierced by the enemy spears. According to a 2008 study in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, rock art that has been dated to about 6000 years ago shows a shift in style and content, perhaps a result of increasing social complexity and a more settled lifestyle.
6. Naturuk Battlefield // Kenya
While Jebel Sahaba may be the world’s oldest war cemetery, Naturuk in Kenya appears to be the site of the world’s earliest battles. Between 10,500 and 9500 years ago, 27 people were killed on this site near Lake Turkana. The victims were left unburied on the lake’s edge and gradually covered by sediments. Archaeologists discovered the site in 2012.
Some of the people, including a pregnant woman, appear to have had their hands bound. The remains show injuries from being clubbed by a blunt instrument or shot with arrows. Like the burials at Jebel Sahaba, some of the Naturuk skeletons had arrowheads embedded in them.
At the time, Lake Turkana was an area with plentiful hunting and fishing surrounded by a much harsher environment. Different groups may have attacked each other in order to steal resources, and the Naturuk captives could have been killed by the victors at the end of a battle.
7. Tell Hamoukar Ruins // Syria
Tell Hamoukar encompasses the remains of a town that sprang up in the Euphrates River Valley around 5500 BCE, when humans in Mesopotamia first started living in large settlements with specialized societies. Around 3500 BCE, Hamoukar was destroyed in a dramatic battle. Archaeologists have found more than a thousand clay pellets that were fired from slingshots. These pellets were likely manufactured on site during the siege, and though they seem harmless, some of the mud-brick buildings show where they pierced walls.
Around the time of Hamoukar’s destruction, another regional culture known as the Uruk was expanding. Researchers told New Scientist that the Uruk culture may have expanded northward and caused the violent dissolution of Hamoukar.
8. Schöneck-Kilianstädten Mass Burial // Germany
Returning to the LBK culture, around 5000 BCE, a farming community at Schöneck-Kilianstädten was attacked and its inhabitant murdered. The victors likely kidnapped the female victims. The remarkable mass burial at the site contains at least 26 people, including children, who were killed by the impact of blunt objects to the head before being thrown into a pit. For the first time, researchers found victims with their legs broken before being killed, suggesting that attackers were willing to use torture to prevent them getting away.
This site and other LBK massacres show the most comprehensive evidence for a state of warfare between these early farmers, according to a 2015 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Lead author Christian Meyer told the BBC that the violence may have been a result of “a profound change” occurring in society at the time, which led these communities to target each other.
9. Maya City of Witzna // Guatemala
Archaeologists once theorized that the Maya, for most of their Classic period from 250 to 950 CE, engaged in limited and small-scale warfare. The civilization began collapsing around 800 CE, and scientists have theorized that severe drought may have caused large-scale conflicts. Recent findings, however, reveal another catastrophe that likely played a part prior to the collapse.
Archaeologists from the U.S. Geological Survey and other institutions, working in northern Guatemala, sampled sediments from a lakebed near the ruins of a Mayan city called Witzna. The samples showed a thick layer of charcoal underneath layers of mud with little evidence of corn pollen, suggesting a massive fire had taken place followed by a decrease in the cultivation of the Maya’s staple crop. A simultaneous excavation of the Witzna ruins revealed an inscription with the Mayan name for the settlement—Bahlam Jol—and that many buildings had been intentionally burned. Finally, researchers linked the discoveries to a Maya inscription from another settlement that claimed “Bahlam Jol burned” on May 21, 697 CE. That date matched the evidence from the lakebed, confirming that a major conflict had preceded the Maya’s period of decline at the end of the 10th century.
10. The Walls of Troy // Turkey
The war between Trojans and Greeks, described in The Iliad, has inspired popular culture for centuries. Although we will never know how true the events in Homer’s epic actually are, the city itself was very real: Troy was founded in the early Bronze Age, around 3000 BCE, in what is now northwest Turkey. At its peak in this era, the settlement was probably one of the largest and most powerful in southeast Europe.
Trojan architects were concerned about defending the city. Beginning about 2550 BCE, citizens built large defensive walls around the settlement. By the Late Bronze Age (1750-1300 BCE), the walls had grown to a formidable 26 feet tall and 16 feet thick. From several watchtowers, guards could observe potential enemies arriving by land or sea.
Around 1200 BCE, when the Tollense battle raged in northern Europe, the sophisticated Mediterranean world also descended into chaos—a period called the Bronze Age collapse. Archaeologists excavating Troy believe The Iliad could have been inspired by events during this epoch of destruction. Scorch marks from powerful fires, destroyed buildings, and piles of sling bullets like those found at Tell Hamoukar suggest the city was attacked and overcome on at least two occasions, approximately 1250 BCE and 1180 BCE. An earthquake during this period probably weakened the city further. After these attacks, Trojans rebuilt the walls and dug a large defensive ditch.
Who was behind the assault? Not everyone believes it was Greek forces, though the city was occupied by Greek speakers after the 1180 BCE attack. Preserved clay tablets also show territorial tensions between the Hittites (a civilization that controlled much of Turkey between 1700-1200 BCE) and the Mycenaean Greeks. All we know for sure is that during the Bronze Age collapse, natural disasters, war, and chaos sown by the fearsome sea peoples impacted Troy, Egypt, and Greek states. The events show how some of humanity's greatest art and literature can emerge from its darkest times.