Interview with Archaeologist Charles Stanish

Charles Stanish, UCLA archaeologist and professor of anthropology, stands on the site of a 14th century irrigation canal in the high desert of northern Chile. (Courtesy of Ran Boytner)
Charles Stanish, UCLA archaeologist and professor of anthropology, stands on the site of a 14th century irrigation canal in the high desert of northern Chile. (Courtesy of Ran Boytner)

‘War is the greatest form of cooperation. Between groups it’s the exact opposite, of course’

How did warfare—organized conflict among groups of humans—begin? And how did the idea of political organization emerge? The answers to those questions may be the same. Carl von Clausewitz memorably linked the two concepts in his resonant 1833 observation, “War is nothing other than the continuation of politics by other means.” Answers to both questions lie far back in time and far back on the curve of human development, before much of documented history. The answers are found on—and in—the ground. Archaeologists Charles Stanish and Abigail Levine of the Cotsen Institute at the University of California, Los Angeles, are prominent among scholars who have been examining the evidence for the emergence of the world’s first states—and the surprising role warfare apparently played in that emergence. Stanish and Levine published their findings at Neolithic sites in Peru in a 2011 paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Stanish recently answered our questions about those findings and their implications.

Did warfare precede and contribute to the formation of the earliest states?
Yes. I see three factors in the development of states: ritualized labor, war and trade. And they’re all about getting people to cooperate. If you ritualize labor, you can produce surpluses. Then you can trade that surplus stuff for things people really want, and that fuels a political and economic cycle. War is a key factor because it’s one way to keep people cooperating—because they have to. War is the greatest form of cooperation. Between groups it’s the exact opposite of cooperation, of course. But within the group, if you can actually get people to organize and go risk their lives to fight—that’s hyper-cooperation.

So warfare was a key factor in creating a civilization because it brings in rewards from outside?
Right.

What archaeological evidence have you found in the Andean region that indicates warfare?
On the north coast of Peru we found depictions—bas-relief rock carvings in front of a temple—from around 1200 BC of small numbers of elite priestly warriors with large numbers of decapitated or dismembered bodies. It’s very clear to me these were processions of captive warriors who were then decapitated and dismembered.

How do you know it was related to war and not some ritual?
We look for, and find, real dead bodies. People with holes in their heads from throwing stones and defensive injuries to their arms called “parry fractures.” In Taraco we found two males, both with parry fractures. The fractures had not healed, so we know they died at about 25. That’s pretty good evidence of violence. Combine that with depictions of people fighting each other. Then we find villages and cities that were burned—that’s evidence of violence with economic and political consequences.

What archaeological evidence distinguishes a fort?
When we find walls that go 10 km around, double-sided rubble-filled walls that people can walk on and that have parapets, we know we’ve got a fort.

How did forts develop?
It’s an interesting process. The very first settled villages are in river valleys, wide open and in no way defensively postured. Then around a millennium or two BC we see that people start to move up on terraced hills. People are clearly spending a lot of time and effort to be up on top of a hill away from water and away from their fields. People are living on these terraces, which also make very defendable locations. Those are patterns that tell us that people are concerned about raiding. Then from around 300 BC to about AD 700 we begin to see the rise of the great fortresses, massive walled things.

What weapons have you found?
Slings are the most common, and a sling is extremely effective and accurate—I’ve seen 10-year-old shepherd boys hit a running rabbit at 50 feet. We find depictions of bows and arrows by the 6th century and find tiny arrowheads. We find mace heads later on, shaped like stars and made of basalt—very hard stuff. And we see depictions of weapons on pottery and textiles.

How would you characterize the military technology of the early Andean chiefdoms and earliest states?
The technology was not very complex but was adequate for their needs. They didn’t have siege engines or things like that. I make the distinction between early tribal and chiefly warfare—which was intended to get booty and women and enhance the status of the chiefs—and the later state warfare, which was intended to enlarge territories. In the earlier warfare it was more hand-to-hand combat. They would raid villages, use maces, clubs and throwing stones.

Clearly, there was organized conflict among chiefdoms. Why?
In order to keep these political economies going, the chief had to give the locals something they couldn’t get on their own. One strategy was to create some kind of regional economic exchange where they could get the exotic, status-enhancing commodities that people really want. That’s why obsidian and turquoise and feathers move all around the continent—and we can track them through archaeology—because people really love to have stuff from somewhere else.

But how were they going to get obsidian from 50 miles away, in someone else’s defended territory? They’d take 50 tough guys, go there and say: “We’re willing to trade for it—or we’re willing to take it from you. Whatever works.” It’s classic economics: comparative advantage.

In what context did first-generation states emerge?
They developed in six places in the world: the Andes of South America, Mesoamerica, the Indus Valley, Egypt, China and Mesopotamia. And by states we mean big entities with urbanized centers.

It’s really easy to go from a settled village with no chief to a chiefdom. That seems to be the default organizational mode in the Holocene era, after the Paleolithic. But it’s hard to go to state-level societies. People just don’t like them, because in a state-level society one class emerges that actually has control over people. Chiefdoms are a noncoercive environment; people are still autonomous. But chiefdoms are highly unstable, with a lot of rise and fall and a lot of warfare. But every once in a while, for whatever reasons, states pop up. And warfare plays a role in all six of those places, because, in my view, the same three factors—ritual labor, trade and war—are common to all.

How far back in time do you find evidence of organized conflict?
That’s a big area of disagreement, because there is a lot of individual conflict that probably goes all the way back to when humans became human. But when does it become organized for political and economic purposes? In my view—and others disagree—it comes with the development of these Neolithic chiefly societies.

And this same process of war and state formation has occurred worldwide?
Yes. We can excavate in many places, and we find people living in defensive locations. And whether they have arrows stuck in their ribs or not, there are lots of indicators. War is a very easy thing for archaeologists to pick up. Wherever we look systematically, we find evidence of organized conflict that is concomitant with the development of complex settled village and town society—with what we call “civilization.” War is just part of it.

So war is universal in human societies?
Yes.

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