He conflict has always existed. And on many occasions throughout history it has been resolved by violence. Aggressions, murders, raids, ambushes and vendettas can be traced in the archaeological record practically since the origins of humanity. But not the war.

War – unlike the forms of violence listed – requires temporary or permanent organization. This usually involves the creation of armies with different forms of institutionalization (hierarchy, protocols) and legitimation, at least by one of the groups involved. This means that during war, people can kill other people without it being considered murder. War, in addition, must have a specific temporal discretion, generally between months and years. That is, it cannot last only a few hours or a few days; nor extend over centuries or millennia.

Various investigations suggest a connection between the birth of war and the accentuation of sedentary lifestylewhen control of land and private property began to become more and more important.

The appearance of surpluses, especially agricultural and livestock, during the Neolithic soon resulted in a tendency towards the concentration of power, permanent inequality, the desire to control larger territories and the need to defend them. It also led to the establishment of the first states, where War was often used to maintain, expand and consolidate power, being already capable of recruiting large armies and fighting them in the modern sense of the term. But when did the war start? Thanks to archeology we can get closer to the answer.

What we knew about the onset of war

To trace the emergence of war, for a long time prehistorians have been forced to resort to indirect indicators such as the presence of defenses, the appearance of weapons in the registry or the identification of certain graphic elements, such as cave scenes with related themes. More recently, research has shifted toward direct evidence, particularly wounds in human bones which – without a doubt – are the most incontestable evidence we can have of violence in the past.

Thanks to methodological advances in forensic anthropology, we know that the vast majority of multiple burials with signs of violence known in European prehistory well into the Neolithic (6000-3000 BC) essentially respond to massacres. That is, to indiscriminate killings of communities of no more than 20–30 peoplewith representation of the entire population spectrum (men, women and children), as a result of brutal surprise attacks by other groups.

The few sites that do not fit into this category seem to respond to sacrifices or other violent ritual practices. At sites such as the British settlements of Crickley Hill and Hambledon Hill, the discovery of hundreds of arrowheads around the defenses could suggest large coordinated attacks, but there is little or no skeletal evidence. For that we had to wait until the Bronze Age, around 1200 BC. and. c. (such as, for example, in the Battle of Tollense, Germany).

Saint John before Portam Latinam: broken bones and paradigms

The burial of the shelter under rock San Juan ante Portam Latinam (SJAPL) was discovered in 1985 in Laguardia (Álava). JI Vegas and his collaborators excavated it between 1990 and 1991. In it, the skeletal remains of at least 338 people, which were dated around 3200 BC. and. c., in the final Neolithic.

The first studies already documented traces of violence. Specifically, 53 head injuries and eight arrowhead wounds occurred some time before death (antemortem), already healed. But also a head trauma and five arrowhead wounds that occurred around the time of death (perimortem), without healing.

In addition, there was a suspicion that the 52 flint arrowheads found isolated (most with signs of impact) had arrived there stuck in the bodies and not as part of the funerary trousseau. Thus, despite the apparently limited number of unhealed wounds, the burial was originally defined as a massacre, possibly due to the scarcity of prehistoric sites with signs of collective violence known at that time.

He corpus of Neolithic sites with a violent record that we currently know in Europe was soon responsible for pointing out the uniqueness of SJAPL. While in the former perimortem traumas predominated, especially cranial, typical of hand-to-hand violence, in SJAPL arrowhead wounds – evidence of distance combat – and antemortem traumas seemed to do so, suggesting a complex, long and of low lethality.

Furthermore, the demographics also differed. While in the other sites, men, women and children tended to replicate the proportions of a natural population, in SJAPL adolescent and adult men predominated.

New data review

Recently, we have reexamined the collection to value these singularities. This review identified a total of 107 head injuries, of which 48 were unhealed and 59 were healed; and a total of 47 postcranial traumas, of which 17 were unhealed and 30 were healed.

Interestingly, Most of them affected adolescent and adult males, particularly those without healing.. Furthermore, it was observed that some of these men had healed and unhealed wounds, which indicated that they were exposed to violence on several occasions, as was also suggested by the high prevalence of healed wounds.

This review estimated that at least 23% of the people buried in SJAPL suffered some violent episode throughout their lives and at least 10% died as a result. However, this is a very low estimate, as it does not consider the 52 arrowheads that potentially impacted soft tissues or those isolated wounds not attributable to specific individuals. If so, this would mean that around 90 individuals (27%), at least, would have died violently in SJAPL.

Furthermore, it should be taken into account that only around 50% of wounds leave a mark on the bone, and that the preservation of the remains at SJAPL is quite poor, with multiple recent fractures that prevent a complete record. Therefore, the final number could easily double or triple.

Based on these results, SJAPL is today the oldest European site where a large-scale conflict has been clearly documented. (with a large number of people involved), organized (protagonism of men, acting as combatants) and lasting (months, if not years). Furthermore, Rioja Alavesa, where SJAPL is located, is the European region with the highest absolute number of arrowhead wounds (identified in at least three other sites), all of them concentrated between 3380 and 3000 BC. and. c., which indicates the celebration of a regional conflict.

The high rates of nonspecific stress documented in SJAPL denounce a worsening of the quality of life, but they also reveal an unsuspected logistical capacity of the final Neolithic communities to sustain – although not without cost – a violent conflict over time. That is, to wage a war. The first documented war on the continent in Neolithic times, almost two millennia earlier than traditionally assumed.