First Blood – History’s Earliest Recorded Military Conflicts

A Sumerian stone carving of the first recorded war in history, circa 2500 BCE. Of course there were conflicts prior to this date, but since these events predated writing, there are no contemporary accounts of them. See another segment of this stone carving below.

“Early scribes from Mesopotamia were able to leave behind history’s first-known preserved accounts of war.”

WARFARE IS AS OLD AS CIVILIZATION ITSELF. In fact, experts believe that the first armed conflicts were fought more than 10,000 years ago by prehistoric city-states in present day Syria, Jordan and Iraq. These early contests were likely waged over resources or land. Yet, since such events predate the advent of writing by at least 7,000 years, we have scant knowledge of these first fights, save for what archaeologists have been able to glean from the smallest fragments of information. That said, here’s what we do know.

Natufian ruins at Jericho. The ancient pre-historic peoples built history’s first known fortifications. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Early Defences

The earliest evidence of prehistoric warfare comes to us from ancient Jericho. Considered the first true ‘city’ in history, the settlement was established roughly 9000 BCE by the Natufians near the present day West Bank. In fact, its very existence suggests that the first human societies organized themselves with defence in mind.

Made up of roughly 70 igloo-shaped mud brick dwellings that together housed up to 1,000 people, the city itself was surrounded by a 15-foot high stone wall nearly four feet thick at its base. While some speculate that this barrier might have been erected to keep the community safe from raiders, others believe it was used to protect the town from floodwaters. [1] Despite the purpose of these fortifications, Jericho was ultimately abandoned following what archeologists believe was an invasion of some sort, presumably by an army of nomads or perhaps warriors from another city somewhere beyond the horizon. [2]

History’s first war relics? These examples of shot were found at an excavation of the first known battle in history — a confrontation between Uruks and the defenders of the city of Hamoukar from the 4th millennium BCE.

First Known Battle

The earliest physical evidence of an actual battle comes several thousand years later from the ancient city of Hamoukar. Sometime between 4000 BCE and 3500 BCE, the region surrounding the fledgling city state, which was located in what is now north-eastern Syria, was invaded and colonized the by the expanding realm of the Uruks of southern Mesopotamia.[3] Historians believe that the Uruks migrated north along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers out of what is now Iraq into Syria on a campaign of expansion and colonization. It’s possible that the residents of Hamoukar bristled at the prospect of becoming vassals of these strange foreigners and took up arms to defend themselves. The evidence suggests that a battle ensued.

A 2005 dig by archeologists from the University of Chicago uncovered remnants of city walls at Hamoukar that seem to be riddled with pock marks from inch-wide stones, likely hurled at the defenders by Uruks armed with slings. Larger clay shot was also uncovered. Fragments from of as many as 1,200 of these projectiles were recovered from the dig pointing to an epic battle, at least by ancient standards. [4] Remnants of collapsed buildings containing the charred remains of Hamoukar possessions were also uncovered. This coupled with Uruk artifacts found on top of the original settlement shows that the invaders likely slaughtered, enslaved or scattered the original inhabitants, demolished the city and built one of their own  atop of the ruins.[5]

A portion of the Stele of Vultures, a Sumerian carving depicting a clash between two Mesopotamian city states, circa 2500 BCE. This is regarded as history’s first depiction of military action. It is also evidence that the Sumerians maintained organized professional armies — another first.

First Recorded War

Following the advent of writing by the Sumerian civilization (circa 3200 BCE), early scribes from Mesopotamia were able to leave behind history’s first-known preserved accounts of war.

The conflict was fought by the Sumerians and inhabitants of the region of Elam in the area around modern Basra, Iraq. [6]

According to Richard A. Gabriel and Karen Metz, authors of the 1992 work A Short History of War,  the Sumerian ruler Sargon the Great united a series of settlements throughout the region into a rudimentary empire using history’s first first professional army. But when the Sumerians tried to subdue the Elamites, the latter resisted. The resulting war occurred sometime around 2700 BCE or 2600 BCE. According to accounts from ancient Sumer, which were physically carved onto stone tablets, the army of the empire eventually rolled over the Elamites and “carried away as spoil the weapons” of their enemies. [7]

A more detailed account of another war, this time between competing Sumerian factions from the cities Lagash and Umma, circa 2525 BCE, was immortalized pictorially in a stone tablet. It supposedly shows the slain enemies of the Lagash ruler Eannatum being torn to pieces by vultures and lions.The carving, known as the Stele of Vultures, stands as the first recorded likenesses of ancient soldiers – helmeted and armoured spearmen arranged in tight formations being led by a figure in a chariot. According to Gabriel and Metz, the illustration suggests that the Sumerians maintained a standing army of some size. Other tablets from the era indicate that the Sumerian army around this period was at one point between 600 and 700 strong. [8] It was equipped, provisioned and maintained by the rulers of the empire. This was something of a novel approach considering that other pre-Bronze Age “armies” were only marshalled in emergencies and armed with whatever weapons were available and then dispersed at war’s end.

An Egyptian depiction of the pharaoh Thutmose III, the victor of the Battle of Megiddo. (Image source: WikiCommons)

First Account of a Battle

The first detailed account of an actual clash of arms comes to use from the ancient Egyptians. The Battle of Megiddo, fought in present day Israel, took place in the spring of 1457 BCE when a series of Egyptian controlled fiefdoms in present day Syria and Israel rose up against their masters. The account of the battle, which was fought between the forces of Pharaoh Thutmose III and the rebellious ruler of Kadesh along with his Canaanite allies includes details on the date of the battle, the size of the opposing forces, the casualties inflected, and even the weapons used. [9] Thanks to the ancient Egyptian historian Tjaneni who committed details of the clash to the walls of the Temple of Amun-Re at Karnak, we know that the Egyptian army was between 10,000 and 20,000 strong, while Kadesh and company had between 10,000 and 15,000 combatants on the field. [10] We also know that the pharaoh’s enemies suffered about 83 deaths and 340 of them were taken prisoner. The Egyptians carried the day after out-maneuvering the divided enemy forces using a mix of infantry and mounted archers. The victors would go on to besiege the city of Megiddo for seven months. The king of Kadesh would surrender the city then escape afterwards. The city’s inhabitants were spared.

(FIRST PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER 13, 2012)

SOURCES

  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jericho
  2. Ibid
  3. http://project-history.blogspot.ca/2005/12/first-evidence-of-large-scale-war.html
  4. Ibid
  5. http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/05/051216.hamoukar.shtml
  6. http://ancienthistory.about.com/b/2003/07/15/the-first-war-ever-recorded.htm
  7. http://www.au.af.mil/au/awc/awcgate/gabrmetz/gabr0004.htm
  8. Ibid
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Megiddo_(15th_century_BC)
  10. Ibid

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