Drawing of a Japanese warrior monk

Warfare Throughout Time: Weapons, Battles, and Logistics

Paleolithic Warfare

Interpreting Evidence

Evidence of warfare during the Paleolithic comes in the form of weapons, imagery depicting conflict, and skeletal remains that show signs of warfare injuries. Interpreting weapons is hard, however, as many weapons could also be used as tools. For example, a knife could be used to stab a person as well as skin an animal. It is also difficult to deduce the meaning of warfare imagery because the context of these images is unknown. They could depict historical battles, mythical battles with spiritual significance, or have another meaning entirely. Thus, skeletal remains provide the most concrete evidence of warfare. Although, one must still take care when interpreting skeletal evidence. This is because injuries could also have occurred during hunting accidents.

Examples of Warfare

Archeologists found the earliest evidence for possible violence between humans at Sima de los Huesos, Spain, dating to 250,000 BCE. This site contains human skeletons with evidence of healed skull fractures. These fractures occurred due to a forceful impact. These injuries seem to align with what happens when one is struck on the head with a club. Mass burials are another possible sign of warfare, but they can also be a sign of death from disease or starvation. A spear point embedded in human bone is some of the best evidence of warfare. In Italy, archeologists recovered two individuals dating to the Paleolithic with flint points embedded in their bones. The first individual, a female, was found with a point stuck in her pelvis. The second individual was a young child with a point embedded in their back.

The most striking evidence of early warfare comes from the region surrounding the Nile. This site, dating to 12,000 years ago, consists of a mass burial containing fifty-nine people, and twenty-four of the individuals had chert points in their bones. 110 points were found in the pit, all in positions indicating they pierced through their victims. Many individuals had multiple wounds, indicating close combat or an emotional revenge attack. However, it is unclear if all of the people died during the same violent incident.


The weapons available to Paleolithic people changed and developed throughout the period. The weapons used for warfare and hunting during the Middle Paleolithic were clubs, stones, and spears. About 25,000 years ago, the people of the Paleolithic started crafting throwing spears. Evidence for this is the presence of much smaller, lighter points at archeological sites dating to this timeframe. The shape and crafting techniques of stone points also evolved throughout the Paleolithic. Around 16,000 BCE, people started using darts and atlatls. Later in the Paleolithic, the bow and arrow became a prominent projectile weapon. Other weaponry available includes harpoons, tridents, and knifes.

8 examples of Paleolithic flake blades

Bronze Age Warfare


The people living in the Aegean region of modern day Turkey during the Bronze Age used a variety of swords in combat. In total, archeologists have identified ten distinct types of Aegean swords. Type A swords consist of a long, tapered blade. Type B blades are similar to Type A swords, but they have an additional piece of metal, called a hilt, on the bottom of the blade that extends into the handle. Also, Type B swords are more variable in length than Type A swords. The later Type C swords are more refined than Type A and Type B swords, as they have stronger hilts and more streamlined blades. As techniques developed, swords became shorter, wider, and had stronger hilts.

Aegean Bronze Age society valued combat and honored warriors. Evidence for this is seen in the art of this civilization. Unfortunately, these depictions do not tell us much about the realities of warfare at the time, because these images were meant to glorify such events. However, iconography allows archeologists to learn about weapons and armor that usually do not survive in the archeological record, like wooden shields and spear shafts. Aegean iconography depicts a variety of combat situations. For example, some images show battles between a large group, while others show battles between two opponents. The foes depicted in these images were not always humans, as one piece of Aegean artwork depicts warriors fighting a pride of lions. This is fascinating, as many often forget that wild animals were also a threat to early humans.


The people of the Bronze Age crafted spearheads of a variety of sizes. Some were small, like arrowheads, while others were large enough to be swords. These spearheads were usually affixed to long shafts, but they could also be used on shorter shafts as well. The edges of the spear heads are sharp, so it can be assumed they were useful at slicing as well as thrusting. During the late Bronze Age, spearheads were exclusively placed on long shafts, indicating a shift in focus to more thrusting attacks.

4 different spear points
Credit: Getty Images

Other Weapons of Note

The people of Bronze Age Europe made a variety of weapons, including daggers, halberds, and axes. People living in Ireland during this time period crafted daggers. These daggers ranged in size, and they were used as both a tool and a weapon. Bronze Age people made these daggers from flint, and then later they started using copper. Copper blades were much stronger, thus less likely to snap off inside the victim’s body. The crafting of copper daggers eventually led to the production of swords in the Middle Bronze Age.

Halberds were also produced. Halberds consist of a triangular metal blade affixed to the side of a wooden handle, as well as a curved blade on top. People often made these blades from stone or copper. This weapon could easily puncture the skull, and the curved blade was excellent for thrust attacks. The curved blade could also be used to hook parts of the enemy’s body, or their weapon. The most interesting thing about halberds is that they only function as a weapon, not a tool. This fact shows that the people of the Bronze Age designed objects specifically for warfare.

Evidence of stone axe heads in the archeological record indicates the possible use of various types of weapons. These include maces, battle-axes, and pole-arms. For those unfamiliar, a pole-arm consists of an axe head atop a long shaft. During the Late Bronze Age, people crafted axe heads from mostly copper. Axes served a variety of functions, and their function depended on their form. Some axes were better suited for combat, while others worked better as tools.


The people of Ireland started using shields made of leather and wood in the Middle Bronze Age. In the Late Bronze Age, people started crafting shields from metal as well. Warriors used shields to protect themselves from attacks as well as for bashing into enemies. The edge of the shield could also slice foes. Leather shields were a good choice because they are light, but they are susceptible to tearing and bending. To combat these issues, some shields were reinforced with a second layer of leather. Shields made from leather were exceptionally good at preventing thrusting attacks from reaching the body.

The shields made from wood were not functional weapons. Archeologists know this because the wooden shields from Bronze Age sites do not have any damage consistent with weapon strikes. Unlike leather shields, metal shields were very susceptible to breakage under thrusting attacks. This is because these shields were much thinner than their leather counterparts. The people of Bronze Age Ireland used bronze to craft metal shields.

Aztec Warfare

When one thinks about ancient combat, the Aztec civilization often comes to mind. It should be noted, however, that European colonizers exaggerated the war-like nature of the Aztec people in order to justify their takeover. Religion and warfare were intertwined in the Aztec worldview. The people of the Aztec empire often sacrificed prisoners of war. In fact, the purpose of some battles was specifically to capture prisoners for sacrifice. The Aztecs fought for other reasons too, such as expanding their empire. The Aztec leader Moteuczoma I started expanding the Aztec empire when he came into power in the year 1440 CE. Moteuczoma I’s actions also bolstered the power of the city of Tenochtitlan. Different rulers governed each city in the Aztec empire, and before Moteuczoma I, the cities of Tenochtitlan and Tetzcoco shared equal influence. 

Much of what we know about Aztec warfare comes from the Codex Ramírez, a document written with the collaboration of the Spanish and the people native to the Aztec region. The Codex Ramírez does not provide complete insight into the history of the Aztec empire due to the colonial nature of this source. Nonetheless, the Codex details how Moteuczoma I instated the practice of an inaugural war upon the accession of a new king. The purpose of this war was to establish the might of the new king in outside regions, as well as to capture enemy warriors for sacrifice.

Tenochtitlan Versuses Chalco: Moteuczoma I’s Hardest Earned Victory

Six years after Moteuczoma I came to power, Tenochtitlan went to war with the neighboring region of Chalco after they refused to send materials for the construction of a temple. The war between these two powers was difficult and costly. In fact, the Codex Ramírez claims that this war was the most challenging of all for Moteuczoma I.  Moteuczoma I instructed his soldiers to take live prisoners in order to consecrate the very temple the war was started over, but this was not possible in many cases. Many Chalco soldiers lost their lives in this battle. Despite the high death count, Tenochtitlan forces were able to capture about 200 to 500 individuals.

The war turned in Moteuczoma I’s favor when soldiers from Tenochtitlan pushed back Chalco warriors and ravaged their capital city. This is not to say this was an easy victory, however, as many people died on both sides. This battle essentially ended the war in 1455, but some resistance lasted till 1465. Once the region was completely dominated, as many as 16,000 civilians fled Chalco to escape Aztec rule.

The Expansion Efforts of King Axayácatl

The next person to rule Tenochtitlan after Moteuczoma I was Axayácatl. He came to the throne in 1469 and fought his inaugural war against the Matlatzinco region. Reports indicate that this war was very successful, as Tenochtitlan sacrificed an unprecedented number of captives from this war. Frustratingly, no accounts provide a numerical estimate for the amount of prisoners. Not all of Axayácatl’s efforts were successful, however. This can be seen by the crushing defeat the Aztecs faced against the Michoacan Empire. Axayácatl sent forces to take over this kingdom, but they were greatly outnumbered. Many Aztec soldiers died on the battlefield, leading to the decision to abandon the attempted conquest.

Iconography depicting Aztec warriors


Warfare in Medieval Japan: Buddhist Warrior Monks

Buddhism came to Japan in the sixth century CE. The form of Buddhism that spread in the region combined previous political structures with religion. This meant that Japanese Buddhist monks often served in the military, but there was still some push back about their presence. This is because traditional Buddhism prohibited monks from engaging in violence. By the Medieval period, however, monastic violence was firmly ingrained in the culture.

Warrior monks (or sōhei), were previously well respected, but this changed in the seventeenth century. During the 1600’s, samurai received the title as the most prestigious warriors. Warrior monks were most commonly landmangers or low-ranking aristocrats, and they had influence over their local area. A warrior monk would command a force of common people, but this role did not provide the sōhei with a sufficient income. Thus, warrior monks often worked as tax collectors and landlords. The financial power warrior monks commanded over the people led to some corruption and distrust. For example, a father and son duo of warrior monks were infamous for their unreasonably high taxes on farmers.

Drawing of a Japanese warrior monk

Conclusion: My thoughts on the Nature of Warfare

Warfare has been part of humanity for millennia, but many still wonder if we could achieve a society without the need for bloodshed. Others still argue that warfare is ingrained into the human experience. I believe that the latter point is a bit misguided. Conflict will always be part of what it means to be human, and this is true for all social animals. However, conflict does not need to be dealt with violently. The people of the past knew this, as the world’s oldest known peace treaty dates to 1258 BCE.

While I think a society without violence is possible, I find it highly improbable. Revenge and anger are very powerful, and solving issues nonviolently takes much patience. One must also consider the fact that non-violent approaches do not usually work against foes prone to committing atrocities. Violence is sometimes necessary, and the people of the past knew this very well.



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