Archaeology has finally laid to rest the idea that earlier human societies were completely peaceful. Melvin Konner on new evidence.


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Illustration: Tim Lahan

Along a river in northern Germany, thousands of men lined up for a pitched battle. Some had come great distances, determined to seize or hold this modest waterway. They went at it mercilessly, leaving hundreds dead, many shot in the back while fleeing. Victory was decisive.

World War II? Perhaps the Napoleonic Wars? The 30 Years’ War?

Actually, you won’t find this battle in any history book. It happened around 1250 B.C., roughly the era of the Trojan War and the biblical war of Deborah. The weapons and tactics were similar to those famous conflicts, the numbers mobilized equally impressive.

But in illiterate Northern Europe, no one chronicled the German battle in song and saga, with heroes’ names echoing down the centuries, and no one knew of the event until very recently.
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