USU researcher discovers a history of war (and peace) as written in human skeletal remains

by Jacoba Mendelkow

In 1998, USU anthropology professor Pat Lambert attended a military conference in Washington D.C. where she presented to a group of military strategists her research on ancient violence. The feedback she received was not what she’d expected: “We’ve never talked about why—we only talk about how,” someone told her after she’d finished her presentation.

In her studies, Lambert deals a lot with how. She knows, for instance, that how people engage in war changes over time: wounds from stone arrows are found in the bones of ancient people, whereas today’s evidence might be a machete wound, gunshot hole, or piece of embedded shrapnel. All the how’s tell the story of the victims—we can tell, for the most part, how people die—but they also say something about the aggressors. That’s what interests Lambert most—the why.  And those insights are as applicable today as they were thousands of years ago.

Lambert is an osteologist: she studies human bones to reconstruct patterns of health and violent injury in the past. By examining the remains, she is able to identify the victims of violence and, like a modern forensic specialist, determine how they died. She might, for example, find arrow points lodged in a spine, evidence that the victim was running from the shooter—or perhaps was unaware that danger lurked nearby until it was too late. Lambert also uses evidence from human skeletal remains to determine if victims were male or female, how old they were, and if they were healthy or under stress. She looks at the larger environmental context of the people she studies as well, noting that economy and politics were just as important in past events as they are today.

According to Lambert, “war is nothing new in human society. It doesn’t happen all the time everywhere, but it does happen all the time somewhere.” What interests her, and what she’s studied since she was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is patterns of violence in humans throughout history—when, how, and why some people used violence, while others did not. “It’s a strategy,” said Lambert. “There is a modern perception that aggression is inherently bad, but in fact it is a way to get something that you don’t have. Being aggressive is a behavioral strategy in the animal kingdom that can reap big rewards, and in that sense, war can be an effective strategy—but it can also be very costly.”

Lambert has studied violence all over the world: in Iceland in a Viking village, in a North Carolina farming community, in a Chumash fishing village in coastal California, at a Moche settlement in northern Peru, and in a 12th century hamlet in the Mesa Verde region of Colorado. Her research suggests there is a pattern to the way humans respond to pressure on resources. When populations increase and critical resources decline, people often fortify their villages or take other defensive measures and then take to arms.

Fortunately, Lambert has also found that people find solutions to even the most extreme cases of resource stress and warfare: in the case of Puebloan people of the Mesa Verde region, drought and crop failure led to a deadly cycle of war, but people eventually headed south to the more productive mesas they occupy to this day; in the case of the Chumash, people ultimately turned their attention from war to the development of sophisticated trade routes that provided new opportunities for resource acquisition and wealth. There are strong correlations, according to Lambert, between declining resources, drought, and the upturn of violence. And she emphasizes that this is not just a prehistoric phenomenon; resources played an important role in the Gulf War, and people have literally fought wars over water in modern Somalia.

Lambert is careful to make this distinction in her studies of war in ancient and modern populations: it is not a question of distinguishing the good, righteous people from the bad people—certain groups of humans are not biologically determined to be violent, while others have “genes” for peace. Instead, she argues, all humans have the capacity for both. Lambert points to her research in Iceland: “Scandinavians are some of the most peaceful people today, but 1,000 years ago, many were violent raiders.” Cultural values and expectations change over time, and violence is no longer perceived as beneficial for modern Scandinavians (though she notes that military preparation remains a key element of maintaining peace there).

Scholars have proposed a number of theories to explain human violence, Lambert says. She argues that the human need to live, thrive, and produce offspring is what drives human behavior, and that aggression is a core behavior that enabled our ancestors to survive and reproduce. She notes, however, that this innate behavior is not the whole picture, but only a piece of the puzzle. Lambert tries to look at all the pieces that help to explain warfare, and to see how they connect together. She connects climatic records with skeletal evidence, and historical events with studies of nonhuman primate behavior. Warfare, according to Lambert, “is not unbridled aggression, nor is it necessarily maladaptive, and it must be seen in context. All humans have the capacity to be deadly, but some make other decisions.” Lambert argues that if other alternatives are available, and less risky, they will often be chosen.

Lambert talks of gang violence and terrorism—these are the strategies of the disenfranchised, she says. Lambert also studies the triggers of violence to better understand why so many of the perpetrators are male. Her research shows links between lack of opportunity and an increase of violence. She also looks at aggressive behavior in nonhuman primates to see what light their behavior can shed on the human condition.   According to Lambert, chimpanzees form all-male groups in their birth areas and conduct periodic “border patrols”; when they find lone males in neighboring groups, they gang up on them and kill them if they can. Eventually, a group of related male chimpanzees may kill off all the neighboring males and then are able to take the land and females of neighboring groups. This sort of behavior in humans is sometimes called “raiding”—it is an effective but costly strategy. In humans it can lead to a cycle of tit-for-tat killing that results in many deaths in both groups.

Health and disease in the past is another major focus of Lambert’s research. Recently she studied the skeletal remains of enslaved African Americans from a 19th century cemetery in North Carolina in order to better understand the biological impacts of slavery. Excavated in 1962, the Eaton’s Ferry cemetery was a forgotten and unmarked place. By studying the contents of the graves, as well as the bones and teeth recovered, Lambert was able to determine who was buried there, and something of what their lives were like. What she found was that slavery was hardest on the health of children at Eaton’s Ferry, a situation probably resulting from the immediate return to work expected of new mothers as well as inadequate rations for children. Her study provides empirical evidence of the steep biological costs of slavery—costs sometimes disputed in historical texts. She is not finished with this study yet. Advances in DNA science are opening up new areas for Lambert to research, and growing interest in the African diaspora is fueling her desire to use these new technologies to help reconstruct the ancestry of the people buried at Eaton’s Ferry.

Lambert currently has a grant from the National Science Foundation to complete her research on prehistoric warfare in California and scientifically test her ideas about the relationship between times of drought, violence and warfare. The book she is working on, Lambert promises, “will address violence and warfare on every level, putting together seemingly unrelated pieces into an all-encompassing (and hopefully cohesive, she laughs) explanation of war.”