Late Prehistoric Warfare in Eastern North America: Spatial and Temporal Variation in its Nature and Intensity

Project: Research project

Project Details


Archaeological materials provide a temporally deep perspective on the nature and intensity of warfare among the small-scale, or 'tribal,' societies that dominated most of human existence. Of particular interest is variation over time and space in the chances of intergroup tensions escalating into outright violence, measured archaeologically using walled settlements and skeletons of casualties. Sufficient data have been collected from several parts of the world to indicate the existence of long periods when conflicts were common, but also prolonged stretches of relative peace. Little is known, however, about precisely where and when fighting among groups was likely to break out, and why that occurred. This subject is of enduring significance as people today continue to confront conflicts involving groups defined along community and kin lines (tribal as opposed to national identities) that can be exceedingly costly in lives and property.

This three-year National Science Foundation project, conducted by Dr. George R. Milner and Mr. George Chaplin, will produce the first comprehensive account of when, where, and why people fought each other in prehistoric eastern North America, with an emphasis on the last 1500 years of prehistory (prior to ca. AD 1500). Dramatic cultural changes occurred during that time as early food-producing communities characterized by relatively egalitarian social relations were transformed into larger agricultural societies, many of which were dominated by hereditary chiefs. The project completes a multi-year (unfunded) effort to assemble the archaeological (settlements surrounded by palisades) and osteological (skeletons with conflict-related trauma such as arrow injuries) data necessary to understand how warfare was conducted, who was involved (casualties), and how the intensity of conflict varied over time and across prehistoric eastern North America.

The first step in the project involves the generation of multiple density surfaces, interpolated through Geographic Information Science (GIS) procedures, that summarize the spatial distribution of archaeological evidence for conflict. The result can be loosely visualized as a series of overlays at various points over a 1500 year-long period that show areas with abundant evidence of warfare as opposed to those with little or no signs of conflict. Taken together, the density surfaces, each representing a separate slice of time, will depict the waxing and waning of intergroup conflict across eastern North America.

Once assembled, that information will be combined with broadly characterized cultural areas and environmental zones to identify conditions associated with periods and places where warfare was likely to occur and where it was not. This second component of the project evaluates the correspondence between parts of density surfaces characterized by high and low warfare and a patchwork of cultural and natural areas, which varied in their spatial distribution, resource productivity, the boundaries between them, and their relative isolation from one another. By doing so, it should be possible to establish whether conflicts, at a coarse-grained level, were largely a function of the material conditions of life, social relations defined by particular cultural systems and institutions, or a combination of both.

This NSF project also serves as a 'proof of concept' for procedures that can be applied to many kinds of archaeological data suitable for conversion to density surfaces for analytical purposes. It squarely addresses a particularly vexing archaeological problem: how to deal quantitatively with uneven-quality data from the large geographical areas that are the appropriate scale for analyses of many forms of human interaction. This work complements more focused studies of specific regions and individual sites that emphasize local effects, specific accommodations to social and natural settings, the proximate motivation for fighting, and the ritual and social roles of war or peace-related activities in specific societies.

Effective start/end date1/15/1112/31/15


  • National Science Foundation: $113,625.00


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