Conservation Biology

Saturday, August 19, 2006


The Bronze Age was the time in the development of human culture, before the Iron age of technology, but after the Stone Age. The Bronze Age signifies the first use of metal for tool-making and weapons. In the middle East by 3500 BC, the use of metal casting had been established [1]. Metal casting involves the actual shaping of the metal into various types of moulds, which enable the creation of multiple copies and therefore also mass-production of weaponry [1]. The link with the Neolithic period is an important one since it can be argued that without the settling of hunter-gatherers into small communities and the pursuit of agriculture (subsistence farming initially) and animal domestication, the need for better tools for these purposes and for protection or reverence of tribal leaders (as status symbols) may have taken much longer to develop.

The history of War dates back to the earliest war-related archaeological discovery of Wendorf, that of site 117 at Jebel Sahaba, Nubia of between 12 000 and 10 000 BC, where 24 of 59 skeletons are associated with stone projectile artefacts [2]. The transition from stone weaponry to the use of metals in warfare must have given the advantage to those with more experience in not only finding the ores and smelting them, but also to those who could fashion the raw materials into different forms of weaponry. The philosophical argument however stands between the suggestions that humans throughout prehistory lived in perpetual peace, and therefore warfare is a relatively new “adaptation,” or that humans were constantly at war with each other, as a natural part of evolution [3].

It is suggested that warfare and associated politics evolved through multiple independent origins, the regions of Mesopotamia (3000 BC), China (2500 BC), and Mesoamerica (900 BC) [4]. Around 4000 BC, city-states were beginning to develop in Mesopotamia, and as they grew, conflicts became more common [5]. The relationship between politics and warfare is obvious in the attempts to control the transportation and irrigation routes of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which were a source of wealth. The acquisition of metals, seen as a luxury, could also have added to jealousy and greed [5]. War broke out between the two Sumarian cities of Umma and Lagash in 2525 BC over a boundary dispute. The two cities were only 29km apart, and the Umma were defeated [5]. Important is the creation of a commemorative stele or stone slab, which was erected in commemoration of this war [6]. The stele depicts the soldiers of Lagash in copper helmets, carrying short spears destroying the Umma [6]. This is the first evidence of copper helmets being worn by soldiers. The success in the copper helmet was in its defence against the battle mace [6]. The stele also depicts the first record of the wheel in combat, being used in the form of chariots drawn by wild donkeys [6]. Further into the technological development of bronze in Mesopotamia, was the invention of the bronze socket axe in 2500 BC with varying designs, though the blade of the axe was designed to narrow to a point to be able to penetrate bronze plate body armour. This axe became one of the most successful weapons of its time [6]. The earliest record of warfare in China is from 2146 BC with their first interstate war [7]. With warfare came the increased reliance upon wood as fuel for smelting the bronze to be fashioned into various objects as well as chariots and spear or arrow shafts. An increased use of wood could have led to the deforestation of certain areas [8], which also had to contend with a change in climate towards the end of the Bronze Age. The addition of over-exploitation of forests during this period is thought to have led to the increased spread of acid peat bogs in Europe and more specifically in Ireland [8].

Since the Bronze age occurred at different periods relevant to different civilisations, it must be understood that the Bronze Age was in fact the period in a civilisation’s development when metalworking reached an advanced state for the smelting of copper and tin from their natural ore in addition to mixing or alloying these different metals to form bronze (which can also be a mixture of copper with phosphorus, arsenic [9], manganese, aluminium and even silicon) [10].

The earliest records of Bronze Age culture can be seen in the Maykop (3500 to 2500 BC) [11], a culture known for its practice of burial, situated in the South of Russia from the Taman peninsula [12] situated in today’s Krasnodar Krai, bordered by the Sea of Azov in the North and the Strait of Kerch in West, and the Black Sea in the South [12]. This area is particularly rich in history through many periods, having been ruled by the Scythians around 700 BC [13], the Hellenistic state of Cimmerian Bosporus [14], who were made up of the Sarmations, Greeks, Jews, and Anantolians, the Huns in the fourth century CE, and the Khazars in the mid-seventh century [12]. Though this area saw many migrations of different peoples, was it the discovery of bronze which is the cornerstone of all this history?

In the period just before the true Bronze age, the Chalcolithic period, which existed in Europe and the Near East between 4500 and 3500 BC [13], stone and copper artefacts co-existed [9]. This is the time when smiths or metalworkers accidentally created bronze as a result of a previous overexploitation of the purer natural copper ores that could be found in nuggets, which led the smiths to mine out ores that had higher quantities of impurities in them. These impurities affectively created the first types of bronze when smelted, though the smiths did not realise this to begin with [9]. It is suggested that smiths eventually began to discern the differences in the bronzes, which was being produced into raw ingots by the smelters, and would probably have selected the specific bronzes according to their own experiences of quality and hardness or softness of the different mixes [9]. Eventually the experience of the skilled smiths would lead them to mix different ingots of bronze grades to create from it exactly what they wanted in terms of strength and quality, to produce the most prised artefacts, so in fact, metal working became not only a skill but an art [9].

An interesting article on the Stone Age history of Ireland, encompasses interesting aspects of the impacts which the discovery of bronze and metal-work had on the culture of the peoples of that time [16]. The technology of bronze work, though discovered in Europe around 4000 BC, only became adopted into the culture of the “Irish” through its introduction of the “French” in 2000 BC. Not only was the use of the metal introduced, but with it the experiences of many years of working with bronze that the people from what is now known as France had [16].

One of the original mines of the Bronze Age exists today at county Cork at Mount Gabriel in Ireland, one of the only remaining mines in Europe apart from those in Austria [15]. It is thought that the copper ore was removed from the mines by lighting fires deep in the shafts under the areas of ore, exposing it to heat. Once hot, the ore was splashed with cold water effectively causing it to shatter. The shattered pieces of ore were then removed to be smelted [16]. Two counties on the South Western tip of Ireland produced an estimated 370 tonnes of copper for making bronze [16]. It is also suggested that since this amount far out-weighs the total amount of bronze artefacts found (though understandably, this would generally be low today in comparison to what was made during the time), copper must have been exported to other regions thereby influencing trade between nations, which could ultimately have influenced culture [16].

The Bronze Age also saw the initial stratification of society into classes. Since metallurgy was seen as an important role in the manufacture of not only weapons but also display items including jewellery, smiths were given a relatively high status in society [17]. Items such as jewellery and other items of decoration also indicate that there must have been an upper-class market to which these items were being supplied. Evidence of class-discrimination is most evident in the way the different classes were buried [17].

With increased exploitation on naturals resources, landscapes were transformed during the Bronze Age, with particular emphasis given to increases use of domesticated animals towards the end of the Bronze Age, and the planting of economically viable crops in the Mediterranean region, where olives, figs and grapes were often grown depending on the local needs and local developing economies [18].

To conclude, an exciting paper by Hummel et al. 2005 discuses the origin of an HIV-resistant allele of the chemokine receptor gene in a selection of the population of Europeans in the late Bronze Age. The mutation expresses resistance to what is known as level 1 HIV infection, and is believed to have originated from a single mutation, which rapidly spread though the Caucasian populations of Europe. Although it was thought that the selective pressure of the bubonic plague on the genetics of the people of particularly medieval time could have contributed to the expression and increased spread of this gene, the paper argues against this possibility. It is suggested though that this finding could be seen as an unknown selective advantage of resistance in Caucasians to HIV 1 infection [19].

Reading through the vast material available on the Bronze Age, one gets the overwhelming feeling of human development and ingenuity. What I find fascinating are the similarities in developments of culture and warfare, though at different times, of cultures that may never have even known of each other’s existence. I would like to believe that the philosophy of the origins of warfare are a relatively new development, however, it would be interesting to see what the similarities and history of violence is, through evolutionary time. Violence may well be the result of an instinct to survive, but added to the skill to enhance personal protection against one’s enemies, defensive strategies may well have developed into offensive strategies of war.

David Vaughan
Senior aquarist, Quarantine
Two Oceans Aquarium
Cape Town, South Africa

Picture credits:

[1] The History Channel [Internet] [cited 19 August 2006: 15:36] Available from:

[2] Ferguson R. B. 2000. The Causes and Origins of Primitive Warfare: On Evolved Motivations for War. Anthropological Quarterly 73(3): 159-164.

[3] Haas J. 2001. Archaeology at the Millenium: Warfare and the Evolution of Culture [Internet] [cited 19 Aug 2006: 16:58] Available from:

[4] Cioffi-Revilla C. 1996. Origins and Evolution of War and Politics. International Studies Quarterly 40(1): 1-22.

[5] Ancient Mesopotamia: Early Sumarian Warfare [Internet] [cited 19 Aug 2006: 17:24] Available from:

[6] Wikipedia contributors. Stele [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2006 Aug 6, 15:28 UTC [cited 2006 Aug 19]. Available from:

[7] Cioffi-Revilla C., Lai D. 1995. War and Politics in Ancient China, 2700 B.C. to 722 B.C.: Measurement and Comparative Analysis. Journal of Conflict Resolution 39(3): 467-494.

[8] McNeill J. R. Environmental History: Woods and Warfare in World History [Internet] [cited 19 Aug 2006: 22:39] Available from:

[9] Cowen R. University of California, Department of Geology [Internet] [cited 16 Aug 2006: 20:58] Available from:

[10] Wikipedia contributors. Bronze Age [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2006 Aug 12, 17:42 UTC [cited 2006 Aug 16]. Available from:

[11] About: Archaeology, Chalcolithic [Internet] [cited 16 Aug 2006: 20:53] Available from:

[12] Wikipedia contributors. Taman peninsula [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2006 Jul 24, 11:40 UTC [cited 2006 Aug 19]. Available from:

[13] Wikipedia contributors. Scythia [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2006 Aug 18, 02:34 UTC [cited 2006 Aug 19]. Available from:

[14] Wikipedia contributors. Bosporan Kingdom [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2006 Aug 14, 14:27 UTC [cited 2006 Aug 19]. Available from:

[15] Wikipedia contributors. Maykop culture [Internet]. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia; 2006 Jul 2, 21:51 UTC [cited 2006 Aug 19]. Available from:

[16] The Ireland Story [Internet] [cited 17 August 2006: 21:17] Available from:

[17] Gilman A. 1981. The Development of Social Stratification in Bronze Age Europe. Current Anthropology 22(1): 1 – 23.

[18] Fall P. L., Lines L., Falconer S. E. 1998. Seeds of Civilisation: Bronze Age Rural Economy and Ecology in the Southern Levant. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 88: 107.

[19] Hummel s., Schmidt D., Kremeyer B., Herrmann B., Oppermann M. 2005. Detection of the CCR5-Δ32 HIV resistance gene in Bronze Age Skeletons. Genes and Immunity 6: 371 – 374.