A military revolution: How bronze age innovations ushered in an age of violence and inequality
Saturday 14 February 2009
About 3,000 years ago, from around the Black Sea, came a troublesome trilogy of innovations – horses, chariots and bronze weapons – that gave some people a huge military advantage over others. They did not hesitate to exploit it. Soon, the whole Eurasian world was locked in an arms race. Civilisations rose and fell, and warfare became endemic. Disputes erupted between Eastern and Western peoples (initially Persians and Europeans); a race called the Jews got caught in the middle. Meanwhile, in Greece and Asia Minor, enough people became sufficiently prosperous and secure to experiment with new lifestyles and ideas that would form the foundations of Western culture.
The Bronze Age has no fixed starting point. It began at different times in different places. The earliest known bronze artefacts may have been made as early as 4000BCE in Mesopotamia, where the alloy was used by artisans for making objects such as the Indus Valley dancing girl. From about 2000BCE nomadic chiefs living in central Asia Minor (now Anatolia, part of modern-day Turkey), an area rich in copper and tin deposits, started to adapt bronze for making armour, shields and weapons in the form of axes, swords and spears.
Bronze is hard. People who could craft bronze into weapons and armour were at an immediate military advantage over those with just stone implements or wooden clubs.
Nomads transported precious bronze-making raw materials such as tin and copper from places as far-flung as Cornwall and Wales in the west to the Caucasus mountains in Asia Minor and beyond into the Middle East and India. Once these traders became expert at making bronze weapons it was a short step to invade, conquer and subjugate the many settled farming communities along their various trading routes between the markets and civilisations of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
Just as significant was the conquest of a wild animal that revolutionised the nomad's ability to travel long distances. From as far back as about 4000BCE, people roaming around a region of southern Russia called the Pontic Steppe began to discover how to domesticate the wild horse.
Wild horses called tarpans roamed the lands of southern Russia near the edges of forests. These herd animals were tamed, bred and broken in as slaves for humans. Originally more the size of ponies than thoroughbreds, tarpans are now extinct: the last known specimen died in a Moscow zoo in 1875. No one knows exactly when the first tarpans began to be bred in captivity, nor who first managed to mount one, but since they were small horses, the first breeds were better suited to pulling carts and carrying loads than transporting people.
Chariots had begun to appear in Mesopotamia by 2600BCE, according to a beautiful painted box called the Standard of Ur discovered by British archaeologist Leonard Woolley in the 1920s. This box, now on display at the British Museum, includes a graphic panel named "War", with Sumerian spearmen following a four-wheeled chariot pulled by what look like horses, cows or oxen.
Nomadic traders from the Russian steppes were probably the first to possess the triple combination of domesticated horses, wheeled chariots and bronze weapons. They also learnt to increase the loads that their horses could pull by using spoked rather than solid wheels, making their chariots lighter and more manoeuvrable in battle.
Gradually, from about 3500BCE, their way of life spread across Europe, eventually reaching Britain, Ireland and Spain, superimposing a new world order ruled by a more aggressive, male-dominated society built on controlling horses and making metal weapons.
Traces of this cultural shift can be seen in fragments of a style of pottery found all over Europe, originating from the Pontic Steppe. These pots were made in the shape of an upturned bell and were probably used by well-off families for mead or beer. This is why theirs is known as the Bell Beaker Culture.
Speed, height and firepower gave people with domesticated horses a huge military advantage over those without. Horses provided a means of transport at least five times quicker than any other known at the time. Reconnaissance, fast communications and the precious element of surprise were now at a rider's discretion, powerfully exacerbating the potential for terrorism, blackmail, subjugation and war.
Thanks to the unsavoury combination of wheels, horses and bronze, from about 1800BCE until 500BCE Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East were in constant turmoil. Wave upon wave of horsemen wielding bronze and iron weapons availed themselves of each and every opportunity to conquer and invade.
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