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Not the first instance of warfare, which surely predates recorded history, but of an organized war between civilizations. For the purposes of this question I'll define a war as:

  • Defined scope: the war had a beginning, and end, and specific belligerents. Not an ongoing state of hostility between people groups.
  • Dedicated fighting force: the war was fought by a military of some kind, rather than armed commoners who skirmished when they happened to meet.
  • State-driven: Military action was enacted by one or more governments. (One state campaigning against disorganized tribes would count.)

The earliest war I can find a description of is Sargon's conquest of Sumer at the Battle of Ur in c. 2271 BC, which led to the establishment of the Akkadian Empire. I suspect there were earlier documented conflicts in Sumer or other very early agricultural civilizations.

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IMHO, Sargon was just another City-state ruler in Mesopotamia who happened to be more successful than most. Internectine warfare between city-states in that area is as old as the cities themselves. – T.E.D. May 29 '12 at 16:28
It seems to me that there is a problem with all three definitions. Most wars, even today, don't have a beginning, but rather gradually ramp up. The actual starting point is often an almost arbitrary event. The only exception is when there is a declaration of war. A dedicated fighting force? Are farmers conscripted into the military "a dedicated fighting force" or "commoners who skirmished?" Most ancient civilizations would have been too small to support a true standing army. – Kevin Keane Aug 18 at 7:18
And the concept of "state" is really only about 200 or so years old. When we talk about Enmebaragesi (the ruler during the war between Sumer and Elam), we are talking about a leader of, at best, a small town (roughly 5 miles by 2 miles) . In this context, we should probably look at him more akin to a tribal chief or warlord than what we today consider to be a king. That would make this war a war between "disorganized tribes". The earliest entities that seem to meet your definition would be Rome, or possibly Egypt. – Kevin Keane Aug 18 at 7:31
@KevinKeane The modern concept of a nation-state dates back to the Treaty of Westphalia (a bit older than 200 years ago, mid 17th) true, but the very definition of a state is a unified self-governing political entity, and one of those that can engage in armed conflict with another of its type is a concept vastly older than the 30 Years War. – RI Swamp Yankee Aug 19 at 16:19

4 Answers 4

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The earliest written reference to a war was between Sumer and Elam in 2700BCE.

The earliest battle we have a written account for is Megiddo... Thutmose III vs. The Caananites, lead by the city of Kadesh. The Egyptians won, and tossed up a bunch of monuments to celebrate the victory, wrote a bunch of scrolls on the topic, and so knowledge of the battle was passed down to the present. The earliest archaeological record of warfare was also in Egypt, but between those who lived on the lower nile and those who lived on the upper nile in Sudan.

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The answer was incomplete - added a link to an article about the Sumer-Elam war. – RI Swamp Yankee Jan 18 '13 at 13:19
Interestingly enough, this same battlefield is the site prophesied in Revelations as the site of Armageddon (from the Hebrew har megiddōn) the final battle between good and evil. Just saying. ;-) – Pieter Geerkens Aug 19 at 19:59

Chinese traditional history includes a war between the Yellow Emperor and the Flame Emperor. The main battle is called the Battle of Banquan. This is supposed to be before the two of them joined forces to fight Chiyou. Tradition puts the date at sometime before the 2500 bc.

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The Mahabharat war in Kurukshetra has been astronomically dated to 3067 BCE. Refer to the work done by B.N.Narahari Achar (Univ of Memphis). There is astronomical consistency in the text with regards to occurrences of eclipses, comet movements and lunar phases. The Mahabharat war is the oldest recorded war in history. The story of the war is recorded as the world's longest epic by Vyasa. The Bhagvad Gita - revered text of the Hindus is embedded in this epic.

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The first mention of the Mahabharat only dates to 400bce. No contemporaneous documents of the war remain, and no archaeological evidence the war occurred. Furthermore, what academic consensus there is on its historicity place it much later, in the iron age: – RI Swamp Yankee Aug 17 at 20:22
Wikipedia says: "Mahabharata as a conflict that arose from a dynastic succession struggle between two groups of cousins of an Indian kingdom called Kuru, the Kauravas and Pandavas, for the throne of Hastinapura." All the names and the city name here in Sanskrit, of Indo-European origin. So the war could not happen before Indo-Europeans invaded India. Indo-European unity is believed to exist till 3000 BC. So this war could not happen earlier, but at least some centuries later. – Anixx Aug 19 at 17:52

The Mahabharata War ( a.k.a. the Kurukshetra War) is said to have taken place more than 5000 years ago.

Also see: Mahabharat War

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I always thought that was fiction. Now I am confused. Do we have reliable evidence (other than wikipedia and religiously biased websites --which may be correct, not doubting that but I question their motives) that this war happened? – Apoorv Khurasia May 29 '12 at 16:10
@TED I am not sure that "Civilization" = "Writing" – E1Suave May 29 '12 at 17:06
@ T.E.D-I would be more comfortable if this "no known literate civilization" claim is made with reference knowledge gathered by the Western world using "Western" literary and thought constructs.Also just a point of interest, civilization does not have to mean writing. Certain knowledge (e.g. Vedas) was traditionally passed down by word of mouth.I am not trying to cloud history with religion but trying to offer a perspective that the knowledge that we are privy to is not absolute and there are cultures whose study may expand our knowledge-base.So, I would say civilization=culture not writing. – moonstar2001 May 29 '12 at 17:09
@moonstar2001 - Oral tradition is not history - pre-historical literally means before the advent of writing. Any battle passed down by word of mouth alone is, by definition, outside history. Archaeology and linguistics can fill in the gaps, and push back knowledge of pre-historic cultures... but stories passed down by word of mouth is not a definition of history as we're using it here. – RI Swamp Yankee May 29 '12 at 17:36
@moonstar2001, the only reason we cannot rely on oral traditional history is because there is no way to preserve it for much later generations (except with audio recordings which is only a privilege we have these days) and certainly no way to prove or disprove it. That is why most court systems these days, including that of India, do not accept hearsay evidence. – Apoorv Khurasia May 30 '12 at 0:10

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