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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
@Sid Though the list provided within your link (wikipedia) does seem to include what the OP has ask for, I find it very near incomplete in that it is lacking greatly in detail/explanation/factual evidence. –  E1Suave May 29 '12 at 17:18

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

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

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
@ Monstertruck- Unfortunately,anything related to ancient India or the vedic period is tied to religion and references are drawn from ancient texts. If you are not a believer, they don't make a lot of sense. Let me see if I can find more suitable evidence. I do remember seeing research a few years ago that dated the Rig Veda to be 8000 yrs old. –  moonstar2001 May 29 '12 at 17:09
@ 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

How do you define "a state"? Many historical records tell about kings of certain peoples attacking other peoples. They usually mention kingdoms, but under that they usually mean certain territory, controlled by a king.

They are also not specific about whether the wars were by military or not. Usually among any people there were specific men who did fight, even if not paid or conscripted.

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