The earliest example I know is from Sumer. That would be the earliest example of institutionalized slavery, because that's (one of) the earliest forms of urbanized civilization. However, what's the story gleaned from pre history, can we give a date for when the targeted raid with the explicit goal to subjugate foreigners starts to appear?

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    – MCW
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 1:59
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    Very likely the answer is "prehistory". What kind of nontextual artifacts would indicate the emergence of slavery, let alone the first raid?
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 13:18
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    Can you define what slavery is in the context of the question? (E.g., does bride kidnapping count or not? This would have existed among hunter gatherers; perhaps not in general, but in some cases.) Perhaps the reason for your earliest example being Sumer is that the Sumerians were among the first cultures to have written records. How would you know about a concept of slavery among prehistoric peoples of they did not write down their laws and culture in connection to this concept?
    – 0range
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 16:45
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  • The official answer is, slavery (any work involving involuntary workers) is as old as time. It is an ugly past of the collective human experience. But fortunately, we are the first to be enlightened enough to understand and to fix it. Praised be to us. Now go and sleep soundly at night! Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 18:17

2 Answers 2


Slavery became only possible when people got the means to keep slaves, which was after the neolithic revolution. Slaves need feeding, some care, they need to be properly locked up and guarded. That's a pretty big resource drain for hunter-gatherers.

Of course hunter-gatherers had plenty of nasty/dangerous jobs they'd love to give to slaves. But they lacked the means to do it. When people started to settle down and became agriculturalists they got the capacity to keep slaves.

This is in a nutshell what Guns, Germs and Steel goes into with much more detail.

@T.E.D.: herding societies are pastoralists. They have -usually- less resources, consequentially have less resources to keep slaves. Doesn't say that they didn't keep slaves. They kept less slaves because they lacked the resources to keep more.

  • According to one theory slavery was necessary for the neolithic revolution as early farming gave less food for the work than hunting and gathering.
    – liftarn
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 10:10
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    That didn't answer the Q directly. A rope, e.g., hinders runaways effectively. Agriculture starts 9 kya ago at the latest. I'm not even talking about field workers. Cultures accosiated with Venus figurines had permanent cave dwellings 30 kya. It's hard to imagine a jump from nothing to sacrificing dozents in burials. Cattle raids and bride stealing correlate at least in bride pricing. Of course primitive exploits have to look a bit different.
    – vectory
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 10:58
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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 11:47
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    I believe there are examples of pre agricultural slave holding societies in the Americas, and possibly in Arabia.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 13:20
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    Herding societies may not be "agricultural" by some standards, but they are still Neolithic or later.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 14:33

It all depends on how you define slavery.

If by slavery you mean, prisoners with jobs. Then I am sure it predated history and global.

But if by slavery you mean, people are treated as livestock, bred like livestock, sold like livestock, and even their offsprings are slave.... then that is actually a tradition that is certainly not global. That kind of slavery seems to be a mostly Mediterranean and Middle Eastern tradition. And it seems the justification of such practices was generally based on religious principles....

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    Sources would improve this answer.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 15:50
  • What kind of sources would you need? Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 15:51
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    Any source at all.
    – MCW
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 15:52
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    You might be interested in the history of slavery in China, particularly the Shang dynasty of the second millennium BCE, which is neither a Mediterranean nor a Middle Eastern culture. Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 16:25
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    Shang Dynasty slavery sources? Certainly: Superficially, you have Wikipedia, obviously. For more detail, you could look up David N Keightley's PhD thesis, Public work in ancient China : a study of forced labor in the Shang and Western Chou, and - of course - there is the 4 volume Critical Readings on Global Slavery (esp pp 504–552) Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 23:30

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