According to the United Nations, a genocide is:

any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Notwithstanding the quantitative differences, due perhaps to technological advances and large populations, what is the first historical instance that we could define in modern terms as a "genocide"?

  • 4
    The first time a pride of chimps/protohumans wiped out a neighbouriung pride of apes. And yes, chimps still practice homicide today. More seriously, the first genocide was likely the first inter-tribe warfare. Well before invention of writing.
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 22:53
  • Also, are you including gendercide? Are you including theories floated that Neanderthals were victims of genocide?
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 22:56
  • 6
    I'm voting -1 because the answer is obvious from Wikipedia: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genocides_in_history (and both current answers indeed list information found there). It's not a bad question, just a bit trivial, so I will make sure to +1 one of your more worthy posts to balance.
    – DVK
    Commented Jan 17, 2013 at 23:13
  • 4
    I guess Caen killing Abel in the story told in genesis is the first genocide. Given the population of earth at the time, the man wiped out almost quarter of the earth population. Lol just kidding Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 0:44
  • Prides of chimpanzees do not write, and so their tribal warfare cannot be historical. The Wikipedia article mentions the Assyrian empire in passing, but does not offer specifics, and I'm not convinced there's not something older in ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Chinese or Indian literature. This is a good question worth investigating. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 13:40

3 Answers 3


Genocide far predates history. A typical tribal raid, where all the men are killed, the women are taken, and children are either taken off or killed, would qualify. Chimpanzee troops have been observed to do this to each other as well, so most likely this is a behavior we shared with our human/chimp ancestors at least 4.6 million years ago when we diverged.

Evil acts such as murder and genocide are, sadly, a typical human/chimp behavior. We like to think this is something only "monsters" or crazy people (IOW, not normal humans like us) do, but that is sadly not so.

For more info on this topic, I can recommend Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing. It's a very tough read though.

  • 1
    I'm not certain this is true. The earliest archaeological evidence of warfare dates only to 11,000BCE. Before then, hominids were pretty good about giving each other space - the economic cost of war in a hunter-gatherer society focussed more on gathering meant it was easier just to go someplace else rather than fight and kill other humans. It wasn't until the introduction of systematic hunting, and the tools it required and the resource scarcity it caused, that we learned to wipe each other out rather than just move away. War is technology, not instinct. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 13:31
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    @RISwampYankee - The linked book does call out competition for resources as one of the catalysts for genocides (eg: In Rwanda part of the issue was overpopulation and the desire for land onwed by Tutsis). If your point was that the initial populating of the Old World might have caused a temporary hiatus in this behavior for a while, its a good point. However, I still have trouble believing there wouldn't have been the odd incident where a tribe became too weak to defend a good territory, and their neighbors noticed.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 15:00
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    The absence in this case is compelling - no cave paintings depict battle. There are modern hunter-gatherer cultures, like the Kalahari Bushmen, that do not engage in warfare. We have a lot of archeological evidence on early man, to the point where we can confidently identify Neanderthal religious rituals... but we cannot confirm war before Cemetery 117. Commented Jan 18, 2013 at 15:09
  • @T.E.D. remember too that ranges are often limited by geographical features. The steep, nearly impassible mountains in New Guinea are a (maybe the) main reason why the extremely aggressive tribes there don't try to expand much beyond their own valleys, it's just not economical. A river or large lake, a high cliff, a patch of desert, can do the same thing to a group with no access to technology capable of helping them overcome such obstacles.
    – jwenting
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 5:39

Genocide is one of the hypotheses brought forth for the extinction of the Neanderthals, 30.000 years ago.

An early example of gendercide from recorded history is the destruction of Melos by the Athenians in 416 BC, during the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides, in Book 5 of his History of the Peloponnesian War gives a detailed account of the negotiations between the Melians and the Athenians that ends with the gendercide, after the negotiations broke down:

Summer was now over. The next winter the Lacedaemonians intended to invade the Argive territory, but arriving at the frontier found the sacrifices for crossing unfavourable, and went back again. This intention of theirs gave the Argives suspicions of certain of their fellow citizens, some of whom they arrested; others, however, escaped them. About the same time the Melians again took another part of the Athenian lines which were but feebly garrisoned. Reinforcements afterwards arriving from Athens in consequence, under the command of Philocrates, son of Demeas, the siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.

Source: Richard Crawley's translation, The Internet Classics Archive.


Arguably, the first genocide was attempted in Persia, and against the Jews, as related in the Biblical book of Esther.

A Persian court official named Haman had been promoted to a position second only to the king Ahasurus (Xerxes) and every man was supposed to bow down before Haman. One man refused to do so, a Jew named Mordecai. Haman became so enraged that he persuaded the king to allow him to order the killing of every Jew, and to hang Mordecai. What he did not know was that Mordecai was the adoptive father of Esther, the new Queen, or that she was a Jew. To make a long story short, Mordecai and Esther worked together to thwart the attempted "Holocaust," and got Haman hanged in the bargain.

  • I'd be careful claiming this as "the first genocide". If you want to treat the Bible as an historical source, it features not only a mandate for genocide but tells of its having been carried out. I'm referring of course to the eradication of indigenous cultural groups in the land of Canaan.
    – Shimon bM
    Commented Dec 28, 2016 at 0:49

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