As the armies of ISIS swept across Syria and northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, they overran villages of Yazidi people, whom they considered infidels. The soldiers killed Yazidi men and seized the girls and women. Girls as young as 12 became “wives”—sex slaves passed around among the ISIS fighters. The horror was all too familiar: the nightmare the Yazidi women have endured is that of captive women through the ages.

For the past decade I have studied captive taking in historical and ancient cultures. I am an archaeologist interested in social and demographic processes in small-scale societies of the type that scholars call “tribes” or “chiefdoms”—groups of fewer than 20,000 people who are related through blood or marriage and whose leaders have relatively limited power. Captives were ubiquitous in these societies: early travelers’ accounts, ethnohistorical documents, ethnographies, captive narratives and archaeological reports describe captives in every corner of the world, from northern Europe to southern South America. My analyses of these early writings represent the first attempt at a cross-cultural examination of abduction and its consequences.

The worlds described in these documents contrast sharply with the idealized image of small communities of people who treated one another as equals. Instead most small-scale societies contained a number of individuals who did not have access to the same resources and benefits as other members of the group. Some of these disadvantaged people were orphans, incompetents or criminals, but most were captives from other groups. Indeed, in some small-scale societies stolen people might constitute up to 25 percent of the population. Because they had no kin in the groups they unwillingly joined, captives were automatically marginal; unless they were adopted or married into the group, native group members often did not even see them as human.

Although captives formed the lowest social stratum of the groups they entered, they nonetheless influenced these societies in profound ways. They introduced their captors to new ideas and beliefs from their natal group, fostering the spread of technologies and ideologies. And they played key roles in the creation of status, inequality and wealth in the groups that abducted them. These factors may well have laid the groundwork for the emergence of a much more sophisticated social structure: the state-level society, in which one person or a small group of people hold significant power and authority over a population numbering more than 20,000 and in which group membership is built not on kinship ties but on social class or residence within the boundaries of a nation-state. For all the misery they endured, captives changed the world.

Taken by Force

People typically became captives through warfare or raids. During his first voyage to the Americas in 1492, Christopher Columbus heard about the fierce Kalinago people of the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles islands. Documents from the 15th and 16th centuries reveal that the Kalinago traveled hundreds of miles in their war canoes to attack other islands and steal their goods and people. The raiders ritually killed the adult males they took soon after returning home. Young boys were emasculated and used as slaves until they reached adulthood, at which point they were sacrificed. The young women entered Kalinago society as their captor’s concubine or his wife’s servant. The hunter-gatherers of the Northwest Coast of North America raided for captives to put to work as slaves or to trade for other goods. Nineteenth-century accounts describe fleets of war canoes carrying warriors who attacked neighboring groups or made longer-distance raids. They took mostly women and children but also men not killed in battle. From the eighth to the 11th centuries Vikings raided throughout the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, taking large numbers of captives to enslave or sell. During the 12th to 16th centuries coastal chiefdoms in the Philippines sent slave-raider fleets across the region, attacking smaller groups. According to archaeologist Laura Junker of the University of Illinois at Chicago, the raiders returned with captive women whom they enslaved or married. The women worked in agricultural fields or made pottery or textiles for their master to trade.

A society’s captives rarely attained equal status with the native-born. When warriors returned, those captives destined to be slaves almost always underwent a process that sociologist Orlando Patterson of Harvard University calls “social death,” in which they were stripped of their natal identity and “reborn” as slaves. During this process slaves were often forced to adopt some visible mark of their servitude and received a new “slave name.” The Conibo people of eastern Peru, for instance, cut the hair of female captives to give them short bangs that denoted slave status. They also replaced the captives’ traditional clothing, which the Conibo considered immodest and savage. The Kalinago beat and insulted their new captives, cut their hair as a sign of servitude, and renamed them “female slave” or “male slave.” Because they were ultimately sacrificed and consumed, the young male slaves were also called “my barbecue.”

Early 19th-century accounts describe the traumatic destruction of the social and cultural identity of captives in Southeast Asia, including a Dutch sea captain taken by Iranun slavers from the Philippines. The slavers stripped him of his clothes and bound him hand and foot to the bottom of a boat. According to ethnohistorian James Warren of Murdoch University in Australia, such pirates beat their captives on the elbows and knees so they could not run or swim away. Tied up for months at a time, poorly fed and constantly abused, the captives eventually gave up hope of escape.

In Northwest Coast societies, captives not only became slaves with no possibility of ever becoming members of their captor’s society, but their children shared their fate. Like African slaves in the American South or industrial slaves in ancient Rome, slaves in Northwest Coast groups passed their status down to their offspring.

Captives in small-scale societies were typically put to work as slaves, as seen in a Northwest Coast Indian carving (1). Some, such as Helena Valero, who was abducted by the Yanomamö of the Amazon in the 1930s (2), became wives. The influence of captives on the groups they entered is visible in artifacts such as an Iroquois mask for a medicinal tradition that Huron captives may have introduced (3). Credit: Museum of Anthropology, University of British Columbia (1); Jose Antonio Carrera Munoz (2); Werner Forman Getty Images (3)

Agents of Change

One might expect abused captives dragged into a new society to have little opportunity to transmit knowledge or skills to their captor’s group. My cross-cultural study paints an emphatically different picture, however. People today tend to view small-scale societies as timeless and unchanging, but in truth, they were often eager to learn new things. Captives brought opportunities for social, economic and ideological progress, and their captors took full advantage of them.

A number of accounts hint that at least some captives were targeted for their technological know-how. English ship’s armorer John Jewitt, taken in the early 19th century by the Mowachaht people, a Northwest Coast group, was spared in a lethal attack because the chief wanted the metal weapons Jewitt knew how to make. Jewitt, who detailed his ordeal in a memoir published in 1815, also showed his captors how to wash soiled clothes rather than discard them, although Jewitt himself had to do the washing. Helena Valero, who was kidnapped by the Yanomamö of the Amazon in the 1930s, when she was a child, reported that her abductors were furious when she told them she did not know how to make metal tools. She recounted her years with the tribe in a 1965 book, noting, “The women said ‘She is a white woman, she must know; yet she doesn’t want to make clothes, machetes, or cooking pots for us; hit her!’” But the headman and one of Helena’s co-wives defended her, and she survived. Metalworking skills were similarly prized among the Germanic tribes of northern Europe, who captured Roman metalsmiths and apparently put them to work. Archaeologists have found locally made Roman-style metal objects, such as statuettes, drinking horns and weapons, as far north as Denmark.

Captives could also change the religious practices of their captors’ society. On the Northwest Coast of North America, Haida people learned from their Bella Bella captives about ceremonial gatherings called potlatches that were organized to build or repair a house. The people of Ouidah, a West African coastal slaving port, practiced a variety of vodun cults in the 19th century, some of which were introduced by slave women taken from interior African groups. And Germanic tribes who attacked the Roman Empire during its decline learned Christianity from Roman captives.

Although captors typically disdained their captives, they often believed they had curing powers. Spaniard Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was exploring the Gulf Coast a few decades after Columbus’s voyage when he and several companions were shipwrecked and taken by native groups in what is now Texas. Their captors were sure these foreigners knew how to cure illness, and Cabeza de Vaca and his group became widely known for the healing ceremonies they invented. When the Spaniards escaped and made their way to what is now Mexico, the many native peoples they encountered along the way requested their skills as healers. Similarly, in the mid-19th-century American West, a wounded Oglala Sioux chief demanded his captive, a young pioneer woman named Fanny Kelly, attend him because he believed a white woman’s touch would cure him. And in the Northeast region of North America, Huron captives are thought to have introduced the medicinal False Face Society, in which curers wore wood masks, to their Iroquois captors.

Status Symbols

Perhaps the most surprising finding from my study is that captives were a potent source of social and political power for their captors. In small-scale societies, social power stemmed from the number of followers a leader controlled, most of whom were relatives. However unwillingly, captives added significant numbers of nonkin followers and thus increased the status of their captors. Captives, especially women of reproductive age, allowed leaders or status-seeking men to increase the size of their family or number of followers without incurring the traditional marriage obligation of paying a bride price to the bride’s family. And by definition, captives created instant inequality in the societies they joined. As the most marginal and despised members of the group, they raised everyone else’s standing.

In most of the small-scale societies I examined, men gained prestige through success in war. Captives were the best evidence of victory. Among the Kalinago, for instance, a man could only achieve an advantageous marriage into a high-ranking family if he triumphed in war, which meant taking captives. Young Iroquois men in the Northeast region of North America could not expect to become leaders or marry well unless they were successful warriors—again, signified by captive taking. Men in societies throughout the Northeast used the “calumet ceremony,” an alliance-building ritual that revolved around smoking sacred pipes, to boast of their success as warriors and captors. During the ceremony each warrior recounted the battles he had participated in and described every slave he had obtained. In the Philippine chiefdoms of Southeast Asia during the 12th through the 16th centuries, those warriors who took the most captives and the most booty during raids earned the highest status. They aspired to the successes of mythical warriors whose supernatural powers allowed them to overcome enemies and make off with their people.

Masters also attained social status through the public display of their power over their slaves. The stark disparity in daily routines between masters and captives constantly reinforced their relative standing. In this sense, high social status required not only master and servant but an audience to bear witness to the domination. Patterson has noted that the cult of chivalry of the American South, which emphasized the “honor” of Southern men, was only possible because white men could contrast themselves with powerless and, in their eyes, “honorless” slaves (regardless of whether they actually owned slaves). Similar dynamics played out in small-scale societies. For example, prominent Northwest Coast men called titleholders displayed their prestige in day-to-day interactions with their slaves. Titleholders performed only administrative tasks such as organizing ceremonial events and almost never did real work—the duty of slaves. Titleholder wives and daughters eschewed work, too. Slaves followed them everywhere to fetch wood and water, cook, carry burdens and mind children.

Among the Conibo, captives could also become retainers—household servants to high-ranking individuals or families—further elevating the social status of their masters. Likewise the Makú captives of the eastern Tukano people who inhabited the Vaupés River Basin of Brazil and Colombia cared for their master’s personal needs and those of his wife. They held their master’s large ceremonial cigar when he smoked and even breastfed their mistress’s babies, according to anthropologist Fernando Santos-Granero of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. Yet the Tukano scorned the Makú. Men might take Makú women as concubines but would never consider marrying one.

Olive Oatman was kidnapped in 1851 by a Native American tribe in Arizona. Credit: Benjamin F. Powelson Alamy

Wealth Builders

Scholars have argued that slaves in small-scale societies were only status symbols with no real economic role. They have drawn a sharp contrast between this kind of slavery and large-scale slavery, the economic impact of which is evident from recent history: African slaves produced the wealth of the American South, a driving force in 19th-century American economic development. But the groups I studied suggest that captives in ancient smaller-scale societies actually began the process of creating the wealth, status and inequality that presaged the economic consequences of large-scale slavery in the U.S., Rome and elsewhere.

Leaders had to reward voluntary followers to maintain their loyalty, so their power was tied to their ability to control and provide food or items for trade. In small-scale societies, an aspiring leader generally turned to his kin to create the surplus he needed to gain and retain followers, but kin could reject the demand of the would-be leader. Powerless captives, of course, could not.

Precolonial examples of the economic impact of captives abound in the literature. Consider the 16th-century chiefdoms in the Cauca Valley of Colombia, which were constantly at war. The earliest Spanish visitors—soldiers and priests—reported that victors took hundreds of captives. They sacrificed some but kept many more as slaves, which allowed each master to significantly expand his crop production. On North America’s Northwest Coast, salmon was a dietary staple for many groups, but it was available only at certain times of the year, so people had to preserve it for storage. The tribes considered salmon processing women’s work. But they readily set slaves of both sexes to this task, which created surpluses of dried salmon. Elsewhere in North America, on the Great Plains in the century before Europeans arrived, men became wealthy through the production and trade of high-status bison robes and hides. Producing hides and robes was labor-intensive women’s work. Archaeologist Judith Habicht-Mauche of the University of California, Santa Cruz, has found evidence that Plains men captured women from Pueblo Indian villages to increase their numbers of wives. Remains of pottery made in the Plains using techniques associated with Pueblo culture track the movement of these Pueblo women into Plains groups. Cooperative work among many wives could double hide production and significantly increase a man’s wealth and status, Habicht-Mauche contends.

The resources generated by captives allowed chiefs and aspiring leaders to sidestep reciprocal obligations to kin and to consolidate their social and economic power. In the Philippines, captive women produced food, textiles or pottery. Chiefs used the surplus goods to sponsor feasts that attracted warriors to follow and fight for them, thus growing their armies; would-be chiefs, meanwhile, traded the goods throughout Southeast Asia to build their wealth. The Conibo of Peru had a similar means of converting the surplus wealth generated by captives into power and status—namely, the “competitive feast.” According to archaeologist Warren DeBoer of Queens College, C.U.N.Y., an authority on the Conibo, it was important for ambitious Conibo men to have multiple wives helping with the feast. Both traditional and captive wives farmed the staple manioc and brewed it into beer, the centerpiece of competitive feasts. The more wives a man had—and successful raids of the small villages upriver yielded a steady supply—the more beer his household produced. The more beer he could offer, the bigger the feast he could hold and the greater his standing. This dynamic appears to have deep roots: discoveries of first-millennium pots for brewing, storing and drinking beer suggest that competitive feasting, and most likely the captive women who supported it, were common among the prehistoric ancestors of the Conibo and many other ancient societies.

Captives not only produced wealth, they literally embodied it. Virtually all the small-scale societies I studied gifted, traded or sold stolen people. As was true in the slavery system of the American South, low-status captives were high-status prestige goods and often the most valuable commodities men in small-scale societies owned. In the Northeast region of North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, indigenous groups used captives as gifts to create alliances or smooth over disputes. On the Northwest Coast, slaves were exchanged or sold from group to group, moving along well-established trade routes. In Colombia’s Cauca Valley, the oldest known explorers’ accounts, from the mid-1500s, describe slave markets—an institution that very likely predated European contact. In some parts of the world, slaves even functioned like money. In early medieval Ireland, for instance, the female slave was the highest unit of value and was used as a method of payment.

From Tribe to State

Given the impacts of captives on the cultures they entered, I suspect they played an important role in one of the fundamental social transitions in human history: the formation of complex, state-level societies. Archaeologist Norman Yoffee, now at New York University, has argued that state-level societies did not emerge until socioeconomic and governmental positions were no longer linked to kinship. And most archaeologists and other social scientists agree that states were at least in part the result of a few people creating and controlling surplus goods. Captive taking helped early human groups meet both these conditions for the evolution of statehood. Captives were not the only factor in the formation of states, of course. They existed in many small-scale societies around the world without effecting this dramatic social change. But captives were (and still are) taken to bolster the social status of ambitious men and, in my view, gave some of these men the opportunity to accrue the quantities of wealth and power that must have been the foundation of early states.

If captive taking was involved in the formation of state-level societies, then we should expect to find signs of captives among the remains of early states. Exactly such evidence has come from one of the places that I have worked at in the American Southwest, New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon. The Chaco polity existed from around A.D. 800 to 1250 and has been argued to be the only state-level society in the Southwest. Studies of human remains have revealed significantly more females in the surrounding area in the period during which Chaco was in power compared with when it was not. Burials from Chaco Canyon itself contained many women ages 15 to 25, the most common sex and age range for captives. In addition, a study of human remains from a Chaco-style great house near Chaco Canyon found women with evidence of healed head wounds and other trauma of the kind often associated with captives and other marginalized and abused people. Other evidence of violence in the Chaco region, as well as oral traditions among the modern-day descendants of the Chacoans, also attests to the presence of captives in Chaco.

Chaco is not the only example. Archaeologist Peter Robertshaw of California State University, San Bernardino, examined the development of two East African states, Bunyoro and Buganda, after the mid-15th century, in what is now western Uganda. He found that many of the women who worked in the banana or millet fields there had been captured and were treated as commodities. Demand for women’s agricultural labor may have been the motor of sociopolitical evolution of these societies, Robertshaw suggested.

The notion that captives contributed to sociopolitical change that ultimately gave rise to the modern world does not in any way justify the egregious mistreatment of captives in ancient, historical or modern times. More than five years after ISIS forces ravaged their homeland, some of the Yazidi women and children they enslaved have returned home. Thousands remain in captivity. I fervently hope that more Yazidi captives will be reunited with their families. Women in such situations through the millennia almost never had such hope. Archaeologists can, at least to some small degree, acknowledge and honor their plight by telling their stories.