The earliest instance of warfare may have just been discovered, with 27 skeletons unearthed bearing the marks of blunt force trauma and projectile wounds.
The researchers from Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Center for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES), found partial remains, which included at least eight women and six children.
The skeletal remains are believed to be of a group of hunter-gatherers who were massacred around 10,000 years ago. The findings suggest that this group was attacked and killed by a rival group of prehistoric foragers.
The grisly find
Researchers discovered the skeletons at the site, Nataruk, 18.6 miles (30 km) west of Lake Turkana, Kenya, while on a project led by Cambridge scientist Marta Mirazón Lahr. The bones were noticed when an assistant saw the curved back of a skull protruding from the sediment.
The bodies had not been buried at the time of death and some of the bones had been preserved in the sediment of what would have been an ancient lagoon.
Out of the 27 skeletons found, 12 were relatively complete. However, 10 had clear signs of a violent death, showing extreme blunt-force trauma to the crania and cheekbones, knees and ribs, broken hands, arrow lesions were found on some of their necks, and stone projectile tips were lodged in the skull and thorax of two men.
Several of the skeletons were found face down, with most of them suffering severe cranial fractures. Five showed signs of “sharp-force trauma,” which may suggest arrow wounds. The skeletal remains of one man had half his skull and torso sunk into the ground. Injuries to the bones showed that he had received a blow to the front of the head, and had been stabbed in the neck with a pointed weapon.
Three artefacts were discovered within two of the bodies, two of which were made from obsidian (black volcanic rock easily worked to have a razors edge). All three are likely to be the remains of arrow or spear tips.
Dr. Lahr, from Cambridge’s LCHES who directs the ERC-funded IN-AFRICA Project, said in a statement:
“Obsidian is rare in other late Stone Age sites of this area in West Turkana, which may suggest that the two groups confronted at Nataruk had different home ranges.”
Four bodies were uncovered in a position indicating that their hands were most likely bound. Foetal bones were also discovered revealing a woman in late stages of pregnancy who was found in a sitting position with just her broken knees protruding from the ground. This position suggests that her hands and feet may have been bound.
One adult male still had an obsidian “bladelet” embedded in his skull. Although it didn’t puncture the bone, a second lesion suggests that another weapon had. The blow had crushed the entire right-front part of the head and face.
All of the remains of children found were aged under six, with the exception of one juvenile aged 12-15 years, but researchers note that his or her bones were noticeably small for their age. No child remains were found with or near any of the men, except for the juvenile.
“The man appears to have been hit in the head by at least two projectiles and in the knees by a blunt instrument, falling face down into the lagoon’s shallow water,” said Mirazón Lahr.
The team first discovered the skeletons in 2012. After the careful excavation of the remains, the scientists used radiocarbon and other dating techniques to determine that the event occurred between 9,500 to 10,500 years ago. This is around the start of the Holocene; the geological epoch that followed the last Ice Age.
What is now scrubland would have been a fertile lakeshore 10,000 years ago, and would have had the ability to support a substantial population of hunter-gatherers, which would have been the ideal place for prehistoric foragers.
The site where the skeletons were found sat on the edge of a lagoon close to the shores of the much larger Lake Turkana. It was most likely covered in marshlands, bordered by a forest, and would have had wooded corridors.
The location also had access to drinking water and fishing, making it desirable to others, and pottery found at the site suggests foraged food was stored.
The study’s findings suggest that these hunter-gatherers — perhaps members of an extended family — were attacked and killed by a rival group of prehistoric foragers. Researchers believe it is the earliest scientifically-dated historical evidence of human conflict — an ancient precursor to what we call warfare, according to University of Cambridge.
The origins of warfare are controversial; whether the capacity for organized violence occurs deep in the evolutionary history of our species, or is a symptom of the idea of ownership that came with the settling of land and agriculture, according to University of Cambridge.
However, the remains on the shores of the ancient lagoon tell a story of a violent encounter between opposing groups of ancient hunter-gatherers. The prehistoric massacre at the lagoon is now the earliest record of inter-group violence within nomadic hunter-gatherer society.
Dislike between hunter-gatherer groups in more recent times has often resulted in the men being killed, and the women and children incorporated into the conquering group. However, at Nataruk, it appears very few — if any — survived.
Dr. Lahr said:
“The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war.
“These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers.”
We will never know why the people at Nataruk were so violently killed. However, Nataruk is one of the clearest cases of inter-group violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers, says Mirazón Lahr, and, evidence for the presence of small-scale warfare among foraging societies.
For study co-author, Professor Robert Foley, also from Cambridge’s LCHES, the findings at Nataruk are an echo of human violence as ancient — perhaps — as the altruism that has led us to be the most cooperative species on the planet, according to University of Cambridge.
“I’ve no doubt it is in our biology to be aggressive and lethal, just as it is to be deeply caring and loving. A lot of what we understand about human evolutionary biology suggests these are two sides of the same coin,” Foley said.
Watch the Cambridge University video on the prehistoric massacre: