Archaeologists working in Nataruk, Kenya, have come across 10,000-year-old human skeletal remains, with distinct signs of weapon-inflicted trauma, which could help improve our understanding of the origins of warfare and massacres. Possibly resulting from a violent clash between two or more groups of ancient foragers, the massacre points to the “presence of warfare” in late Stone age/early Neolithic era communities. The study is similar to a previous research, involving the discovery of a 7,000-year-old mass grave in Germany.
Uncovered some 30 km west of Lake Turkana, by researchers from Leverhulme Center for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES) of Cambridge University, the bone fragments belonged to 27 individuals, including as many as six children and around eight women. Among these, twelve skeletons were found in more or less complete form, of which ten showed evidence of trauma, such as broken ribs, knees and hands, severe blunt force injury to the cranial and cheek bones, arrow wounds on the neck and even punctured thorax and skull with sharp stone tips embedded inside.
Left unburied, many of the skeletons were discovered face down, possessing fatal cranial fractures and other forms of “sharp-force trauma”. Around four of them were found in a somewhat peculiar posture, suggesting that their hands had possibly been bound, during the torture. Among the deceased was a women in the final stages of pregnancy. According to the archaeologists, the bones of a six to nine-month-old fetus have also been unearthed from the site. Several of the skeletons had later fallen into a neighboring lagoon, where the special chemical composition of the sediment facilitated the bones’ preservation over the last 10,000 years.
Recently published in the Nature journal, the findings indicate that the corpses belonged to ancient hunter-gatherers, possibly members of the same family, who were ruthlessly slaughtered by a rival group or community. The massacre is likely the oldest recorded inter-group conflict among nomadic forageres of late Stone Age. The discovery, the researchers believe, is significant as it forms the earliest scientifically-verified evidence of human conflict, even perhaps of organized prehistoric warfare. Speaking about the find, Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr, the leader of the Nataruk study, 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.
Discovered back in 2012, the skeletal remains have since been examined with the help of radiocarbon and other highly-specialized dating techniques. Analysis of the excavation site has revealed that the massacre had taken place some time between 9,500 to around 10,500 years ago. The period, according to the team, concided with the beginning of the Holocene, the current geological epoch that marked the end of the glacial phase.
Although mainly a scrubland at present, the Nataruk region was once a lush lakeshore, home to a thriving society of ancient hunter-gatherers. Thanks to the ready availability of drinking water and opportunities for fishing, the location might have been coveted by these prehistoric humans. Pottery fragments retrieved from the site provide more information about the kind of life led by them. Mirazón Lahr, a researcher at Cambridge’s LCHES center and the head of Education for Change (EFC)-funded In Africa project, explained:
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-gatherer.
Of the 27 individuals, 21 belonged to the adult group, comprising of eight males, eight females and remaining five of unidentified sex. Among the six children, whose bones were found that of the adult women, all except one were under the age of six. A young teenager, around 12 to 15 years of age, was also killed in the massacre. Artifacts recovered from the site include a wooden club that was possibly used to inflict fatal trauma to the victims’ heads, and fragments possibly of spear or arrow tips. The weapons, according to the researchers, were made from obsidian, a type of volcanic rock that can be carved into sharp razor-like points. One of the men among the deceased was discovered with an tiny obsidian blade lodged inside his skull. The team added:
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… 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.
Currently undergoing further examination, the skeletal remains are safely kept at the Turkana Basion Institute of the National Museums of Kenya. Robert Foley, a professor at LCHES and the study’s co-author, said:
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.
The entire article was originally published in our sister site HEXAPOLIS.