human warfare
January 20, 2016

10,000-year-old smashed skull remains offer oldest evidence of human warfare

In west Turkana, Kenya, where an ancient lagoon once provided life to those around it, a gruesome massacre of 27 prehistoric hunter-gatherers has been unearthed—extending the timeline of human warfare back to 10,000 years ago.

The find was made by researchers from Cambridge University's Leverhulme Centre for the Study of Human Evolution (LCHES), in a place in Kenya called Nataruk.

It seems this group of 27 may have been members of an extended family; eight were women and six were children, all interestingly under the age of six.

human warfare

This skeleton was that of a man, found lying prone in the lagoon's sediments. The skull has multiple lesions on the front and on the left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement, such as a club. (Credit: Marta Mirazon Lahr)

Only 12 skeletons were relatively complete—allowing more knowledge to be drawn from those remains—and of these, 10 demonstrated clear signs of having been killed violently. Their cheeks and heads showed signs of blunt-force trauma, possibly from wooden clubs; hands, knees, and ribs were broken; several had wounds left by arrows in their necks; and the tips of stone projectiles were discovered lodged in the skull and chest of two men.

These tips were made from obsidian—a black volcanic rock easily sharpened to make cutting tools and weapons—which is unusual for the region.

"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," said Mirazon Lahr.

Four skeletons were found is positions indicating that their hands had been bound, including a woman who was six to nine months pregnant—as evidenced by the fetal bones recovered.

human warfare

This skeleton was that of a young woman, who was pregnant at the time of her death. She was found in a sitting position, with the hands crossed between her legs. The position of the body suggests that the hands and feet may have been bound. (Illustration by Marta Mirazon Lahr)

The bodies were found in what seems to have been a marshland surrounded by forests, at the edge of a lagoon, which was likely a coveted location for groups—it would have been an ideal location for access to drinking water and fish. Pottery has been found nearby, too, hinting that foraged food items were held in storage.

"The Nataruk massacre may have resulted from an attempt to seize resources - territory, women, children, food stored in pots - whose value was similar to those of later food-producing agricultural societies, among whom violent attacks on settlements became part of life," said Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr, from Cambridge's LCHES, who directs the IN-AFRICA Project and led the Nataruk study, in a statement.

However, this idea is uncertain, as it appears no one was spared—including the women and children. It is equally likely, then, that such a massacre was a standard sort of response between two distinct human groups at the time.

human warfare

This skeleton was that of a woman, found reclining on her left elbow, with fractures on the knees and possibly the left foot. The position of the hands suggests her wrists may have been bound. She was found surrounded by fish. (Credit: Marta Mirazon Lahr)

The latter theory seems even more possible as the entire group was left unburied in this idyllic location—suggesting a high level of violence and perhaps a disregard for the other group.

Which has led the researchers to believe that this is the earliest scientifically-dated evidence of human conflict—and a precursor to human warfare. In fact, using radiocarbon dating on the skeletons, soil layer samples, and shells found surrounding the skeletons, the team managed to push the date of human warfare to between 9,500 and 10,500 years ago—in the epoch following the last Ice Age, the Holocene.

This makes the finding especially important, as the origins of war are hotly debated. As the authors mention in the paper, which is published today in Nature, violence between different groups is prevalent in chimpanzees—but whether or not it was humankind’s evolutionary destiny (and thus has haunted us since our species emerged), or whether it later came about when the notion of ownership developed from humans settling on land as farmers is unclear.

human warfare

Detail of the hands of skeleton KNM-WT 71259 in situ. This skeleton was that of a woman, found reclining on her left elbow, with fractures on the knees and possibly the left foot. The position of the hands suggests her wrists may have been bound. She was found surrounded by fish.
(Credit: Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr)

The group at Nataruk was nomadic, however—they were not agrarians by any means—so a massacre of this scale suggests that warfare is not a learned behavior, but something more inherent.

"The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war," said Mirazon Lahr.

"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.”

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Feature Image: This skeleton was that of a man, found lying prone in the lagoons sediments. The skull has multiple lesions on the front and on the left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement, such as a club. (Credit: Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr)