10,000-Year-Old Massacre Is the Earliest Example of Human Warfare

Turns out humans have been wiping slightly different humans off the face of the earth for a long, long time.

Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr
Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr

Anthropologists from the University of Cambridge have found prehistoric human remains in Kenya that provide rare evidence of a violent conflict between groups of nomadic hunter-gatherers. The remains of 27 people were unearthed with a variety of injuries suggestive of human-inflicted violence. Carbon dating puts the remains between 9,500 and 10,500 years old, making them the earliest archaeological evidence of inter-group violence, a precursor to warfare between settled societies.

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.
Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr

The skeletal remains suggest that the nomadic foragers died from injuries inflicted by human weapons. Multiple skulls have large fractures resulting from blunt-force trauma, possibly from a club, and some remains were found with obsidian or stone arrow tips along with signs of arrow lesions. There are also a number of broken ribs, hands, and knees indicative of combat injuries and signs that one of the women was bound before death, judging by the arrangement of her skeleton.

The bodies were not buried, but some of the remains are well preserved to this day because they fell into a nearby lagoon and were buried in the sediment. The group was made up of twenty-one adults—eight males, eight females, and five unidentified—and six children including one adolescent.

Finding archaeological evidence of violent conflict among prehistoric peoples is extremely rare, although it is common among settled societies. This has led to a dispute among anthropologists regarding the origins of human warfare. Some contend that organized, violent conflicts have been a part of human nature for a long, long time, owing to our evolutionary history. Others argue that war began with disputes over food, land, and other resources after a concept of ownership had taken root—in other words, war is relatively new concept, likely arising after the agricultural revolution that occurred about 10,000 years ago. 

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.
Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr

It's is difficult to use the recent find to positively support either theory, however. Although it certainly provides an example of group conflict before organized settlement, the massacred individuals were in a part of Kenya that, though barren today, was a fertile lakeshore 10,000 years ago during the epoch. It is possible that they were killed by a competing group in the area that wished to gain greater access to the lush area and the resources it provided.

In a published in Nature today, the Cambridge researchers, led by Marta Mirazon Lahr, write that "the massacre at Nataruk could be seen as resulting from a raid for resources— territory, women, children, food stored in pots—whose value was similar to those of later food-producing societies" or that "Nataruk may offer evidence not of changing conditions towards a settled, materially richer, and demographically denser way of life, but of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups."

"In either case, the deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war," concludes the .

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