Evidence of Prehistoric Massacre Extends History of Warfare

News ID: 977244 Service: Science
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TEHRAN (Tasnim) – The fossilized bones of a group of prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were massacred around 10,000 years ago have been unearthed 30 km west of Lake Turkana, Kenya, at a place called Nataruk.

Researchers from Cambridge University's Leverhulme Center for Human Evolutionary Studies found the partial remains of 27 individuals, including at least eight women and six children.

Twelve skeletons were in a relatively complete state, and ten of these showed clear signs of a violent death: including extreme blunt-force trauma to crania and cheekbones, broken hands, knees and ribs, arrow lesions to the neck, and stone projectile tips lodged in the skull and thorax of two men.

Several of the skeletons were found face down; most had severe cranial fractures. Among the in situ skeletons, at least five showed "sharp-force trauma," some suggestive of arrow wounds. Four were discovered in a position indicating their hands had probably been bound, including a woman in the last stages of pregnancy. Fetal bones were uncovered.

The bodies were not buried. Some had fallen into a lagoon that has long since dried; the bones preserved in sediment.

The findings suggest 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.

The Nataruk massacre is the earliest record of inter-group violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers who remained largely nomadic.

"The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war," said Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr, from Cambridge's LCHES, who directs the IN-AFRICA Project and led the Nataruk study, published today in the journal Nature.

"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," she said.

The site was first discovered in 2012. Following careful excavation, the researchers used radiocarbon and other dating techniques on the skeletons -- as well as on samples of shell and sediment surrounding the remains -- to place Nataruk in time. They estimate the event occurred between 9,500 to 10,500 years ago, around the start of the Holocene: the geological epoch that followed the last Ice Age.

Now scrubland, 10,000 years ago the area around Nataruk was a fertile lakeshore sustaining a substantial population of hunter-gatherers. The site would have been the edge of a lagoon near the shores of a much larger Lake Turkana, likely covered in marshland and bordered by forest and wooded corridors.

This lagoon-side location may have been an ideal place for prehistoric foragers to inhabit, with easy access to drinking water and fishing -- and consequently, perhaps, a location coveted by others. The presence of pottery suggests the storage of foraged food occurred.

"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 Mirazon Lahr.

"This would extend the history of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterize other instances of early warfare: a more settled, materially richer way of life. However, Nataruk may simply be evidence of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups at that time."

Antagonism between hunter-gatherer groups in recent history often resulted in men being killed, with women and children subsumed into the victorious group. At Nataruk, however, it seems few, if any, were spared.

While we will never know why these people were so violently killed, Nataruk is one of the clearest cases of inter-group violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers, says Mirazon Lahr, and evidence for the presence of small-scale warfare among foraging societies.

 

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