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First evidence of a prehistoric massacre extends the history of warfare

First evidence of a prehistoric massacre extends the history of warfare

The existence and even definition of war in humanity's hypothetical state of nature has been a controversial topic in the history of ideas.

The fossilised bones of a group of prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were massacred around 10,000 years ago have been unearthed 30km west of Lake Turkana, Kenya, at a place called Nataruk.

Researchers from Cambridge University's Leverhulme Centre 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.

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.

According to cultural anthropologist and ethnographer Raymond C. Kelly, the earliest hunter-gatherer societies of Homo erectus population density was probably low enough to avoid armed conflict.

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.

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 characterise 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.

Of the 27 individuals recorded, 21 were adults: eight males, eight females, and five unknown. Partial remains of six children were found co-mingled or in close proximity to the remains of four adult women and of two fragmentary adults of unknown sex.

Ten skeletons show evidence of major lesions likely to have been immediately lethal.

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.

First evidence of a prehistoric massacre extends the history of warfare