Attack 10,000 years ago is earliest known act of warfare

Hunter-gatherers’ skeletons show signs of being shot by arrows, clubbed and maybe even bound

WAR CASUALTY  Scientists have found skeletal remains from the oldest known act of war. Between 9,500 and 10,500 years ago, members of one African hunter-gatherer group attacked and killed 12 people from another group. Among the victims was this man, whose head injuries suggest he was clubbed to death.

M.M. Lahr, Fabio Lahr

Along the edge of a dried-out lagoon in East Africa, researchers have discovered skeletal relics of the oldest known instance of small-scale warfare.

In a planned assault, attackers killed 12 hunter-gatherers between around 9,500 and 10,500 years ago, say biological anthropologist Marta Mirazón Lahr of the University of Cambridge and her colleagues. The skeletons unearthed at Nataruk, a site located near Kenya’s Lake Turkana, show that ancient hunter-gatherers were capable of deadly group raids, a precursor of the more complex forms of war launched by societies and nations, the scientists report online January 20 in Nature.

“Lethal raids by competing groups were part of life for hunter-gatherer communities at the time of the Nataruk attack,” Lahr says.

The new report adds to the debate over whether war originated tens of thousands of years ago or relatively recently (SN: 8/10/13, p. 10).

Lahr’s report “is another nail in the coffin of the false idea that mobile hunter-gatherer bands are pacifists,” says anthropologist Lawrence Keeley of the University of Illinois at Chicago. Evidence of lethal raiding by many modern hunter-gatherers, along with the Nataruk evidence, supports the view that warfare occurred among similarly nomadic bands of Stone Age people, perhaps by around 60,000 years ago, Keeley contends.

Biological anthropologist Christian Meyer of the University of Mainz says the new findings “support the notion that serious intergroup conflict might be as ancient as group identity itself.” Group identity, or a shared sense of belonging to a group, is tough to glean from ancient stones and bones. Some researchers suspect that marriages between men and women from neighboring bands of hunter-gatherers fostered alliances and group identities among human ancestors as early as 2 million years ago (SN: 4/9/11, p. 13). If so, small-scale warfare originated long before the Nataruk attack, says Meyer, who has studied a 7,000-year-old massacre at a farming village (SN: 9/19/15, p. 8).

Anthropologist Douglas Fry of the University of Alabama at Birmingham disagrees. Group conflicts arose approximately 10,000 years ago as some hunter-gatherers established long-term camps in areas with abundant food and water, he argues. Population growth ensued, as did competition for resources, in his view. That’s probably what inspired the Nataruk attack, Fry says. At the time of the attack, Nataruk was located in a lush, lake-studded part of East Africa.

Excavations by Lahr’s team at Nataruk and more than a dozen nearby sites indicate that the region was an attractive place to live between about 11,500 and 8,000 years ago. Back then, Lake Turkana extended about 30 kilometers southwest of its current boundary. Nataruk was probably situated a few kilometers from the lake, near a lagoon where the ancient attack victims were found.

Fossil finds by Lahr’s team show that a wide variety of animals once lived in and around Lake Turkana, including elephants, antelopes, fish and lions. At a site called Kalakoel 4, located about three kilometers from Nataruk, Lahr’s team has found human bones and pottery fragments from around the time of the ancient attack. Kalakoel 4 was a temporary camp where people returned with some of what they had hunted and gathered in places such as Nataruk, Lahr speculates.

A local Turkana man first noticed broken human bones on the surface of the former lagoon. He led Lahr to the site in August 2012.

Age estimates for 12 excavated human skeletons came from radiocarbon analyses of soil, shells and burned wood at Nataruk and nearby sites, as well two other bone and soil dating methods.

Ten skeletons contained evidence of lethal wounds. Five, and possibly six, individuals displayed probable arrow wounds to the head and neck. Five people had been hit with a clublike implement, three between the face and left ear. Clubs of at least two sizes were used, a sign that there were multiple attackers.

Two of three stone arrow points found among the skeletons were made of obsidian. Obsidian is rare in the Nataruk vicinity, Lahr says, so the attackers probably came from elsewhere.

Both undamaged skeletons were found with their hands crossed. These individuals were probably bound and killed along with their comrades, Lahr says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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