Hunter-gatherer massacre suggests groups of humans waged war earlier than we thought

Jan 22, 2016

Photo credit: Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr

By Marta Mirazon Lahr

The area surrounding Lake Turkana in Kenya was lush and fertile 10,000 years ago, with thousands of animals – including elephants, giraffes and zebras – roaming around alongside groups of hunter gatherers. But it also had a dark side. We have discovered the oldest known case of violence between two groups of hunter gatherers took place there, with ten excavated skeletons showing evidence of having been killed with both sharp and blunt weapons.

The findings, published in Nature, are important because they challenge our understanding of the roots of conflict and suggest warfare may have a much older history than many researchers believe.

Shocking finding

Our journey started in 2012, when Pedro Ebeya, one of our Turkana field assistants, reported seeing fragments of human bones on the surface at Nataruk. Located just south of Lake Turkana, Nataruk is today a barren desert, but 10,000 years ago was a temporary camp set up by a band of hunter-gatherers next to a lagoon. I led a team of researchers, as part of the In-Africa project, which has been working in the area since 2009. We excavated the remains of 27 people – six young children, one teenager and 20 adults. Twelve of these – both men and women – were found as they had died, unburied, and later covered by the shallow water of the lagoon.

Ten of the 12 skeletons show lesions caused by violence to the parts of the body most commonly involved in cases of violence. These include one where the projectile was still embedded in the side of the skull; two cases of sharp-force trauma to the neck; seven cases of blunt and/or sharp-force trauma to the head; two cases of blunt-force trauma to the knees and one to the ribs. There were also two cases of fractures to the hands, possibly caused while parrying a blow.

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4 comments on “Hunter-gatherer massacre suggests groups of humans waged war earlier than we thought

  • I remember seeing a youtube video of Lawrence Krauss talking to Noam Chomsky about Pinker’s The Better Angles Of Our Nature book and Chomsky using the “research” of some anthropologist ( cultural, I assume ) to try and convince Krauss that humans were much more peaceful in the Pleistocene. Thus trying to rebut Pinker’s lowering of violence over time thesis.

    In the comments someone had done their homework and looked up the work of this anthropologist. According to this psuedoscientist chimpanzees where not violent until they encountered men and this non violence also applied to modern hunter gatherers/slash and burn agriculturalists. Peaceful until meeting modern men. Aside from the patent absurdity of this claim one wondered about the “violence transfer” suggested by this anthropologist. Forgot the man’s name.

    My opinion of Chomsky, already low, went lower.

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  • Evolution is about survival, and our species is no different from others in this respect.

    This will come as some shock to the rose-colored-glasses bunch.

    The injuries suffered by the people of Nataruk are merciless and shocking, but no different from those suffered in wars throughout much of our history – sadly even today.

    Yes, and we may even have no choice but to accept that violence is part of the human condition and that humans are not ethically superior lifeforms with a few aberrant bad apples amongst us. So awkward!

    It may be human nature, but we should not forget that extraordinary acts of altruism, compassion and caring are also unique parts of who we are.

    Ahhh, and let’s end with a feel good moment for those who have been upset by the reality of our human nature. Gather round fellow sapiens…group hug everyone! Group hug!

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  • If I recall correctly, our ancestors broke off from the ancestors of chimps and bonobos before they split from each other…6 million years vs 2 million. But yes, who wouldn’t rather resemble bonobos than chimps?

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