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One of the smashed skulls from Lake Nataruk, Kenya.

Earliest War Grave Found with 27 Slain People Dates Back 10,000 Years

The world’s earliest known mass-homicide grave of 27 adults and children shot with arrows and bludgeoned to death about 10,000 years ago has been found west of Lake Nataruk in Kenya. The authors of a study say the broken skeletons of the hunter-gatherers provide evidence that there was inter-group violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers, but add that such conflict was extremely rare at that time.

A team of many researchers, from Kenyan institutions and from Cambridge University in England and other institutions, published a closed-access paper about the astounding find in the journal Nature.

They say a rival foraging group made a planned attack on the victims one day between 10,500 and 9,500 years ago. The group may have been storing food in pottery, and they lived in prime territory on what was then a fertile lakeshore with plentiful fish and drinking water, which would have made them an attractive target.

“Thus, 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 among whom violent attacks on settlements and organized defense strategies became part of life.” Marta Mirazón Lahr, from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge, and leader of the study told The Guardian .

Prior to the finding of the broken skeletons at Nataruk, the earliest known war grave was at Darmstadt, Germany, from around 3,000 BC.

The remains of the unfortunate victims, screenshot from a Nature video

The remains of the unfortunate victims, screenshot from a Nature video (see video below)

The researchers believe the 27 victims were an extended family. Among them were eight women, one late in pregnancy, and six children. Twelve of the skeletons, found 30 kilometers (18 miles) from the lake on land that was then right near the water’s edge, were fairly complete. The dead were not buried and were left haphazard, some face down, with their hands tied. The authors believe there were few if any survivors of the attack, so a raid for women and children seems to be ruled out, and there was no one left to bury them.

This skeleton was that of a young woman, who was pregnant at the time of her death. She was found in a sitting position, with the hands crossed between her legs. The position of the body suggests that the hands and feet may have been bound.

This skeleton was that of a young woman, who was pregnant at the time of her death. She was found in a sitting position, with the hands crossed between her legs. The position of the body suggests that the hands and feet may have been bound. ( Illustration by Marta Mirazon Lahr )

The people suffered smashed skulls, apparently by wooden clubs, and broken knees, ribs, and hands. Some had signs of apparent arrow wounds to the neck. Two of the skeletons had arrow tips still embedded in them, one in the skull, one in the chest. The bodies had no collagen, so the team used radiocarbon and other types of dating of the sediments above and below them and some shells near them to determine when they died.

a. cranium as found in situ, with obsidian bladelet found embedded in the left parietal bone. b, Detail of obsidian bladelet, showing impact scar at the tip. c, d, Microliths found within the body.

a. cranium as found in situ, with obsidian bladelet found embedded in the left parietal bone. b, Detail of obsidian bladelet, showing impact scar at the tip. c, d, Microliths found within the body. ( Mirazon Lahr et al .)

There is a divide among behavioralists and scholars who study prehistoric societies about whether humans have always been at war. Some researchers say people have always done violence because, they believe, such behavior is part of human nature. Others say inter-group violence, raiding and warfare came later in prehistory, after people settled down in certain areas and began farming.

One researcher and archaeologist who has done much research of his own and investigated the results of other studies, R. Brian Ferguson, said war has a beginning point, and that point in time varies around the world. He has studied the prehistoric evidence for wounding on skeletons, violence depicted in artworks and weaponry and said in Europe and the Mideast, war began to heat up around the 5th or 6th millennium BC.

Ferguson told Ancient Origins in 2015 that he could not say how much warfare there was in prehistory in sub-Saharan Africa because of scant archaeological evidence there. This mass grave from Nataruk shows there was at least one incident of cold-blooded, mass homicide there, but the authors of the new study say war among hunter-gatherers was “extremely rare.”

Ferguson identifies several preconditions that make war more likely but not inevitable. He names geographic concentration of critical resources, transition from nomadic to stationary life, high population densities, storage of food, domestication of livestock, long-distance trade that may be monopolized, major ecological events that reduce production of food, and political or social hierarchies and ranking. Even so, people in some places and times had all these factors present and apparently did not make war.

The possible storage of food at the Nataruk site in Kenya appears to support Ferguson’s observations, and the authors of the new study wrote: “In this light, the importance of what happened at Nataruk would be in terms of extending the chronology and degree of the same underlying socio-economic conditions [food storage] that characterize early warfare in more recent periods.”

A Nature video explains the site and what researchers found there.

One of the authors of the new study, Robert Foley of the Leverhulme Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge, told The Telegraph : “I’ve no doubt it is in our biology to be aggressive and lethal, just as it is to be deeply caring and loving. A lot of what we understand about human evolutionary biology suggests these are two sides of the same coin.”

Ferguson said last year, however, that people did not always engage in warlike behavior. “Many people, some archaeologists and most evolutionary psychologists, for example, think that war has always been practiced by humans, and may go back without break to our pre-human ancestors.” Ferguson also told Ancient Origins in e-mail last year:

“My argument is that war regularly – not always – leaves archaeological traces, if a people are known by a substantial record of skeletal remains, and/or settlement remains, sometimes supported by weapons or art. Looking at the archaeological record around the world typically shows that those signs eventually show up, but usually after a more or less long stretch when they are not present. When this appears as a recurrent pattern around the world, the straightforward explanation is that war has beginnings.”

Featured image: One of the smashed skulls from Lake Nataruk, Kenya. Source: Mirazon Lahr et al

By Mark Miller

Comments

Although little can be gleaned about motivation for this attack, the brutality suggests hatred. Today killing people like this involves passion. They weren't just killed for limited resources, this may have been an act of revenge.

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