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13,000-year-old Saharan remains

13,000-year-old Saharan Remains Tell Of First Known Homo Sapiens War In Africa


In 2014, a fresh analysis on a set of human remains dating back 13,000 years, which were found on the east bank of the Nile in northern Sudan, suggested the individuals were victims of an intergroup war, according to a report in The Independent. The finding provided evidence for what was the oldest known, relatively large-scale human armed conflict.

The ancient remains were originally unearthed in 1964 by the prominent American archaeologist Fred Wendorf from a prehistoric cemetery located in what is now Jebel Sahaba, Sudan. The UNESCO-funded excavations took place to investigate archaeological sites that were about to be inundated by the Aswan High Dam. The discovery of the cemetery was of immense significance as it was the oldest burial ground ever found in the Nile Valley.

However, when a similar scene of massacre was found at Nataruk near Lake Turkana, Kenya, (also the area where the oldest tools in the world were found) where 27 skeletons were found with ‘blades embedded in bones, fractured skulls and other injuries’ according to a Conversation article, this claim was challenged, on the grounds of uncertain dating. It is also claimed that, as the remains at Jebel Sahaba were found in a cemetery, this would indicate some kind of settled society, at least giving the Nataruk site the legitimate claim to being the earliest known warring hunter-gatherers. The archaeological conclusions were inconclusive, but if the age of 13,000 years is accepted, Jebel Sahaba cemetery is the oldest evidence of warring Homo sapiens.

The Jebel Sahaba Find

The 61 men, women, and children were recovered from Jebel Sahabaand sent to the British Museum for safekeeping. A team of French scientists from Bordeaux University worked in collaboration with the British Museum to examine dozens of the skeletons. Their analysis revealed numerous arrow impact marks and flint arrow head fragments on the bones of the victims, suggesting that the majority of the victims were killed by enemy archers. According to The British Museum, 45% of the people in the cemetery died through violence. Furthermore, the research demonstrated that the attacks took place over many months or years – hence indicating a war.

Skeletal remains of two adult men were buried together in a shallow grave and the remains of the actual weapons that killed them are displayed in their original location. Over 20 weapon fragments and cut marks were found, with two flakes still lodged in the pelvis of bone of the burials.

Two Jebel Sahaba victims found on the east bank of the Nile in northern Sudan. Pencils point to weapon fragments.  Wendorf Archive, British Museum, (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Parallel research conducted by John Moore’s University, the University of Alaska and New Orleans’ Tulane University, suggested that the victims were part of the general sub-Saharan populations, the ancestors of modern black Africans, while remains of another group exhibiting a differnt phenotype, the North African/Levantine/European population group, have been found close to Jebel Sahaba.

The different groups could be distinguished by their unique characteristics. For example, the sub-Saharan originating group had long limbs, relatively short torsos and projecting upper and lower jaws along with rounded foreheads and broad noses, while the North African/Levantine/European originating group had shorter limbs, longer torsos and flatter faces.

During the period in which the sub-Saharans violently perished, northern Sudan was a major ethnic interface between the two groups. At the same time, there was a huge competition for resources due to a severe climatic downturn in which many water sources dried up, and people of all ethnic groups were forced to migrate to the banks of the Nile. Researchers suggest that the different groups would have inevitably clashed under these circumstances, resulting in the violent ending of a group of sub-Saharans more than 13,000 years ago.

Top image: Saharan remains indicate early race war 13,000 years ago. Source: Wendorf Archive, The British Museum

By Joanna Gillan



Gary Moran's picture

Ok, Not a race war, but an “armed conflict” – sound familiar, anyone? Could just as easily been a religous war – some group killing crocodiles that some other group worshipped. Human nature hasn’t changed much, eh? 

The science is interesting, not too many years ago the broken weapons might not have been noticed, and the skeletons sold to some side-show or lost in the bowels of some museum. Now, thanks to this, we know that we’ve been killing each other for a really long time, but is that really news? It’s no surprise to me. Enjoyed the article, though, and the comments.

Excellent article and comments. Hoppe to hear morre on this subject

The term race war means a war based primarily on bigotry. A group slaughtering another group because they want their land doesn't become a race war just because the groups are of differing ethnicities.

The term race war means a war based primarily on bigotry. A group slaughtering another group because they want their land doesn't become a race war just because the groups are of differing ethnicities.

but in this instance somebody did not want to share resources and it just happened to be a confrontation of two separate races is the most likely scene.



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