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


Ilovebeinghuman - thank you so much for that comment. I learnt a lot about genotypes and phenotypes that I've always tried to understand but could never get the hang of them. I do absolutely agree that what are pronounced differences in behaviour and might seem alien (anthropologists know how weird it is to go out into the field for the first time and watch new behaviour) can easily be seen as wonderful differences. It's really not hard to accept that we each are different so whenever there is a clash over culture or beliefs or anything, I struggle to see why it's actually the opposite position that is often taken - i.e. differences are met with resistance, with blind assumptions, generalisations, and falsities. 

Tee Hee...cockles (sorry, my inner nerd is showing lol.) Anyway, I appreciate the conversation as well.
I agree with you that archaeology is not considered to be a "hard science". However, advances in genetic science has helped to quantify ideas that have been speculatory until recently. For a non-inflammatory alternative to the word "race", may I suggest the proper anthropological term: "phenotype".

"A phenotype (from Greek phainein, meaning "to show", and typos, meaning "type") is the composite of an organism's observable characteristics or traits, such as its morphology, development, biochemical or physiological properties, phenology, behavior, and products of behavior (such as a bird's nest). A phenotype results from the expression of an organism's genes as well as the influence of environmental factors and the interactions between the two. When two or more clearly different phenotypes exist in the same population of a species, the species is called polymorph.

The genotype of an organism is the inherited instructions it carries within its genetic code. Not all organisms with the same genotype look or act the same way because appearance and behavior are modified by environmental and developmental conditions. Likewise, not all organisms that look alike necessarily have the same genotype."(Wikipedia)

Let me just remind people that it is the diversity of our genotypes that make our particular phenotype so beautiful. I think that when we forget that then we do things as a species that are far from beautiful (i.e. genocide, "race wars" etc). In my opinion; our ethnic and cultural differences should be celebrated, not homogenized.

Yes, you're right. Perhaps the problem with the whole article then is with the use of the word 'race.' Maybe they should consider a politically correct, low fat version instead like... What, exactly? I'm not a person trying to attribute my values to the past but if the evidence is that there are biological types of human beings who have been in a conflict due to scars, arrowheads etc, one of the interpretations could be that the two different 'types' (what do you want to call them? Alright actually people would be best...) OK. Two physically different peoples were in conflict with each other. It's not what happened because we weren't there and there are no documents supporting that this is fact but it is a possibility, even if only a small one. I don't see why an assumption in such an assumptive science like archaeology is so bad. I thought science progressed because old assumptions were challenged and identified as wrong. The 'race war' interpretation is an assumption that perhaps needs proving wrong but until that time comes, the idea still stands - as do other thoughts like maybe they fought their own peoples and were actually entirely separate from each other. But the only reason I think so much credence is given to the race war line of thinking is that, as ilovebeinghuman said, conflict arises when there are scarces resources, land can only contain a certain amount of people, or simply a fight can start when one person steals a little trinket and gets spotted and suddenly everyone has to choose sides. Again, I know: I'm aware of imposing myself onto the past here and I try to avoid it where I can as much as possible. Good talk here, people, I like this. Stimulates the cockles and warms the loins. 

Because white Nordic-Type people and Black-Type sub-Saharan people are "one race", find me one scientist that would agree with that statement.

"...according to a report in The Independent." So... Who are the 'some of you' who do a grave disservice to legitimate science then? Is it the ancient origins community or the writer from The Independent? Is it April?The researchers themselves? Read the article here and then the one on The Independent. The arguments for a race war are fairly sound. There's no bigotry or biased garbage. Yes there are perhaps assumptions but archaeology is not always as definite as we would like. We have to infer from evidence but at the risk of being completely wrong which is why it's good that lots of archaeologists are entirely open to other interpretations.

It's quite an interesting article really so I don't know what you were reading that made you lash out like that. Two different races who actually LOOK different to each other may have found friction with each other - funnily enough, just like a 'celtic' person with red hair and green eyes looks different from a Greek-Cypriot with olive skin, brown eyes, and dark hair. No, we don't have race wars between these two people nowadays thankfully but we still have race wars over the world so it is not inconceivable to suggest that two groups of found skeletons who have different physiological traits, who were engaged in long-term warfare of somekind, and were buried fairly near each other, were at one time in distant past fighting because of their differences. Just like we're fighting over difference in opinion :)

Also. Go on and explain what you mean by legitimate science for me because I bet you have a really cute definition just for times like this when someone actually confronts you.


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