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Brutal prehistoric massacre is earliest evidence of warfare

A male skeleton at Nataruk. Credit: Marta Mirazon Lahr / Nature

Evidence of a brutal prehistoric massacre is raising new questions about the origins of warfare.

The fossilized bones of a group of massacred prehistoric hunter-gatherers from the end of the last ice age shows that warfare may stretch back further than previously thought, according to a study by researchers at Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Center for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES) and published in the journal Nature.

The 10,000-year-old fossils were unearthed 30 kilometers west of Lake Turkana, Kenya, at a site called Nataruk. All the remains show evidence of a brutal fight. Skulls were bashed in, necks were broken, and many of the victims were shot with arrows. All the combatants in this ancient battle are thought to have been nomads.

The discovery is surprising because many researchers previously believed that hunter-gatherer societies predated organized warfare. They argued that such conflicts first arose only after humans began storing food and tilling the soil. This site tells a different story.

“The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war,” says lead author and director of the IN-AFRICA Project, Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr, in a statement.

The massacre site contains the bones of at least 27 individuals, several of whom were children no older than six years of age. While signs of violent death have been seen at other sites, they usually are dismissed as hunting accidents or squabbles between two members of the same community, USA Today reports. This site is different because it clearly depicts group-on-group violence.

A male skeleton, found lying prone in the lagoon’s sediments. The skull has multiple lesions on the front and on the left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement, such as a club. Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr.

A male skeleton, found lying prone in the lagoon’s sediments. The skull has multiple lesions on the front and on the left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement, such as a club. Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr.

Researchers generally believe the Nataruk people were wanderers who lived off the fish and animals in and around Lake Turkana. But the surprising discovery of pottery near the site has everyone scratching their heads.

The presence of pottery, which is hard to carry around, suggests the Nataruk may have lived a more stable lifestyle than previously thought.

Nomads or villagers–either way, the discovery raises interesting questions about the origins of war. This new finding suggests that it may date quite a bit further back in human history than previously thought.

Given that chimpanzees have been observed engaging in group-on-group violence, the origin of organized human conflict may reach all the way back to the birth of the species.

Joseph Scalise

Joseph Scalise

Staff Writer
Joseph Scalise is an experienced writer who has worked for many different online websites across many different mediums. While his background is mainly rooted in sports writing, he has also written and edited guides, ebooks, short stories and screenplays. In addition, he performs and writes poetry, and has won numerous contests. Joseph is a dedicated writer, sports lover and avid reader who covers all different topics, ranging from space exploration to his personal favorite science, microbiology.
About Joseph Scalise (1733 Articles)
Joseph Scalise is an experienced writer who has worked for many different online websites across many different mediums. While his background is mainly rooted in sports writing, he has also written and edited guides, ebooks, short stories and screenplays. In addition, he performs and writes poetry, and has won numerous contests. Joseph is a dedicated writer, sports lover and avid reader who covers all different topics, ranging from space exploration to his personal favorite science, microbiology.