Prehistoric ‘War Grave’ Reveals Bodies from First Ever Human Massacre

Sarah Knapton, Telegraph, January 20, 2016

A chilling prehistoric ‘war grave’ containing the smashed remains of hunter-gatherers is the first evidence of a human massacre and demonstrates the terrifying aggression of early man.

The fossilised bones of a group of 27 hunter-gatherers, who were murdered 10,000 years ago, was discovered at Nataruk near Lake Turkana in Kenya.

Four victims, including one heavily pregnant woman were bound by the hands and feet before they was slaughtered. The others showed signs of extreme violence and some had blades and arrows still buried in their skulls.

The origins of human aggression are controversial, with many archaeologists believing that hunter-gatherers were largely peaceful, and did not resort to warfare until after the agricultural revolution, when groups grew jealous of the land and possessions of their rivals. Before the find, the earliest war grave was in Darmstadt, Germany, and dated to around 5000BC.

But the new site suggests that early man was also capable of acts of extreme violence. Researchers believe the Nataruk massacre is the earliest scientifically-dated historical evidence of human conflict.

Study author Professor Robert Foley, also from Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies said the findings show that violence is as much part of the human character as the altruism which allowed us to be the most cooperative species on the planet.

“I’ve no doubt it is in our biology to be aggressive and lethal, just as it is to be deeply caring and loving,” he said.

“A lot of what we understand about human evolutionary biology suggests these are two sides of the same coin.”

The 27 skeletons included at least eight women and six children. Twelve of the skeletons were relatively complete, and showed clear signs of a violent death, including smashed skulls and cheekbones, broken hands, ribs and knees and evidence of arrow wounds to their necks. Arrow tips were lodged in the skull and chest of two men.

Several of the skeletons were found face down with the faces smashed, possibly by wooden clubs, and none had been buried.

“The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war,” said lead author Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr.

“These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers.”

Archaeologists believe the victims represent an extended family who were attacked and killed by a rival group of prehistoric foragers.

The massacre is likely to have occurred between 9,500 to 10,500 years ago, around the start of the Holocene: the geological epoch that followed the last Ice Age.

At that time the area around Nataruk was a fertile lakeshore bordered by marshland and forest giving covetable access to drinking water and fish.

“The Nataruk massacre may have resulted from an attempt to seize resources–territory, women, children, food stored in pots–whose value was similar to those of later food-producing agricultural societies, among whom violent attacks on settlements became part of life,” added Mirazón Lahr.

“This would extend the history of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterise other instances of early warfare: a more settled, materially richer way of life. “

Antagonism between hunter-gatherer groups in recent history often resulted in men being killed, with women and children subsumed into the victorious group. At Nataruk, however, it seems few, if any, were spared.

The remains of a six-to-nine month-old foetus were recovered from within the abdominal cavity of one of the women.

One adult male skeleton had an obsidian ‘bladelet’ still embedded in his skull. It didn’t perforate the bone, but another lesion suggests a second weapon did, crushing the entire right-front part of the head and face.

“The man appears to have been hit in the head by at least two projectiles and in the knees by a blunt instrument, falling face down into the lagoon’s shallow water,” said Mirazón Lahr.

Another adult male took two blows to the head–one above the right eye, the other on the left side of the skull–both crushing his skull at the point of impact, causing it to crack in different directions.

The research was published in Nature.

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