Researchers have dug up the fossilized skeletons of a group of prehistoric hunter-gatherers, killed in a massacre some 10,000 years ago, in what is now northwest Kenya.
Scholars from Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies discovered the partial remains of 27 people, including at least eight women and six children, which bear compelling evidence of an extremely violent execution.
The bones were found a place called Nataruk, some 20 miles west of Lake Turkana, Kenya, at a site first discovered in 2012.
Of the remains, twelve skeletons are nearly complete, and ten of these exhibit clear indications of lethal trauma. Four of the victims, including one heavily pregnant woman, were bound by the hands and feet before being slaughtered. Five skeletons show evidence of extreme blunt-force to the head, such as might be caused by a wooden club or a rock.
Several of the skeletons had smashed cheekbones, broken hands, knees, and ribs, arrow lesions to the neck, and in the case of two men, stone arrowheads lodged in the skull and thorax.
The people were not buried, and several of the skeletons were discovered face down. The majority had severe cranial fractures, and at least five of the skeletons showed “sharp-force trauma.”
Among the victims, 21 were adults and six were children. Of the adults, eight were males, and eight females, with the other five of unknown gender.
The remains of a six-to-nine month-old fetus were discovered within the abdominal cavity of one of the women, who was found in an unusual sitting position, which may suggest that her hands and feet had been bound.
The researchers dated the skeletons using radiocarbon and other techniques, arriving at the conclusion that the event occurred between 9,500 to 10,500 years ago, near the beginning of the Holocene period that scientists believe followed the last ice age.
The scholars believe that the victims of the assault were hunter-gatherers, who perhaps were attacked and killed by a rival group. The discovery is being touted as the earliest scientifically dated historical evidence of violent human conflict. Before the find, the oldest such “war grave” had been discovered in Darmstadt, Germany, in 2006 and dated back to around 4000BC.
Scientists and sociologists were quick to offer hypotheses as to what the discovery could tell us about early human behavior and human nature itself.
“The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war,” said Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr, a Cambridge scholar who led the Nataruk study.
“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,” she said.
Mirazon Lahr went further still in an attempt to piece together a 10,000-year-old crime scene.
“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,” she said.
The co-author of the study, Prof. Robert Foley, offered a more generalized interpretation of the incident. “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.”
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.