Hunter-gatherers engaged in violence "very similar to war", say Cambridge archaeologists examining brutal prehistoric massacre

By Ben Miller | 21 January 2016

A set of massacred skeletons in a lake in Kenya show that human nature is all about resources, archaeologists say

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
The skeleton of a man found lying prone in the sediments of a lagoon in Nataruk, Kenya. The skull has multiple lesions on the front and on the left side which archaeologists say are consistent with wounds from a blunt implement such as a club© Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr
Around 10,000 years ago, at a spot near Nataruk, a group of Kenyan hunter-gatherers massacred a small band of foragers with such venom that they left blunt-force trauma on the skulls, cheekbones, hands, necks, knees and ribs of their victims.

The chances of discovering these kind of prehistoric battle remains – and, in turn, drawing conclusions about whether populations have always been prone to war – is remote in the absence of cemeteries and settlements in areas like Nataruk.

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
This skeleton had an obsidian bladelet embedded into the left side of his skull. A projectile lesion, possibly of a sharpened arrow shaft, was on the right side© Marta Mirazon Lahr
But these skeletons have been preserved by the shallow waters of the lagoon they fell or were dumped in – at least 27 surfaced, a dozen of which were partially complete in situ, according to Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr, one of the leaders of the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies team which excavated the bodies.

“That first skull that we saw, the back of it was actually lying prone on its belly,” she recalls. “The face was buried in the sediments.

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
Partial excavations of the area with the sieving of sediments in the background© Marta Mirazon Lahr
“When we removed the face we saw that it was all crushed. The lesions are very clear that it was a sharp force, blunt instrument that hit him in the front of the face so hard that part of his skull was pushed inwards and the back part came outwards.

“The mouth moved, but only the top, not the bottom. In doing so, he cracked the neck. That man just fell, he lay. And as he fell in the lake, he remained.

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
This skull has multiple lesions on the front and left side© Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr
“Another one was cemented in lake sentiment – very, very hard to get out. Again he was lying prone with the feet higher than the head.

“When we got to the head and cleaned it, it had the head of an arrow stuck on the head.”

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
© Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr
Turkana is one of the most important sites of human discoveries in the world. The most complete early human skeleton ever found, in 1984, was named Turkana Boy after his home (his alias is Nariokotome Boy.)

The lake site, to the west, is a new addition to the scene, providing a vivid picture of the late Pleistocene and early Holocene periods, when its surface was much larger. Its bones could cast aspersions on humanity’s historical capacity for conflict.

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
© Marta Mirazon Lahr
“There’s a big debate in the literature about how old warfare, or intergroup aggression, is,” says Dr Lahr.

“The reason the issue is disputed is that among hunter-gatherer – or what are called small-scale – societies today, inter-societal warfare is rare. Some scholars argue that it was not part of what people did in antiquity.

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
A perforating lesion, consistent with an arrow wound, was left on this neck vertebrae© Marta Mirazon Lahr
“One would say the only thing you have to do is actually find the remains of warfare, and if there are no remains of warfare it means it wasn’t there. We have an instance, a glimpse of something very rare to preserve.”

Women, water and access to game and fish are the “resources” which might have been fought over, believes Professor Robert Foley, an expert on human evolution who was part of the travelling team.

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
This skeleton was that of a woman, found reclining on her left elbow with fractures on the knees and possibly the left foot© Marta Mirazon Lahr
“Perhaps in Nataruk’s case it might be all of those,” he thinks. “Nataruk is so critical, because it shows that hunter-gatherers did engage in something very similar to war.

“Some may be surprised that it shows a violent past. Others may feel that it confirms their views that human nature can be violent and aggressive. In practice it’s neither.

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr and Justus Edung at the end of the excavation of the woman© Robert Foley
“Just like any other society, there’s always competition for resources. Even though they may not own property there are still things to fight for.”

The first farms, rather than established civilizations and nations, might have sparked a culture of defence and attack.

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
The position of the woman's hands suggests her wrists may have been bound. She was found surrounded by fish© Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr
“Humans have a history that is both full of warfare and co-operation and sacrifice,” says Professor Foley.

“I’ve no doubt it is in our biology to be aggressive and lethal, just as it is to be deeply caring and loving. A lot of what we understand about human evolutionary biology suggests these are two sides of the same coin.”

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of the skeleton of a prehistoric person
© Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr
Three places to discover prehistory in

Mid-Antrim Museum, County Antrim
The permanent History Gallery tells the story of mid-Antrim from earliest times to the present day, wrapped in its national and international context.

Palace Green Library, Durham
The permanent exhibition, Living on the Hills - 10,000 years of Durham, uses objects from the Museum of Archaeology and across Durham University and other regional museums to explore the last 10,000 years of the region.

Plymouth Arts Centre
The First Humans looks at contemporary art with a prehistoric feel, asking if dramatic new archaeological findings can explain it the distant past. Until April 2 2016.
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