Prehistoric Massacre Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers

A major archaeological find with implications for evolutionary theories of warfare (“Prehistoric Massacre Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers“):

The scene was a lagoon on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. The time about 10,000 years ago. One group of hunter-gatherers attacked and slaughtered another, leaving the dead with crushed skulls, embedded arrow or spear points, and other devastating wounds…

Violence has always been part of human behavior, but the origins of war are hotly debated. Some experts see it as deeply rooted in evolution, pointing to violent confrontations among groups of chimpanzees as clues to an ancestral predilection. Others emphasize the influence of complex and hierarchical human societies, and agricultural surpluses to be raided.

No one is suggesting that one discovery, at a place called Nataruk, will settle this argument, but it may be the first instance of a massacre in a foraging society. A discovery in Sudan from an earlier date found burials of victims of intergroup violence, but that society may have been more settled.

Marta Mirazon Lahr and Robert A. Foley, of Cambridge University and the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and a team of other scientists, concluded in Nature that the find represented warfare among prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

Luke A. Glowacki, a postdoctoral researcher in human evolutionary biology at Harvard University not involved with the discovery, agreed. “There’s no other find like it,” he said.

With Richard Wrangham, a professor of biological anthropology at Harvard, Dr. Glowacki has traced the evolutionary roots of human warfare in chimpanzee behavior. And, he said, this find “shows warfare occurred before the invention of agriculture.”

Of the weapons used:

The injuries, [Dr. Marta Mirazon Lahr] said, showed that two different size clubs were used, as well as arrows. Deep cuts to foreheads, jaws and hands, she said, meant that a third type of weapon, with embedded stone blades, must have been used.

The stone remnants were obsidian, which is rare in that area, and, she said, they “suggest the attackers were coming from somewhere else.”

The authors of the Nature report say the attack could have been a raid for resources, or it could be an example of organized violence that was common among ancient hunter-gatherers, but rarely preserved.

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