Scholars have long debated the origins of human warfare. Some researchers, citing inter-group violence among chimpanzees as an example, argue that warfare is deeply rooted in the evolutionary history of our species, while others believe it is a byproduct of the conflict over ownership of land and food supplies that first occurred when humans began to live in agricultural settlements. Newly discovered evidence of an ancient massacre of African hunter-gatherers, which suggests the history of warfare could be older than previously thought, may only add to the debate.

In prehistoric times, the shoreline of Kenya’s Lake Turkana was a lush place with plentiful drinking water, ample fishing and a menagerie of giraffes, zebras and elephants. The marshlands bordered by forest made for an ideal camping ground for prehistoric hunter-gatherers—perhaps too ideal.

Detail of hands of in situ skeleton. Position suggests they had been bound. (Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)
Detail of hands of in situ skeleton. Position suggests they had been bound. (Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)

Around 10,000 years ago, a group of foragers encamped by one of the Lake Turkana’s lagoons were savagely attacked by another band of nomads. Likely using wooden clubs and spears, the raiding party slaughtered the rival group of ancient hunter-gatherers. The brutality spared no one. Women were bound by their hands and feet before their deaths. At least one pregnant woman and even young children were among the victims.

Over the ensuing millennia, Lake Turkana’s shoreline retreated by nearly 20 miles to the northeast, leaving behind barren desert that today is fertile only with fossilized bones. While exploring this dusty Nataruk region of Kenya in 2012, a team of researchers from Britain’s Cambridge University led by Dr. Marta Mirazón Lahr discovered the aftermath of the prehistoric massacre.

As detailed in a new study published this week in the journal Nature, the research team found the skeletal remains of 27 individuals, including eight women and six children—all but one of them under the age of 6.

Skeleton of man lying prone in lagoon sediments with multiple lesions to skull. (Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)
Skeleton of man lying prone in lagoon sediments with multiple lesions to skull. (Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)

Of the 12 skeletons found in a relatively complete state, 10 demonstrated signs of violent deaths. The remains showed evidence of extreme blunt-force trauma to the crania and cheekbones as well as broken hands, knees and ribs. Lodged in the skull and thorax of two men were the likely remains of arrow or spear tips made of obsidian, a black volcanic rock rare to Nataruk, which suggests the attackers probably came from a different region.

The remains of a 6-to-9 month-old fetus were recovered from within the abdominal cavity of one of the women, who was discovered in an unusual sitting position that suggested her hands and feet may have been bound. Three other skeletons were discovered in a position indicating their hands had probably been tied up as well.

Skull with multiple lesions on front and left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement. (Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)
Skull with multiple lesions on front and left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement. (Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)

The lack of a burial pit, standard orientation of the bodies or signs of injuries having healed indicated that the victims were found where they died—their bodies preserved by the sediment of the lagoon, long since dried. Using radiocarbon and other dating techniques, the research team was able to estimate that the massacre occurred between 9,500 and 10,500 years ago. Since the archaeologists only excavated bones that were partially exposed, remains of even more massacre victims may be beneath the scrubland.

Lahr says the discovery is evidence for the presence of small-scale warfare among foraging societies. Since the Nataruk massacre offers the earliest record of armed conflict between two groups of hunter-gatherers, it suggests that warfare may have a much older history than some researchers believe. While a group of 23 bodies found by archaeologists in the Jebel Sahaba graveyard in northern Sudan exhibit evidence of even earlier violent deaths—an estimated 12,000 to 14,000 years ago—the fact they were buried indicates a level of settlement not typical of hunter-gatherers.

Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr and Justus Edung during excavation. (Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)
Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr and Justus Edung during excavation. (Credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr)

Although we will never know definitively why the victims of the Nataruk massacre were slaughtered, the study raises two theories. One is that it simply could have been a “standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups.” However, the fact that the attack was carried out with weapons not normally in the possession of nomads who were planning to hunt or fish indicates it was a calculated ambush.

Shards of pottery possibly used by the hunter-gatherers for food storage that were found near the skeletal remains, however, could indicate an alternative cause. “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,” Lahr says. “This would extend the history of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterize other instances of early warfare: a more settled, materially richer way of life.”

“Some may be surprised by Nataruk that it shows a violent past in hunter-gatherers; others may feel that it confirms their views that human nature can be violent and aggressive,” says Cambridge Professor Robert Foley, a co-author of the study, in a video released by the university. “In practice, of course, it’s neither. Humans have a history that is both full of warfare but also full of cooperation and sacrifice.”