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Archaeologists at Naturak, Kenya, excavate the remains of 27 individuals who all died at the same time

The grisly discovery of 27 people who were killed 10,000 years ago provide the earliest known evidence of human warfare yet.

How and when did human warfare emerge? That’s a question philosophers have been debating for centuries, and it’s one that often boils down to speculation about who we think we are (or were): aggressive animals who always had it in them, or a ‘noble savage’ corrupted by civilization, state power and the unquenchable desire for material possessions?

The debate so far

Some anthropologists and philosophers have argued that warfare (preemptive, organized, inter-group violence, as opposed to individual fights or spontaneous skirmishes) didn’t emerge until complex, hierarchical societies came to the fore. Others push it back to the agricultural revolution, saying it happened once people had finally amassed enough material possessions worth fighting over. But others point out that even chimps organize violent attacks on individuals. So what does the archaeological evidence say?

New evidence for the origins of warfare

Sure enough, the oldest case of murder goes back 430,000 years – we are no strangers to violence. But what about collective violence? Until now, the earliest evidence came from Neolithic Europe, at a trio of sites in Germany and Austria dating back 7,000 years. All three sites have been linked to the Linearbandkeramik culture – Europe’s early farmers – and comprised mass graves where it seems the majority of the group (which would then have averaged around 30 or 40 people) had been violently killed – including women and children.

The site of the most recently-discovered one, Schöneck-Kilianstädten, is said to sit close to the border between two groups who are known to have maintained distinct trading networks, making them possible enemies. Even so, the idea that early European farmers were not as peaceful as is widely imagined is still gaining currency.

The bodies in the lake

Although there is plenty of archaeological evidence for warfare among settled societies, and increasingly for early farmers, the same cannot be said for prehistoric hunter-gatherers, which is what makes this next discovery so important.

The latest contribution to the argument about the origins of warfare comes from archaeologists working at Naturak – a site near Lake Turkana in Kenya – who found the bodies of at least 27 individuals, including men, women and children, who all died at the same time around 10,000 years ago.

Among the dead, there was evidence of blunt-force trauma to the head and face, arrows lodged in the neck and chest, numerous broken hands, knees, and ribs and a woman whose hands were crossed in front of her as though they had been tied.

Given that the average size of forager groups would have numbered 25-30, the number of dead also implies that this was more than an internal family feud – killing on such a scale must have involved another group.

The number of dead, the nature of the injuries and the fact that these people were not buried, but died where they lay, all suggest that a violent confrontation took place.

But what triggered the massacre?

The site of the massacre may provide some clues. The bones were found at the edge of what would have then been a sizeable lake, capable of providing plentiful food and potentially making it an ideal place to stay for extended periods of time.

The fact that we may not see much surviving evidence for conflict in early human groups may be down to the fact that they tended to be more nomadic and dispersed, meaning that circumstances which provoked conflict were less likely to occur. In this instance, two groups may have chosen to settle more permanently within the same territory, which may have meant one of the groups chose to settle any disputes more permanently too…

So what does this say about the origins of human warfare?

As with any nonhuman species, humans are perfectly capable of hostility and violence when something we deem ‘ours’ is under threat. Unlike other species, perhaps, we are also capable of co-operating in ever-larger groups for our collective good. Some archaeologists, anthropologists and philosophers thought humans only started going to war once there were enough material possessions to fight over, others only when there were the power structures to demand it. Whatever the roots of organized violence, the new discovery at Naturak suggests they are even older than we thought.

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Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

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