Prehistoric Massacre Hints at Hunter-Gatherer War

Remains found in Kenya of a slaughter from 10,000 years ago suggests warfare may have existed even before humans began agriculture.

Skeletons unearthed in Kenya may be the oldest known evidence of human warfare, according to a new study.

The skeletons of 27 people who died about 10,000 years ago bear marks of blunt force trauma and projectile wounds, the researchers said in the study. The victims included men, women and children.

"That scale of death - it can't be an individual murder or homicide amongst families," said study co-author Robert Foley, an anthropologist and archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England. "It was a result of some intergroup conflict." [See Images of the Grisly War Victims]

Faces of Our Ancestors

The findings could help answer questions about the roots of war and human aggression, Foley said.

Warlike by nature or nurture?

Are humans noble savages, or is the life of mankind nasty, brutish and short? For millennia, philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes have debated when and how war emerged in the human experience. Some anthropologists have argued that organized warfare didn't emerge until complex societies with political hierarchies rose to power. Others claimed war emerged after the agricultural revolution, when people had finally amassed enough resources, such as livestock, worth fighting over. By that reckoning, true warfare - rather than squabbles between friends or family gone horribly wrong - would have been completely foreign to ancient hunter-gatherer groups.

But others note that humans' closest living relatives, chimpanzees, organize violent attacks on lone chimps that stray into their territory. And modern-day hunter-gatherer communities, such as the Yanomami Amerindians in the remote Amazon jungle, regularly engage in violent and warlike skirmishes against neighboring villages.

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Grisly find Still, all of the evidence for warlike behavior in ancient people was indirect. More specifically, it was based on analogies with nonhumans, or on comparisons of modern hunter-gatherers, whose societies are threatened by habitat loss and colonialism, with ancient ancestors who did not face the same pressures, Foley said.

The new bones, which were uncovered at a site called Naturak, on the southwest edges of Lake Turkana in 2012, provide the first direct evidence of warfare in ancient hunter-gatherers. The discovery came as part of the larger In Africa project, led by Marta Mirazón Lahr, a researcher of human evolutionary biology at the University of Cambridge. The project aims to study the origin of Homo sapiens in East Africa.

Over the millennia, sediments from the lake provided the perfect conditions to preserve the bones, while falling lake levels have revealed the fossils over time, Foley said.

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In this instance, the bones were once buried in a lagoon and were in the process of being revealed, with some partially visible at the surface. When the team dug deeper, they found a total of 27 skeletons, some nearly complete and some with just a few fragments, all dating to between 9,500 and 10,500 years ago, according to the paper, which was published today (Jan. 20) in the journal Nature.

"It's not a cemetery; people haven't been deliberately buried there," Foley told Live Science. "They've fallen and been left where they died."

Many of the bodies harbored blunt force trauma head wounds, as well as what look like arrow wounds to the head and neck. The murder weapons included projectiles, most likely bows and arrows, as well as wooden clubs, the researchers said. Men, women and children were killed; one woman was found with broken knees, lying on her side with her wrists in front, as if they were bound.

Intergroup conflict The number of casualties rules out the notion of an interfamily feud, Foley said. More people from the group may have been killed, and still others may have escaped, which suggests the group was larger than the average hunter-gatherer group. (Most hunter-gatherer groups tend to hover around 25 to 30 people per encampment, Foley said.) And given the simple tools used to deal death, the attacking group was probably larger still, he added.

This idea suggests that the two warring groups were likely more settled than the average hunter-gatherer population, Foley said. That's not surprising, as hunter-gatherers who tend to stay in one place for longer periods often live near lakes, where food is plentiful and unlikely to be depleted by long stays, he added.

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"That fits into the idea of a slightly more densely packed population where intergroup conflict is likely to arise," Foley said. "It's quite difficult to have a war with a highly mobile group that's very dispersed."

Although archaeologists have found ancient murder victims that are hundreds of thousands of years old, there was no way to tell what spurred the violence or whether it was part of a larger armed conflict, Foley said. The new findings suggest that war or warlike conflict is a truly ancient part of the human experience, he said.

"Violence is a pretty ubiquitous part of the human behavioral repertoire," Foley said. "Having said that, so too is altruism, cooperation, caring."

Original article on Live Science.

8 Grisly Archaeological Discoveries Fight, Fight, Fight: The History of Human Aggression Understanding the 10 Most Destructive Human Behaviors Copyright 2016 LiveScience, a Purch company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Researchers in Kenya recently unearthed evidence of what may have been a violent skirmish or battle.

Back in the Beginning

To put a human face on our ancestors, scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute used sophisticated methods to form 27 model heads based on tiny bone fragments, teeth and skulls collected from across the globe. The heads are on display for the first time together at the Senckenberg Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. This model is Sahelanthropus tchadensis, also nicknamed "Toumai," who lived 6.8 million years ago. Parts of its jaw bone and teeth were found nine years ago in the Djurab desert in Chad. It's one of the oldest hominid specimens ever found.

Australopithecus afarensis

With each new discovery, paleoanthropologists have to rewrite the origins of man's ancestors, adding on new branches and tracking when species split. This model was fashioned from pieces of a skull and jaw found among the remains of 17 pre-humans (nine adults, three adolescents and five children) which were discovered in the Afar Region of Ethiopia in 1975. The ape-man species, Australopithecus afarensis, is believed to have lived 3.2 million years ago. Several more bones from this species have been found in Ethiopia, including the famed "Lucy," a nearly complete A. afarensis skeleton found in Hadar.

Australopithecus africanus

Meet "Mrs. Ples," the popular nickname for the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus, unearthed in Sterkfontein, South Africa in 1947. It is believed she lived 2.5 million years ago (although the sex of the fossil is not entirely certain). Crystals found on her skull suggest that she died after falling into a chalk pit, which was later filled with sediment. A. africanus has long puzzled scientists because of its massive jaws and teeth, but they now believe the species' skull design was optimal for cracking nuts and seeds.

Paranthropus aethiopicus

The skull of this male adult was found on the western shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya in 1985. The shape of the mouth indicates that he had a strong bite and could chew plants. He is believed to have lived in 2.5 million years ago and is classified as Paranthropus aethiopicus. Much is still unknown about this species because so few reamins of P. aethiopicus have been found.

Paranthropus boisei

Researchers shaped this skull of "Zinj," found in 1959. The adult male lived 1.8 million years ago in the Olduvai Gorge of Tanzania. His scientific name is Paranthropus boisei, though he was originally called Zinjanthropus boisei -- hence the nickname. First discovered by anthropologist Mary Leakey, the well-preserved cranium has a small brain cavity. He would have eaten seeds, plants and roots which he probably dug with sticks or bones.

Homo rudolfensis

This model of a sub-human species -- Homo rudolfensis -- was made from bone fragments found in Koobi Fora, Kenya, in 1972. The adult male is believed to have lived about 1.8 million years ago. He used stone tools and ate meat and plants. H. Rudolfensis' distinctive features include a flatter, broader face and broader postcanine teeth, with more complex crowns and roots. He is also recognized as having a larger cranium than his contemporaries.

Homo ergaster

The almost perfectly preserved skeleton of the "Turkana Boy" is one of the most spectacular discoveries in paleoanthropology. Judging from his anatomy, scientists believe this Homo ergaster was a tall youth about 13 to 15 years old. According to research, the boy died beside a shallow river delta, where he was covered by alluvial sediments. Comparing the shape of the skull and teeth, H. ergaster had a similiar head structure to the Asian Homo erectus.

Homo heidelbergensis

This adult male, Homo heidelbergensis, was discovered in in Sima de los Huesos, Spain in 1993. Judging by the skull and cranium, scientists believe he probably died from a massive infection that caused a facial deformation. The model, shown here, does not include the deformity. This species is believed to be an ancestor of Neanderthals, as seen in the shape of his face. "Miquelon," the nickname of "Atapuerca 5", lived about 500,000 to 350,000 years ago and fossils of this species have been found in Italy, France and Greece.

Homo neanderthalensis

The "Old Man of La Chapelle" was recreated from the skull and jaw of a Homo neanderthalensis male found near La Chapelle-aux-Saints, in France in 1908. He lived 56,000 years ago. His relatively old age, thought to be between 40 to 50 years old, indicates he was well looked after by a clan. The old man's skeleton indicates he suffered from a number of afflictions, including arthritis, and had numerous broken bones. Scientists at first did not realize the age and afflicted state of this specimen when he was first discovered. This led them to incorrectly theorize that male Neanderthals were hunched over when they walked.

Homo floresiensis

The skull and jaw of this female "hobbit" was found in Liang Bua, Flores, Indonesia, in 2003. She was about 1 meter tall (about 3'3") and lived about 18,000 years ago. The discovery of her species, Homo floresiensis, brought into question the belief that Homo sapiens was the only form of mankind for the past 30,000 years. Scientists are still debating whether Homo floresiensis was its own species, or merely a group of diseased modern humans. Evidence is mounting that these small beings were, in fact, a distinct human species.

Homo sapiens

Bones can only tell us so much. Experts often assume or make educated guesses to fill in the gaps in mankind's family tree, and to develop a sense what our ancestors may have looked like. Judging from skull and mandible fragments found in a cave in Israel in 1969, this young female Homo sapien lived between 100,000 and 90,000 years ago. Her bones indicate she was about 20 years old. Her shattered skull was found among the remains of 20 others in a shallow grave.