A team of researchers from the University of Cambridge has unearthed fossilized remains of 27 prehistoric hunters that were killed in an apparent massacre that took place approximately 10,000 years ago. The remains, which were discovered about 30 kilometers west of Lake Turkana at a site called Nataruk, included at least eight women and six children. Out of the 12 skeletons that were in fairly good shape, 10 showed signs of a violent death including blunt-force trauma, arrow lesions to the neck and broken bones.
The findings shed light on past human conflict between hunter-gatherers and suggest that the group was attacked and killed by a rival group, marking the earliest scientifically-dated remains of human conflict that preceded what we now call warfare.
There is still much debate as to whether organized violence and warfare is rooted in the evolutionary past of our species or if the ownership process that came with settling land and agriculture stimulated it.
"The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war," Marta Lahr, who led the research, said in a press release. "These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers."
The site was originally discovered in 2012 and after excavating the fossils, scientists used radiocarbon and various other techniques to date them back to 9,500 to 10,500 years ago, right around the start of the Holocene epoch that followed the last Ice Age. The team believes that the lagoon-side location of the remains would have made it an ideal place for foragers to live due to its proximity to drinking water and fishing areas.
"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 said. "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. However, Nataruk may simply be evidence of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups at that time."
The findings were published in the Jan. 20 issue of Nature.