Inter-group violence may be as old as 10,000 years

Now, scientists have found what may possibly be the earliest possible case of inter-group violence or warfare among hunter-gatherers. Ten of the 12 articulated skeletons found on the shores of Lake Turkana, Kenya show evidence of having died violently some 10,000 years ago.

These skeletons are found at the edge of a lagoon and show no signs of deliberate burial. The skeletons were found poking out of the ground and were in the positions they died in like in the case of two skeletons lying with their face down. Totally, 27 individuals were recorded, of which 21 are adults (eight males and eight females and four unknown). Six children were found in close proximity to the remains of the women.

“They offer a rare glimpse into the life and death of past foraging people, and evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among prehistoric hunter-gatherers,” notes a paper published today (January 21) in the journal Nature. Till date evidence of inter-group violence has been extremely rare in prehistoric hunter-gatherers.

According to Marta Mirazon Lahr, the first author from the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, 10 skeletons show evidence of major traumatic lesions. Of the 10, four show injuries consistent with projectiles, presumably caused by arrows (by a rock called obsidian) and another four skeletons have blunt-force blows to the head.  Some individuals show fractures to the knee, hands and wrists which are consistent with patterns of conflict. One man suffered injuries to such an extent that both sides and front of head were crushed inwards. These injuries caused fractures that radiated in several directions.

Though two skeletons show no signs of traumatic injuries around the time of death, the authors presume that these individuals may have been bound when they died. According to her, a young lady who was pregnant was in a sitting posture and had her hands crossed between her legs suggesting that she might have been bound at the time of death.

Though such lethal blows have been found in skeletons before, even in the case of Neanderthals, it is not clear if these were caused by one-to-one conflict or due to group violence. The presence of a group of skeletons with traumatic injuries found on the shores of Lake Turkana therefore makes it unique and suggests a possible case of inter-group violence.

That the deaths were due to inter-group violence is strengthened as no burial pit was identified, and “no standardized orientation or position of head, face, or body was observed,” they write.

“West Turkana 10,000 years ago was a fertile lakeshore landscape sustaining a substantial population of hunter-gatherers; the presence of pottery may be indicative of some storage and so reduced mobility. Thus, the massacre at Nataruk could be seen as resulting from a raid for resources,” they write.

Alternatively, it could be a simple case of standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups without involving conflict between two groups from different locations.

Published in The Hindu on January 21, 2016