Ten thousand years ago, by the shores of Lake Turkana within the Kenyan Rift Valley, there was a flash of violence. The remains of up to 27 people have been found there, 10 of which suffered from some incredibly traumatic injuries. Skulls had been crushed, stabbed and even shot with arrows; hands were broken, and ribs were fractured. One woman, who was possibly tied up, was pregnant. With no evidence of any deliberate burial, the study, published in Nature, suggests only one explanation for the deaths at Nataruk: ancient human warfare.
Although individual, fatal injuries to humans dating from this time have previously been excavated, the fact that these were all found as a group indicated that something more malevolent than a single murder took place.
This male was killed when a blunt object struck the left temporal bone on his head. Lahr et al./Nature
Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr, a reader in Human Evolutionary Biology at the University of Cambridge, led the study. She told IFLScience that these injuries are very similar to those found within battlefield situations in more recent human history, and that this site represents a clear example of human warfare.
The victims were hunter-gatherers, meaning that they moved between areas. However, if one particular area was resource-rich, the tribe would have likely remained there. Nataruk had a vast range of animals present, and in large numbers. Harpoons were found in the area, suggesting the victims were engaging in intensive fishing and hunting.
At the site of the massacre, clubs and multiple weapon types were found, which the hunter-gatherers wouldn't have used on a simple resource hunt. Clubs were not used in hunting prey, and the obsidian arrowheads – an exotic, volcanic glass that is rare at Nataruk – means that the attackers probably traveled a long way to get here.
“We think it was a planned attack,” Lahr concluded. “The attackers must have brought these weapons with them to ambush this tribe. We then, of course, have to infer that there was something they wanted. Perhaps the animal resources were the target.”
Another sinister possibility is that they were after young people. Within the demographic profile of the dead, apart from one 12-year-old girl, none of the individuals were between the ages of six and 20. “Perhaps they came for captives, they came for children,” Lahr suggested. When fertility rates are low, or when the population size is low, children from other tribes were valuable targets for theft.
This female was found with rib fractures and knee trauma; based on lesions found on her hands, she was possibly tied up. Lahr et al./Nature
Situations of conflict rise in relation to the need to possess something. Several anthropologists have argued quite ferociously that in the past, or today, there was simply no need for conflict in these societies, as hunter-gatherers never had any “permanent” possessions.
Nataruk shows that this is not the case. This find also implies that warfare appeared in ancient human history when the opportunity to strike and steal arose. Lahr pointed out that modern humans essentially fight for the same reason: “The main difference nowadays is that there is also ideological warfare, where something far more abstract is stolen: the minds of others.”