The Oldest Remains of Human Warfare

"nataruk remains"

Researchers unearthed the oldest remains of human warfare that were dated as far back as 10,000 years ago in what is today northern Kenya’s Rift Valley. It’s an exciting bit of history that could potentially be a significant hint toward ancient human behavior. Specifically, it tells a story about the tendency for violence and war.

A team of scientists from Cambridge University searched the arid grounds around Lake Turkana in Kenya. Around 18.6 miles (30km) away from the lake, there’s a region called Nataruk, where they dug up several remains of human skeletons back in 2012. Thus, they have become known as the fossils of Nataruk, a testament to human nature and instinct for violence.

Now a scrubland, the area was believed to have once been lush and humid, with fish aplenty, game, and possibly fresh water. The lake extended much further than it does today, leaving fertile lands where the bodies were perfectly preserved after their death. The scientists uncovered 27 skeletons in total, among which there was a pregnant woman and a young child. Radio carbon dating along with other processes revealed the date of the human remains.

A 10,000 year old massacre

The humans were revealed to be around 10,000 years old, a group of hunter-gatherers that weren’t generally believed to be truly violent. In fact, the nomads were thought of as relatively peaceful people and possibly egalitarian as they travelled from land to land. However, the body count along with several traces of severe injuries pointed at a potential conflict that led to an outright massacre.

Out of the remains found, twelve skeletons were complete, and ten of them showed definite signs of a violent death. The skulls were crushed by clubs, and necks pierced by arrows and spears, which ultimately led to their positioning in the once lush area. One in particular even had a piece from an obsidian arrow stuck within its skull. It brought forth the conclusion that their deaths was the result of a conflict, possibly a war with another tribe.

Earliest sign of human warfare

The true fascinating quality of the Nataruk discovery is that experts previously believed warfare started with land ownership. That began with groups of farmers much later, willing to do anything to protect their lands. The instinct to hold tight to their belongings was naturally at work to ensure their survival. Nomadic groups, however, such as hunter-gatherers, rarely had anything of their own. They travelled, living off what resources they could find that belonged to no one during that time.

However, as lead researcher Robert Foley stated, there’s always a reason to fight. The lake was possibly an excellent location to live in, with fresh water and game. That also made it incredibly dangerous as many would fight for the location, and die for it as well. It could have been an attempt to steal their resources, even though they did not truly belong to anyone.

The bodies were littered around the region, left there to rot as opposed to being buried. That suggests conflict with another tribe and became the oldest clue to intergroup warfare between humans. They had little to fight over, yet it happened, quite possibly a lot more often than believed.

Perhaps violence is innate to humans as a species. It’s a natural way of solving conflict and a base instinct that was easily resorted to back then. Those same traits still linger in spite of evolution, but the remains added more evidence to suggest humanity has had a bloody past for much longer than previously believed.

However, as Foley underlined, what we understand from evolutionary biology is that altruism, love, and sacrifice are a part of human nature as well. They are two sides of the same coin.

Image source: theatlantic.com