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Prehistoric Massacre at Lake Turkana
An online article by James Gorman on the NYTimes - Prehistoric Massacre Hints at War Among Hunter-Gatherers - reports on the excavations on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. At a date of roughly 10,000 years ago, a group of hunter-gatherers attacked and slaughtered another, leaving the dead with crushed skulls, embedded arrow or spear points, and other devastating wounds.
The skeleton of a man found on the ancient shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya. Image: Marta Mirazon Lahr
In the journal Nature, scientists have described the victims scattered randomly, and eventually covered and preserved by sediment from the lake. Of 12 relatively complete skeletons, 10 showed unmistakable signs of violent death. Partial remains of at least 15 other people were found at the site and are thought to have died in the same attack.
The bones reveal 'ferocity': one man was hit twice in the head by arrows or small spears and in the knee by a club. A woman, pregnant with a 6- to 9-month-old fetus, was killed by a blow to the head, the fetal skeleton preserved in her abdomen. The position of her hands and feet suggest that she may have been tied up before she was killed.
Violence has always been part of human behaviour, but the origins of war are hotly debated. Some experts see it as deeply rooted in evolution, pointing to violent confrontations among groups of chimpanzees as clues to an ancestral predilection. Others emphasize the influence of complex and hierarchical human societies, and agricultural surpluses to be raided.
Marta Mirazon Lahr and Robert A. Foley, of Cambridge University and the Turkana Basin Institute in Nairobi, Kenya, and a team of other scientists, concluded in Nature that the find represented warfare among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. The team believes this may be the first instance of a massacre in a foraging society. A discovery in Sudan from an earlier date found burials of victims of intergroup violence, but that society may have been more settled.
The scientific world generally agrees with this, with some adding that nomadic foragers were unlikely to practice war, which tends to arise in more complex societies, and that these foragers may have already been in transition to a more settled life. Perhaps signs of fortifications, villages built in defensible locations, specialized weapons of war, and artistic or symbol depictions of war would justify the term warfare.
The first person to spot the bones, some of which were lying on the surface, was Pedro Ebeya, one of the fossil hunters who work with the Turkana Basin Institute.
The stone remnants found at the site were obsidian, which is rare in that area, suggesting the attackers were coming from elsewhere. The authors of the Nature report say the attack could have been a raid for resources, or it could be an example of organized violence that was common among ancient hunter-gatherers, but rarely preserved.