This skeleton of a man with “multiple lesions on the front and left side of the skull, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement, such as a club”. Photo: Marta Mirazon Lahr The skeletons were discovered near Lake Turkana in Kenya. Photo: Marta Mirazon Lahr
The skeletal remains of a group of hunter-gatherers killed in a brutal slaughter 10,000 years ago has been uncovered, with scientists believing it is the oldest known example of human warfare.
The remains of 27 people, including six children and eight women, were found on the border of an ancient lagoon at Nataruk, near Lake Turkana in Kenya, in 2012.
Ten of the 12 complete skeletons excavated appeared to have been of people killed violently with crushing blows to the skull and fatal arrow wounds.
Several others appear to have died with their hands and feet bound, the scientists said.
The fossilised remains of a six- to nine-month-old fetus were discovered in the stomach cavity of one of the female skeletons.
None of the bodies had been buried; they were found scattered around the lagoon, often face down in the mud.
The international research offered “a rare glimpse into the life and death of past foraging people”, according to the findings.
Radiocarbon dating researcher Rachel Wood from the Australian National University estimated the bodies were between 9500 and 10,500 years old, by measuring radioactive traces of uranium in the bones.
“It is a highly emotional find. It is hard not to be moved by the intentional killing of a group of men, women and children, even if it did happen 10,000 years ago,” Dr Wood said.
Arrowheads found near the bodies were made of obsidian, a black volcanic rock not used by the tribes in the region, which suggests the group were killed by external parties.
The origins of human warfare are highly controversial among scientists, the report said.
Previously, evidence of large-scale warfare between hunter-gatherer groups was “extremely rare”, but was more typical of settled societies.
Scientists remain uncertain as to the motivations behind the massacre, but speculate that it was either a raid for resources on a newly settled tribe, or a “standard antagonistic response” to a meeting between two hunter-gatherer groups.
Rainer Grun, director of Griffith University’s Research Centre of Human Evolution, said the findings were one of the “earliest indications of humankind’s propensity for group violence”.
“Not only does this broaden our knowledge of early human behaviour, it raises questions about whether the capacity for organised violence is elemental to our nature or a product of circumstances and opportunity,” Professor Grun said.
“In either case, the deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war,” the study reported.
The research was led by the University of Cambridge and published in the scientific journal Nature on Thursday.