Death at Lake Turkana

Evidence of inter-group violence between East African hunter-gatherers 10,000 years ago

Inter-group violence has long played a part in human affairs, but just how long is unclear. Over the last thirty years, evidence has accumulated that massacres were a frequent occurrence in Neolithic Europe. Mass graves have been found at a number of sites associated with the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture dating to around 5,000 BC. In all cases, the victims appeared to have been attacked and killed with weapons associated with farming groups suggesting internecine conflict between LBK groups rather than attacks by local hunter-gatherers.

Evidence has now emerged of much earlier inter-group violence involving hunter-gatherers at Nataruk, west of Lake Turkana, Kenya. At the time in question, the lake extended around 30 km (18 miles) beyond its present limits and Nataruk would have been located near its western margins.

In 2012, the remains of at least 27 individuals were discovered, partly or completely exposed upon the surface of a gravel bar ridge. Most were found fully exposed and fragmented, surviving in varying states of preservation and erosion; 12 individuals were partly preserved articulated in situ. Among these, no burial pit was identified, and no preferred orientation or position of head, face, or body was noted. The total number of individuals at the site is unknown, as only those partly exposed were excavated. The remains included 21 adults (8 men, 8 women, the others of unknown sex) and 6 children. One of the women was in the third trimester of pregnancy.

Excavations also revealed stone tools similar to other Later Stone Age assemblages in the area; and fragments of bone harpoons typical of Early Holocene hunter-fishers of Lake Turkana. The skeletal remains lacked collagen so radiocarbon dates were obtained from associated sediments and shells, and an optically stimulated luminescent date was obtained from lake sediments. Based on these, it was estimated that the Nataruk human remains dated to between 9,500 and 10,500 years ago; consistent with dates obtained for shells, harpoons, and charcoal from sites in the immediate vicinity, and corresponding to a period of early Holocene high water levels in Lake Turkana.

10 of the 12 skeletons found in situ show evidence of major trauma that would have proved fatal in the immediate-to-short term, including five or possibly six cases of head and/or neck probably caused by arrows; five cases of head injury inflicted by a blunt instrument; two cases of knee fracture; two cases of multiple fractures to the right hand; and once case of fractured ribs. Only two of these skeletons show no obvious injury. Four of the skeletons, including both that lacked injuries may have been bound hand and possibly foot at time of death. Three artefacts were found within or embedded in two of the bodies: an obsidian bladelet embedded in a male skull; and a chert lunate and obsidian trapeze, found inside the pelvic and thoracic cavities of a male skeleton. Both the injuries and the embedded projectile points are considered to be diagnostic of inter-group conflict, although there was no evidence of scalping or other trophy-taking, which often observed in prehistoric warfare.

West Turkana at this time supported a substantial hunter-gatherer population. The Nataruk massacre might have resulted from a raid for territory, women, children and stored food. The pursuit of these resources would in later agricultural times make violent attacks upon settlements and the need to defend against these an ever present fact of life. Alternatively, it might have been a simple antagonistic response as two groups came into contact.

In either case, the deaths at Nataruk are a depressing testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and warfare.

References:

Lahr, M. et al., Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana.; Kenya. Nature 529, 394-398 (2016).

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