King's Fellow finds evidence of prehistoric massacre

King's Fellow Prof Robert Foley, along with Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr and other researchers from Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES), found new evidence which extends the history of warfare.

Image of Nataruk Skull
Nataruk skull with multiple lesions on front and left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement. Larger image

In their Nature article published this month, they report evidence of a prehistoric massacre of hunter-gatherers. Dating to approximately 10,000 years ago, the massacre includes 27 skeletal remains from a band of foragers in Nataruk, a site west of Lake Turkana, Kenya. Of the twelve relatively complete skeletons, ten indicate violent deaths: from blunt-force trauma to crania, arrow lesions to the neck, and stone projectile tips lodged in the skull and thorax of two men.

“The deaths at Nataruk are testimony to the antiquity of inter-group violence and war,” said Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr. “These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers."

Photo of Prof Foley and Dr Lahr
Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr and Prof Robert Foley.

Researchers believe it is the earliest scientifically-dated historical evidence of human conflict. What led to the conflict may have been an attempt to seize resources or may have been an antagonistic response between two groups. Debates on the origins of warfare centre on whether conflict arises from the need to guard resources or from an innate propensity toward violence.

“I’ve no doubt it is in our biology to be aggressive and lethal, just as it is to be deeply caring and loving. A lot of what we understand about human evolutionary biology suggests these are two sides of the same coin,” Prof Foley said.

Further coverage of the findings is available online in the Smithsonian, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Cambridge University news and elsewhere.

Prof Robert Foley and Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr co-founded the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies (LCHES), a research centre devoted to multi-disciplinary approaches to human evolution. More information is available from the LCHES website.

28 January 2016