Scientists Find 10,000-year-old Gruesome Remains of 27 Massacred Tribespeople in Kenya

January 21, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

Photos of ancient skulls that had been bashed in violently.
Photo credit: Marta Mirazón Lahr

This is the earliest evidence of human warfare ever discovered.

As it turns out, humans have been violent beings for quite some time — we’re talking at least 10 millennia, based on evidence discovered at a massacre site in Kenya about 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) from Lake Turkana. In fact, it’s the earliest evidence of human warfare ever found, dating back to the stone age.

If you’re at all squeamish, be warned that the Cambridge University researchers’ findings may not settle well. The analysis pointed to utterly graphic deaths for the 27 tribespeople found, including at least eight women and six children with smashed skulls and marks of being shot through or stabbed with stone arrows and blades. One woman was in the last stages of pregnancy, and at least four had hands that were almost certainly bound together, according to the research.

"That scale of death — it can't be an individual murder or homicide amongst families," said study co-author Robert Foley, an anthropologist and archaeologist at the University of Cambridge in England. "It was a result of some intergroup conflict."

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The researchers say the area was a desirable place to settle 10,000 years ago, with a fertile lakeshore, ample food from fishing, fresh drinking water, and game from nearby forest. However, for this particular group of settlers, the outcome wasn’t so desirable.

“The Nataruk massacre may have resulted from an attempt to seize resources – territory, women, children, food stored in pots – whose value was similar to those of later food-producing agricultural societies among whom violent attacks on settlements became part of life,” said study lead Marta Mirazón Lahr, from the Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies at Cambridge.

Most of the skeletons had severe skull fractures including severe blunt force injuries to the facial bones, as well as broken ribs, hands, and knees. Aside from one teenager, all of the battered children were under the age of six, and their fragmentary remains were found buried with the women’s skeletons.

Incredibly, after all this time, the researchers found a fragment of a razor sharp blade made from obsidian still stuck in one of the men’s skulls. However, they concluded that this had apparently not killed him since the right side of his head and face had been smashed in with some type of blunt instrument — most likely a wooden club.

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“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,” said Lahr.

Unfortunately, the researchers think these grim findings show that this kind of violence was typical behavior instead of a random act of violence. “Nataruk may simply be evidence of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups at that time,” Lahr suggests.

At least Foley has a bit more of an optimistic view about the human race: “I’ve no doubt it is in our biology to be aggressive and lethal, just as it is to be deeply caring and loving,” he says. “A lot of what we understand about human evolutionary biology suggests these are two sides of the same coin.”

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