Oldest battlefield discovered in Kenya

Friday 29 January 2016
Photograph of Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr and Justus Edung at the end of the excavation of the skeleton KNM-WT 71259. This skeleton was that of a woman, found reclining on her left elbow, with fractures on the knees. Image by Robert Foley.

Scientists from RSES have dated one of the earliest cases of warfare at Nataruk on the shores of Lake Turkana in Kenya, with implications for our understanding of when and why inter-group violence arose.

A group lead by archaeologists from the University of Cambridge have excavated 27 skeletons of men, women, and children from what was a shallow lagoon. 12 adult skeletons are complete, lying where they fell into the lagoon. They were not buried, and 10 show signs of violence.

Lesions caused by violence were found in the head, neck, ribs, hands and knees. They were caused by projectiles such as arrow heads, club-like weapons and a type of weapon similar to a club with shaped stone blades. The two individuals who do not have lesions preserved in their skeleton appear to have had their hands bound. One of these is female and was heavily pregnant.

It is likely that this group was killed by a different tribe as obsidian stone points lodged in the skeletal remains were rarely used by people around Nataruk.

The protein extracted from bone for radiocarbon dating is not preserved in the warm environments in East Africa, and so alternative methods and materials needed to be sought.  Professor Rainer Grün from RSES applied novel techniques to uranium series date the bone, and the RSES Radiocarbon Facility dated shell from the lagoon sediments around the skeletons. The dates agreed, placing the skeletons between 10,500 and 9,500 years ago.

At this time, the region around Lake Turkana was very fertile. People hunted, fished and gathered resources from their environment. It is therefore likely that the people of Nataruk were attacked because they had valuable resources such as water, food or women and children.

"The early date makes the massacre not just a horrific case study, but archaeologically significant. Scholars have thought that warfare arose when people started farming and became sedentary, building more complex political societies. The massacre at Nataruk suggests a longer history, indicating that inter-group violence was present in hunter-gatherer societies, particularly where resources were plentiful" said Dr Rachel Wood from RSES.

The findings of the international group of scientists, which is led by Dr Marta Lahr of Cambridge University, are published in Nature.

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