Republished from the conversation

Two victims from Jebel Sahaba. The pencils mark weapon fragments.
Image from the Wendorf Archive, Used under a creative commons license.


PhD in Ecological Systems of Cooperation, UCL


The question of whether warfare is encoded in our genes, or appeared as a result of civilisation, has long fascinated anyone trying to get to grips with human society. Might a willingness to fight neighbouring groups have provided our ancestors with an evolutionary advantage? With conflicts raging across the globe, these questions have implications for understanding our past, and perhaps our future as well.

The Enlightenment philosophers Thomas Hobbes and Jean-Jacques Rousseau had different visions of prehistory. Hobbes saw humanity’s earliest days as dominated by fear and warfare, whereas Rousseau thought that, without the influence of civilisation, humans would be at peace and in harmony with nature.

The debate continues to this day. Without a time machine, researchers examining warfare in prehistory largely rely on archaeology, primatology and anthropology.

Earlier this year, details of one of the most striking examples of prehistoric intergroup violence were published – 27 skeletons, including those of children, had been found at Nataruk near Lake Turkana, Kenya. Blades embedded in bones, fractured skulls and other injuries demonstrated this had been a massacre. The bodies were left, unburied, next to a lagoon on the lake’s former western shore, around 10,000 years ago.

The Nataruk finds are claimed as the earliest evidence for prehistoric violence in hunter gatherers. A 12,000-14,000 year-old cemetery at Jebel Sahaba in Sudan was previously thought to be the first, but its date is less certain and some have claimed that since the bodies were buried in a cemetery they were linked to a settlement, and not true hunter gatherers.

The evidence for warfare becomes clearer in the archaeological record after the beginning of the agricultural revolution around 10,000 years ago, when humanity moved from hunting and gathering to farming settlements. War may have existed before then, but there are few remains from the early days of Homo sapiens, and causes of death can be extremely difficult to ascertain from skeletons. This means that at the moment, the archaeology remains inconclusive.

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