When it comes to the origins of warfare, there are two main schools of thought. One school believes the propensity for violence is embedded deep in human nature; the other believes that it arose in response to the need to protect property, a symptom of humans’ move from nomadic hunting and gathering towards a more settled lifestyle. Those who support the latter idea argue that the Paleolithic era was generally a peaceful time, with little evidence of organized violence between hunter-gatherer groups.
But new research complicates that second argument: In a study published today in the journal Nature, a team of anthropologists describe a prehistoric mass grave whose inhabitants died a violent death, evidence that small-scale warfare was alive and well even among hunter-gatherer communities.
The site, discovered in Nataruk, Kenya, in 2012, housed the remains of 27 people, including 12 intact skeletons. Based on carbon dating of the bones and surrounding sediment, the researchers estimate that the deaths took place somewhere between 9,500 and 10,500 years ago.
Ten of the bodies had signs of injuries that were likely lethal: Five showed evidence of blunt-force head trauma, and five or six (one was ambiguous) had markings consistent with arrow wounds around the head and neck. Several of the skeletons also had fractured hands, knees, and ribs, and some were found in positions suggesting that their arms and legs had been bound.