10,000 years ago, one group of prehistoric hunter-gatherers was savagely massacred by another group. 12 complete skeletons were uncovered, and 10 of them showed obvious signs of a brutal attack. Crushed skulls, broken limbs and arrow (or possibly spear) wounds. Partial remains of 15 other skeletons were also found at the site, and researchers believe they died in the same attack

These first signs of war were discovered at a place called Nataruk, about 30 kilometers west of Lake Turkana, Kenya.

War was just as terrible 10,000 years ago as it is in modern times. Many of the skeletons were found face down in the dirt, with severe skull fractures. Bludgeoning, the likely cause. Five of the skeletons show ‘sharp-force trauma,’ a sign their attackers used arrows. These arrow (or possibly spear) tips were made of obsidian.

“Obsidian is rare in other late Stone Age sites of this area in West Turkana, which may suggest that the two groups confronted at Nataruk had different home ranges,” said Dr. Marta Mirazón Lahr, who led the Nataruk study.


One man appeared to have been hit in the head by at least two obsidian tips and in the knee by a blunt object, likely a club.

The attackers are also believed to have restrained at least four people, including a pregnant woman, before killing them.

skeleton hands bound

Researchers believe the position of the hands (above) suggests they were bound.

What led to this brutal attack? We’ll never know, but the findings do give us clues about our penchant for violence. The origins of early war are often associated with people who were more settled and produced food in agricultural societies. Attacks occur as one group of people wants what the other has.

Other findings at the site indicate a similar reason for this attack. Pieces of pottery were found that could indicate foraged food was being stored here.

“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 Mirazón Lahr.

Mirazón Lahr added, “this would extend the history of the same underlying socio-economic conditions that characterise other instances of early warfare: a more settled, materially richer way of life. However, Nataruk may simply be evidence of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups at that time.”

If it was a conflict from a chance encounter, it doesn’t show the hallmarks of it. Early conflicts between hunter-gatherer groups show men are killed, but women and children are taken.

At Nataruk, it appears none were spared. Of the 27 individual skeletons (partial and complete), eight were male, eight were female and five are unknown. The remains of six children were unearthed near the remains of four adult women.

Mirazón Lahr calls the findings at Nataruk “extraordinary special.” She describes finding the remains of an attack between hunter-gatherers as “very difficult to establish.”

“You have communities that actually have no symmetries and have no settled conditions. So the chances that you will find the remains of a fight, of a war, of an attack are very, very remote.”

The location of the attack (or where the bodies were left) is also vital. Because the bodies fell into the shallow water of a lagoon, they were well preserved.

Robert Foley, the co-author of the study, had this to say about the findings at Nataruk. “Some may be surprised by Nataruk. That it shows a violent past in hunter-gatherers. Others may feel that it confirms their views that human nature can be violent and aggressive. In practice, of course, it’s neither. Humans have a history that is both full of warfare, but also full of cooperation and sacrifice.”

Image credits: Marta Mirazón Lahr

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