A prehistoric cemetery which is one of the earliest sites showing human warfare may have been the scene for repeated smaller conflicts between hunter-fisher-gatherers, new research suggests.
Since its discovery in the 1960s, the Jebel Sahaba cemetery in Sudan, 13 millennia old, was considered to be one of the oldest testimonies to prehistoric warfare.
However, scientists from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Toulouse – Jean Jaures have re-analysed the bones preserved in the British Museum and re-evaluated their archaeological context.
The results suggest it was not a single armed conflict but rather a succession of violent episodes, potentially exacerbated by climate change.
Individuals fought and survived several violent assaults, rather than fighting in one fatal event as previously thought, healed trauma on skeletons found in the cemetery suggests.
Isabelle Crevecoeur, Daniel Antoine and colleagues re-analysed the skeletal remains of 61 individuals, who were originally excavated in the 1960s, using newly available microscopy techniques.
They identified 106 previously undocumented lesions and traumas, and were able to distinguish between injuries caused from arrows or spears, trauma from close combat, and traces associated with natural decay.
According to the study published in Scientific Reports, 41 individuals (67%) buried in Jebel Sahaba had at least one type of healed or unhealed injury.
In the 41 individuals with injuries, 92% had evidence of these being caused by projectiles and close combat trauma, suggesting interpersonal acts of violence.
The authors suggest the healed wounds match sporadic and recurrent acts of violence, which were not always lethal, between Nile valley groups at the end of the Late Pleistocene age (126,000 to 11,700 years ago).
They speculate these may have been repeated skirmishes or raids between different groups.
The authors write: “We dismiss the hypothesis that Jebel Sahaba reflects a single warfare event, with the new data supporting sporadic and recurrent episodes of interpersonal violence, probably triggered by major climatic and environmental changes.
“At least 13.4 ka old, Jebel Sahaba is one of the earliest sites displaying interpersonal violence in the world.”