Shocking discovery in Turkana fuels debate on origins of war

Handout photo of Dr Marta Mirazon Lahr and Justus Edung pictured at the end of the excavation of the skeleton of a woman, found in the sediments of a lagoon 30km west of Lake Turkana, Kenya, at a place called Nataruk

Scientists have uncovered pre-historic evidence in Turkana County that seems to add to the debate on the origins of war and the violent nature of man.

In research published in the latest edition of the journal, Nature, the scientists found a number of skeletons dated about 10,000 years ago, and whose state suggest a violent death or a massacre among a group of hunter gatherer communities.

Of the discovered skeletons, 10 bore evidence of a violent death, including one of a pregnant woman with a 6-9 months old foetus in her abdomen.

One of the skeletons is that of a man suspected to have died of arrow blows, with blunt force, most likely that of a club applied to the knee.

“Ten of the 12 articulated skeletons found at Nataruk show evidence of having died violently at the edge of a lagoon, into which some of the bodies fell. The remains from Nataruk are unique, preserved by the particular conditions of the lagoon with no evidence of deliberate burial. They offer a rare glimpse into the life and death of past foraging people, and evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among prehistoric hunter-gatherers,” reads part of the findings.

The evidence was uncovered on a lagoon on the shore of Lake Turkana at Nataruk and was published on Wednesday in the authoritative scientific journal.

The researchers from Cambridge University’s Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies have suggested that the pregnant woman may have died from a blow to the head, with the position of her skeleton suggesting that she may have been tied before she met her brutal death.

The bones of the foetus were well preserved, with one of the dead men appearing to have fallen face down into the lagoon.

Although the findings were only released this week, the fossils were discovered in 2012, leading scientists to conclude that war existed among pre-historic hunter gatherer communities.


Man has historically been associated with violence and the scientists believe that the Turkana discovery could be the first scientific evidence of human conflict and the first glimpse of the evolution of modern warfare.

The discovery also adds to other fossil discoveries in the area over the years.

It may never be known why these people were killed, but the research suggests a number of reasons, among them competition over resources among the hunter gatherer communities.

“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,” Mirazon Lahr, one of the researchers is quoted saying.

“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,” he added.

The researchers estimate that the event occurred between 9,500 to 10,500 years ago.