Thursday, September 02, 2021

Evidence for Hunter-Gatherer Warfare in the Stone Age 13,400 Years Ago


Human Skeletons Found at a Stone Age African Cemetery in Sudan Known as Jebel Sahaba (Site 117) Dated at More Than 13,000 Years Ago.  Pencils Mark the Locations of Spear or Arrow Points and Stone Artifacts.

I have written about Steven Pinker's archaeological evidence for prehistoric warfare among hunter-gatherers.  His oldest evidence is from a prehistoric cemetery known as Jebel Sahaba or Site 117 in Nubia, an area along the southern Nile River in Africa.  The skeletons show injuries caused by stone spears, arrow points, and close combat.  Fred Wendorf led a team of researchers who found and excavated these skeletons in the early 1960s.  They were dated at around 14,000 to 12,000 years old.

I have also written about skeletal evidence from a Kenyan site called Nataruk showing a massacre of 12 hunter-gatherers dated at about 9,500 to 10,500 years ago.  I have presented this as evidence that John Locke was right in claiming that while the hunter-gatherer state of nature could often be a state of peace, it tended to become a state of war as people fell into violent feuding and raiding.

I have also noted, however, that there is debate over this evidence.  Some of Pinker's critics have argued that this prehistoric violence might have arisen among complex sedentary hunter-gatherers rather than simple nomadic hunter-gatherers.  They have also argued that this violence cannot rightly be identified as warfare if it was actually personal homicidal violence within a group.

Now we have a new study of the skeletons from Jebel Sahaba (Isabelle Crevecoeur et al., "New Insights on Interpersonal Violence in the Late Pleistocene Based on the Nile Valley Cemetery of Jebel Sahaba," Scientific Reports 11[2021]:9991).  Bruce Bower has written a news story about this article (Bower, "Hunter-Gatherers First Launched Violent Raids at Least 13,400 Years Ago," Science News, June 19, 2021).

Crevecoeur and her colleagues did a microscopic examination of the 61 skeletons that Wendorf donated to the British Museum.  Their work supported five conclusions.  First, their radiocarbon dating confirmed that the skeletons were between 13,400 and 18,200 years old.  Second, they saw that most of the lesions were caused by projectiles (spears and arrows), and that most of the skeletons had both healed and unhealed traumas.  Third, they found that most of the stone artifacts associated with the burials were elements of composite projectile weapons.  Fourth, they inferred that the injuries were probably not from a single violent event but from many sporadic episodes of interpersonal violence--most likely, the result of skirmishes, raids, or ambushes.  Finally, the evidence that this period of the Late Pleistocene was a time of major climatic changes suggested that the interpersonal violence could have been caused by climate change that threw these people into violent competition for resources.

Although this seems to support Pinker's claim that prehistoric foraging bands were often at war, it does not resolve the two points of contention raised by his critics.  First, should the "interpersonal violence" indicated by this skeletal evidence count as true warfare between groups, or should it rather be seen as personal violence within a group?  Crevecoeur and her colleagues say that "the concept of warfare can encompass all forms of antagonistic relationships from feuds, individual murders, ambush attacks, and trophy taking to bloody clashes and larger armed conflicts" (7).  And so they seem to agree with Richard Wrangham that feuding and raiding among forager groups should indeed be identified as war, even if a "simple" form of war.

The second point of debate is whether the people buried in Jebel Sahaba were fully nomadic foragers, and thus typical of the earliest human ancestors, or were they sedentary foragers living in permanent settlements, and thus more like the complex sedentary groups appearing later in human evolution, who accumulated property that could be the source of violent competition.  Crevecoeur and her colleagues infer that the people of Jebel Sahaba belonged to "culturally distinct Nile Valley semi-sedentary hunter-fisher-gatherers groups" (9).  

Semi-sedentary?  Are they trying to split the difference between nomadic and sedentary groups?

Although I am generally on Pinker's side in this debate, it's hard to see any decisively demonstrative evidence here that would settle the debate.


Anonymous said...

It seems to me that evidence of conflict is often extrapolated to suggest that conflict, or warfare is endemic to human nature. I suggest that it may not be endemic but more often induced by extreme climatic events which have terrified mankind through history, as is evident by tales of world-wide floods and catastrophes in all cultures. Frequently empires have fallen due to large population movements caused by cataclysmic events. In desperate times people will take brutal and desperate measures to survive. From the facts presented in this article all we really know is that these individuals were involved in violent conflicts on a number of occasions. The rest is largely narrative which we find comforting because as humans we like to have an explanation for things. Andrew

Larry Arnhart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larry Arnhart said...

Would you explain the decline in violence over the past few centuries as caused by a decline in extreme climatic events?