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Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya


The nature of inter-group relations among prehistoric hunter-gatherers remains disputed, with arguments in favour and against the existence of warfare before the development of sedentary societies1,2. Here we report on a case of inter-group violence towards a group of hunter-gatherers from Nataruk, west of Lake Turkana, which during the late Pleistocene/early Holocene period extended about 30 km beyond its present-day shore3. Ten of the twelve 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.

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Figure 1: Spatial distribution of the human skeletons discovered at the site of Nataruk.
Figure 2: Schematic drawings illustrating the position of the 12 articulated skeletons from Nataruk.
Figure 3: Lithics found in direct association with human remains at Nataruk.

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We thank the Office of the President of Kenya, the Turkana Province government, and the National Museums of Kenya for permission to conduct research (NCST/5/002/R/419), the Turkana people of Locher Akwan, Lokwar Ankhaleso, Lotukumo, Eporon, and Natome for permission to work in their area and assistance, the Turkana Basin Institute for logistical and laboratory support, the British Institute in Eastern Africa, R. Leakey, M. Leakey, and L. Martin for support and advice, the staff at the TBI Turkwell facility, especially K. Onesmus Ngela, and the 2012 IN-AFRICA field team (E. Murungi, J. Oltimbao, J. Lokuruka, D. Lomuria, M. Lokinei, J. Ekeno, J. Erupe, J. Lopua, R. Ng’irotin, P. Amuk, P. Atadeit, M. Emusugut, F. Lowan, R. Ng’ichila, S. Eperon, P. Eperon, T. Echulum), especially P. Ebeya who found the site. We thank S. Black and C. Cunningham for advice on the foetal remains, Beta Analytic for advice and assistance, and F. Lahr for assistance with imaging and illustrations. Funding was provided by a European Research Council Advanced Award to M.M.L. (IN-AFRICA, ERC 295907), the Newby Trust, and the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge.

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Authors and Affiliations



M.M.L. directed the study and fieldwork; M.M.L., F.R., A.M., A.W., J.E.E., J.L., H.M., D.M.M., A.Mu., B.C., H.A., and R.A.F. participated in the fieldwork and excavations; M.M.L., F.R., J.E.E., J.L., H.M., and D.M.M. excavated the Nataruk skeletons; M.M.L., F.R., R.K.P., A.W., A.L., and K.C. cleaned, prepared, and reconstructed the fossils at the Turkana Basin Institute research laboratories; M.M.L. and R.K.P. analysed and described the lesions and pathologies; M.M.L. prepared the illustrations of Fig. 2 and illustration and photographs of Extended Data Figs 4,5,6,7; A.W. prepared the archaeological illustrations and samples for radiocarbon dating; A.M. prepared the three-dimensional model of KNM-WT 71264 in Supplementary Figure 1; M.M.L., A.W., F.R., and F.C. performed the fauna identification; A.W. and J.M.M.F. analysed the lithics following protocols developed by R.A.F., and A.W. wrote the archaeology section of the Supplementary Information; A.V.B. prepared the GIS maps; H.A., R.A.F., M.M.L., and A.M. performed the geomorphological study; R.W. did radiocarbon dating; J.-L.S. did the OSL date; R.G. examined all materials at the Turkana Basin Institute for dating, and did the uranium-series dates; M.M.L. wrote the paper, with contributions from R.A.F., R.G., R.K.P., A.W., E.M., R.W., and J.-L.S.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to M. Mirazón Lahr or R. A. Foley.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Additional information

The human remains from the site of Nataruk are curated for the National Museums of Kenya (KNM-WT 71251-71277) at the Turkwel Station of the Turkana Basin Institute, Kenya.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Location of Nataruk and distribution of finds within the site.

a, Geographical relation of the site of Nataruk to other similarly dated sites in the area and to the reconstructed palaeo-shorelines of Lake Turkana at different extents during the early Holocene transgression (440 m above sea level (a.s.l.), 430 m a.s.l., 420 m a.s.l.), on the basis of SRTM 90 m DEM (version 4.1) (source: CGIAR-CSI,; background image: hillshade based on SRTM 90 m DEM (version 4.1) (source: CGIAR-CSI, b, Distribution of finds (human, animal and archaeological remains) at Nataruk; background image: ArcGIS Online Basemap - World Imagery (version 2 October, 2014) (source: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, i-cubed, USDA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS User Community).

Extended Data Figure 2 The site of Nataruk.

a, b, View of the Nataruk site with exposed cranium of KNM-WT 71264 as was first found. c, KNM-WT 71264 after excavation. d, Geomorphological setting of the site of Nataruk, showing pattern of drainage and the small geological fault to the east; background image: ArcGIS Online Basemap - World Imagery (version 2 October, 2014) (source: Esri, DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, i-cubed, USDA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS User Community). e, Elevation profile of the site of Nataruk showing the position of the ridge and northeast mounds. f, View of the lagoon carbonate nodules and shells. g, Example of human remains in the context of the lagoon sediments, illustrated by the left foot of KNM-WT 71255. Photographs by M.M.L.

Extended Data Figure 3 Dating of the site of Nataruk and graphic synthesis of OSL methodology used.

a, Modelled date (bp) for the sediments above skeletons KNM-WT 71251 and 71260, and the shells associated with skeletons KNM-WT 71251, 71254, 71258, 71264, 71274 showing the age and probability distributions. Sample source and association with human remains to the left of individual plots, with the two younger sediment samples from the surface above skeletons at the top, and the shell samples in direct association with human remains below. b, Distribution of estimated uranium-series ages × uranium (p.p.m.) for samples 3487 and 3513 (both from skeleton KNM-WT 71264) and 3514 (KNM-WT 71265). c, Average apparent uranium-series age (error bars indicate 1σ standard deviation) and 234U/238U ratios of all samples analysed (n = 17) (further information in Extended Data Table 3 and Supplementary Table 8). d, Example of a natural OSL decay curve featuring the integrated signal (in red) and the background counts (in green) obtained from a multigrain quartz aliquot. e, Example of a sensitivity corrected dose–response curve for the natural (in red) and regenerative-dose signals using a double exponential fitting procedure. f, Abanico plot featuring the distribution of multigrain quartz equivalent dose measurements and their associated data precision and error scatter86. The plot combines a radial plot (bivariate plot on the left side) with a histogram and kernel density estimate curve (univariate plots on the right side) using the default function tool developed within the package ‘Luminescence’87 for the statistical programming language ‘R’88. The 2σ dispersion range is shown in grey and the red polygon characterizes the 1σ frequency distribution of the primary data.

Extended Data Figure 4 Traumatic lesions on skeletons.

a, Skeleton KNM-WT 71251; b, skeleton KNM-WT 71253. Displayed lesions on KNM-WT 71251 include an embedded projectile on the left parietal bone, a perforating lesion on the right parietal bone, and possible depressed fractures on the left and right knees. Displayed lesions on KNM-WT 71253 include radiating fractures on the frontal bone, and perforating lesions on the third (?) and seventh cervical vertebrae. Red boxes indicate enlarged images of particular lesions; red arrows point to the lesions described in Supplementary Information 3.3.1 and 3.3.2; red dotted line in KNM-WT 71251 delineates the depressed region on the anterior aspect of the left proximal tibia. Photographs and drawings by M.M.L.

Extended Data Figure 5 Traumatic lesions on skeletons.

a, Skeleton KNM-WT 71254; c, skeleton KNM-WT 71256; b, fetal remains found within the body cavity of KNM-WT 71255. Displayed lesions on KNM-WT 71254 include a perforating lesion on the frontal bone, and linear perforations on the mandible and the right trapezoid. Displayed lesions on KNM-WT 71256 include perforating lesions on cervical and thoracic vertebrae, and fractures on the second and third right metacarpals. Metacarpal images show four views of the element to illustrate the extent of the fractures; inset of second metacarpal shows palmar view of lesion, insets of third metacarpal show palmar (a) and dorsal-lateral (b) fractures. Red boxes indicate enlarged images of particular lesions; red arrows point to the lesions described in Supplementary Information 3.3.3 and 3.3.5. Further information on KNM-WT 71255 and fetal remains is given in Supplementary Information 3.3.4. Photographs and drawings by M.M.L.

Extended Data Figure 6 Traumatic lesions on skeletons.

a, Skeleton KNM-WT 71257; b, skeleton KNM-WT 71259. Displayed lesions on KNM-WT 71257 include depressed fractures on the left parietal and multiple radiating fractures across the skull, with the mandible unaffected. Displayed lesions on KNM-WT 71259 include three fractures to ribs, including on two consecutive ribs, and possible depressed fractures to the right knee. Red boxes indicate enlarged images of particular lesions in KNM-WT 71259, including the unnatural position of the left foot; red arrows point to the lesions described in Supplementary Information 3.3.6 and 3.3.8; red dotted line in KNM-WT 71259 delineates the depressed region on the anterior aspect of the right distal femur. Photographs and drawings by M.M.L.

Extended Data Figure 7 Traumatic lesions on skeletons.

a, Skeleton KNM-WT 71263; c, skeleton KNM-WT 71264; b, skeleton KNM-WT 71265. Displayed lesions on KNM-WT 71263 include a linear perforating lesion, with associated depressed fracture on the frontal bone, and a perforation on the right temporal bone. Displayed lesions on KNM-WT 71264 include depressed fractures on the frontal and left parietal bones, and multiple radiating fractures across the skull, as well as a healed (?) perforating lesion on the frontal bone. Displayed lesions on KNM-WT 71265 include a depressed fracture on the frontal bone. Red boxes indicate enlarged images of particular lesions; red arrows point to the lesions described in Supplementary Information 3.3.10, 3.3.11 and 3.3.12; red dotted line in KNM-WT 71265 delineates what would have been the natural profile of the bone. Photographs and drawings by M.M.L.

Extended Data Table 1 Dates of sediments, shells and human remains from Nataruk
Extended Data Table 2 Chronological synthesis and uranium-series sample characterization

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains a Supplementary Discussion comprising: (1) description of the site, (2) description of the human remains, (3) description and discussion of the trauma, (4) description of the fauna, (5) description of the archaeology, and (6) description and discussion of the dated samples from Nataruk (see Contents on page 1 for more details). The file also contains Supplementary Tables 1-10 and additional references. (PDF 2905 kb)

Supplementary Figure 1

This file, which rotates, contains a 3D image of the cranium KNM-WT 71264. The individual shown sustained multiple major trauma to the anterior and left portions of the cranium, which are depressed and fractured in relation to the surrounding bones, and caused a radiating fracture across the occipital bone and the fracture of the right temporal bone. The 3D image was obtained through a surface optical scanner (HDI Advance, LMI3D); 3D pdf made in Geomagic Studio 12.0 Software. (PDF 15922 kb)

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Lahr, M., Rivera, F., Power, R. et al. Inter-group violence among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya. Nature 529, 394–398 (2016).

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