Abstract

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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Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Author notes

    • F. Rivera
    •  & R. K. Power

    These authors contributed equally to this work.

Affiliations

  1. Leverhulme Centre for Human Evolutionary Studies, Department of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Street, Cambridge CB2 1QH, UK

    • M. Mirazón Lahr
    • , F. Rivera
    • , R. K. Power
    • , A. Mounier
    • , B. Copsey
    • , F. Crivellaro
    • , J. Lawrence
    • , H. Miller
    • , D. M. Mukhongo
    • , A. Van Baelen
    • , A. Wilshaw
    •  & R. A. Foley
  2. Turkana Basin Institute, Nairobi, Kenya

    • M. Mirazón Lahr
    • , C. Kiarie
    • , A. Leakey
    •  & R. A. Foley
  3. National Museums of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta House, PO Box 152-30500, Lodwar, Kenya

    • J. E. Edung
  4. Departamento de Prehistoria y Arqueologia, UNED, c/ Paseo Senda del Rey, 7, 28040 Madrid, Spain

    • J. M. Maillo Fernandez
  5. National Museums of Kenya, PO Box 40658-00100, Nairobi, Kenya

    • E. Mbua
  6. Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, PO Box 62000-00200, Nairobi, Kenya

    • A. Muigai
  7. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Building 142, Mills Road, Acton, Australian Capital Territory 2601, Australia

    • R. Wood
    •  & R. Grün
  8. Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art, University of Oxford, Dyson Perrins Building, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3QY, UK

    • J.-L. Schwenninger
  9. Research Centre for Human Evolution, Environmental Futures Research Institute, Griffith University, 170 Kessels Road, Nathan, Queensland 4111, Australia

    • R. Grün
  10. Department of Geology, Anna University, Chennai, Tamil Nadu 600025, India

    • H. Achyuthan

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Contributions

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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

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

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

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    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.

  2. 2.

    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.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature16477

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