JKUAT Scholar Co-Publishes in Nature

This skeleton was that of a man, found lying prone in the lagoon’s sediments. The skull has multiple lesions on the front and on the left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement, such as a club. Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr, enhanced by Fabio Lahr

This skeleton was that of a man, found lying prone in the lagoon’s sediments. The skull has multiple lesions on the front and on the left side, consistent with wounds from a blunt implement, such as a club.
(Image by Marta Mirazon Lahr/Fabio Lahr)

Anne Muigai, a Professor of Genetics in the Department of Botany, JKUAT, jointly with her collaborators from Cambridge University has published in the current issue of Nature journal.

The paper documents the discovery of fossilised bones of a group of prehistoric hunter-gathers, probably members of an extended family who were violently killed approximately 10,000 years ago in Nataruk, 30 km west of Lake Turkana, Kenya.

The Nataruk massacre is the earliest record of inter-group violence among prehistoric hunter-gatherers who were largely nomadic.  The warfare was probably as a result of a fight for resources, the water food from the animals and fish.

“These human remains record the intentional killing of a small band of foragers with no deliberate burial, and provide unique evidence that warfare was part of the repertoire of inter-group relations among some prehistoric hunter-gatherers,” said Dr Marta Mirazón Lahr , from Cambridge’s LCHES, who directs the ERC-funded IN-AFRICA Project and led the Nataruk study, published today in the journal Nature.

The researchers unearthed a total of 27 fossilized human skeletons that included 8 women and 6 children.  Ten of the 12 complete skeletons discovered indicate that the individuals died violently including extreme blunt force trauma to the head, ribs, hands and knees.  Two projectiles (stoned tipped and sharpened arrows) were found still lodged in the remains.  One of the women was expectant and had a fossilized foetus of 6-9 months was recovered within her abdominal cavity.  She was found in an unusual sitting position suggesting that her hands and knees were bound.

“I think it was also surprising to find dead women and children. Scholars have shown that in later warfare women and children were part of the spoils of war and were usually not killed but carried off and assimilated into the attacking communities” says Anne Muigai.

The attack took place on the shores of an ancient lagoon that has since dried up.

Prof. Anne Muigai

                        Prof. Anne Muigai

At that time Turkana was not as dry and hot as we know it today.  Turkana was lush and fertile.  The shores of the Lake extended up to 30 km west of where they are now.  There are thousands of animals that inhabited the place as evidenced from the thousands of animal fossils that have been collected. It was therefore a place inhabited by thousands of animals including elephant, hippo, rhino, giraffe, zebra, warthogs, buffaloes, antelopes, gazelles, primates, crocodiles and even lion. So it was a lush environment probably with marshlands and forested areas.

The people who lived at this time were hunter gathers.  They hunted animals, gathered fruits and fished.  Evidence of this is provided by the numerous harpoons that have been found around this area.  They also had pots, which were used to store water, fat probably from the animals they hunted.

For study co-author Professor Robert Foley, also from Cambridge’s LCHES, the findings at Nataruk are an echo of human violence as ancient, perhaps, as the altruism that has led us to be the most cooperative species on the planet.

“I’ve no doubt it is in our biology to be aggressive and lethal, just as it is to be deeply caring and loving. A lot of what we understand about human evolutionary biology suggests these are two sides of the same coin,” Foley said

The site was first discovered in 2012. Following careful excavation, the researchers used radiocarbon and other dating techniques on the skeletons – as well as on samples of shell and sediment surrounding the remains – to place Nataruk in time. They estimate the event occurred between 9,500 to 10,500 years ago, around the start of the Holocene: the geological epoch that followed the last Ice Age.

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