Oldest Known War May Have Been Fueled by Climate Change, Scientists Say

A reanalysis of the remains of 61 people seems to have altered the history of violence in prehistory.
Derya Ozdemir
Projectile impact puncture in the surface of the left hip bone of the individual.Isabelle Crevecoeur/MarieHélène Dias-Meirinho

A detailed reanalysis of the remains of 61 people buried at the Jebel Sahaba cemetery in Sudan, which was discovered in the 1960s and is one of the oldest sites to show signs of mass combat, has uncovered vital evidence of the beginnings of violence in the Nile Valley towards the end of the Late Pleistocene, according to a press release.

Scientists from the CNRS and the University of Toulouse—Jean Jaurès re-analyzed the bones kept at the British Museum to re-evaluate their archaeological context, and their findings, published in Scientific Reports, refute the prior hypothesis of a cemetery tied to a one-off massacre.

Rather, the review of the trauma on the skeletons indicates that the hunter-gatherers were involved in a series of minor battles, which were likely aggravated by climate change.

The findings are based on a reanalysis of 61 skeletal remains, which are more than 13,000 years old, discovered in the 1960s. Newly accessible microscopy methods were utilized to separate indications of injury from damage caused by burial.

The researchers discovered 106 previously unknown lesions and traumas and distinguished between injuries caused by arrows or spears, close fighting, and natural decay. They discovered that 67 percent of those buried there had some form of injury, whether healed or not.

Projectiles and close combat trauma were found in 92 percent of those who had been injured, implying interpersonal violence. At least half of the wounds were puncture wounds produced by projectiles such as spears and arrows, suggesting they occurred when groups attacked from afar rather than during domestic conflict.

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The researchers believe these could be the result of a series of fights or raids between different groups at a time of major climatic variations since it was the end of the last ice age and the beginning of the African humid period.

This small area of the Nile Valley had many archaeological sites from several civilizations, so according to the researchers, the region may have served as a haven for those who were affected by the changes in climate since finding animals to hunt and fish would be easier near a water source. 

As a result, resource competition may have contributed to the disputes seen in the Jebel Sahaba cemetery; however, we can't know for sure since there are no written documents that explain the reason for the conflicts. Still, these findings alter the history of violence in prehistory, suggesting that other sites from the same time period perhaps should be also reconsidered.

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