World’s ‘First War’ 13,400 Years Ago

A double burial at Jebel Sahaba, Sudan, from the war some 13,000 years ago.Credit: Courtesy of the Wendorf Archives of the British Museum

Humankind is a bellicose lot and probably always has been, yet evidence in prehistory that we used our stone tools not only to hunt prey but each other has been scanty. Then, in 2014, archaeologists deduced that a site discovered in Sudan decades before wasn’t a prehistoric cemetery on the bucolic banks of the Nile but the site where the victims of the world’s first organized war were interred.

Actually, it was worse than that, archaeologists now say, having revisited the human remains with advanced technologies. They now believe the evidence shows not an isolated clash but a succession of violent episodes at least 13,400 years ago. In fact, the battles seem to have featured some truly nasty weapons – multipoint arrows and spears, purposely designed to cause maximal laceration and bleeding.

The research for the paper published Thursday in Scientific Reports was done on remains preserved in the British Museum, Isabelle Crevecoeur and team clarify.

The theory that the violence was related to race, postulated in 2014, was based on differences between the groups of bodies: one tall with short torsos and one short with long torsos. Now, Crevecoeur and colleagues from the CNRS and the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès have expanded and refined the context. These disparate groups may have been fighting over resources in a time of frightening climate change, and it wasn’t an isolated spasm of rage.

To be clear, evidence of prehistoric violence – distinguished from cannibalism – is very rare, but it exists and likely the propensity to savage one another predates Jebel Sahaba, by a lot. For example, one of the bodies found in the cave of Sima de los Huesos (“Pit of Bones”) in Spain indicate homicide among hominins in the Middle Stone Age: it’s otherwise hard to explain how this individual’s head got bashed in the way it did. But organized war is a whole other matter.

A stone flake embedded in a hip bone.Credit: Isabelle Crevecouer and colleagues

Jebel Sahaba, near Sudan’s border with Egypt, is now under water. However, before its inundation by Lake Aswan, it was excavated and archaeologists found numerous remains associated with the Qadan Neolithic culture, which prevailed in the region from about 15,000 to 12,000 years ago – the end of the Late Stone Age and start of the Holocene. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean that the bodies are associated with the Qadan culture, the archaeologists qualify.)

It was a turbulent time marked by dramatic climatic variations: the waning of the Ice Age and the start of the African Humid Period.

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