World’s ‘First War’ 13,400 Years Ago Wasn't Isolated Episode but Series of Events

Archaeologists suggest ancient battles in Sudan featured some truly horrific weapons – multipoint arrows and spears, purposely designed to cause maximal laceration and bleeding

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
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A double burial at Jebel Sahaba, Sudan, from the war some 13,000 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
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

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.

When this transition period began, what is now the Nile Valley was hyper-arid, the archaeologists explain. About 15,000 or maybe 14,000 years ago, Lake Victoria overflowed and formed the White Nile River, which flows north, meeting up with the Blue Nile in Sudan. The merged two rivers are called, simply, the Nile.

The White Nile and Blue Nile meet and form - the Nile, which flows northCredit: Hel-hama

Despite the crocodiles and mosquitoes, it must have been lovely to live by the river, judging by the sheer concentration of archaeological sites of different Neolithic cultures along the banks, the archaeologists suggest. It may have become a sort of refuge area for these hunter-fisher-gatherers in the time of climatic fluctuation. From the climate that is. Not each other. They did not get along.

Cruel weaponry

The paper published in 2014 described marks of unhealed trauma caused by projectiles; even then, the scientists postulated that the war wasn’t short and sharp, but may have dragged on for years.

Now the new inspection of the remains of 61 people reports on more than 100 previously undocumented lesions on the bones. Altogether, 41 of the bodies displayed signs of trauma, both from projectiles and fractures. Sixteen (one of them an adolescent) had both unhealed and healed lesions. That is key to the new interpretation.

The presence of healed lesions indicates the person had been injured, in battle or otherwise, at an earlier stage, lived to tell the tale (and fight again), and died later. In and of itself, that is indicative of fighting over time, not an isolated clash.

Moreover, the researchers found more stone points embedded in the bones: half the injuries they documented were caused by projectiles, i.e., stone-tipped arrows or spears. Stone points were also found within the physical space of the bodies, where the soft tissues would have once been, but the team doesn’t think they were grave goods.

A skull found at Jebel Sahaba, showing evidence of violence.Credit: Isabelle Crevecouer and colleagues

So, in contrast to the past theory that Jebel Sahaba was the site of a single warfare event, now they believe it was the site of recurrent violence.

Violence? Extreme violence, perhaps. The team deduced that the ancient warriors had used both arrows (possibly both light and heavy ones) and spears – and that the majority of lesions were produced by “composite projectiles.”

Which means what? If you are squeamish, stop reading here.

It means that the business ends of the arrows or spears were composed of multiple sharp-edged stone blades, the team suggests. Some of these blades became laterally embedded in the bones.

Why might they have used spear or arrow points with oblique or transverse distal cutting edges – blades with various orientations? Plausibly, the purpose was to slash and cause bleeding, the team writes.

“The fact that many [of the stone points] were found inside the volume of the skeleton also indicates their efficiency at penetrating the body,” the team writes.

It isn’t that the prehistoric peoples at Jebel Sahaba invented that wheel either, though.

Jebel Sahaba is one of the oldest-known sites of organized war between peoples. Now it’s looking like a site of early torment as well.

Ultimately, the new finds show this wasn’t a “disaster cemetery linked to a single war”: it seems that groups of hunter-fisher-gatherers were vying time and again over this prime real estate, competing over the precious stability of the river in a time of fluctuating climate. And they were competing with all they had. One of the male bodies, over 30 years of age (going by the state of his teeth), had 17 projectiles in direct association with his skeleton, of which two were embedded in the bone.

Studying the Jebel Sahaba remains at the British Museum.Credit: Isabelle Crevecouer and colleagues

That said, the injuries were not confined to the men. Women and children were also shot by spears and arrows; one of the women, also over 30 years of age, was found in association with 21 stone artifacts, one embedded in her ribs.

At least, not surprisingly, the evidence of repeat fighting as attested by healed injuries was confined to adults – men and women in equal share – and that one adolescent. But spared the rod, the children were not: One of the bodies is of a child around 5 years of age, who took a projectile in the head.

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