Jebel Sahaba Shines Light on Horrors of Earliest Human Warfare

13,400 years ago individuals were engaged in armed conflict on the east bank of the Nile in what is now northern Sudan. A fresh analysis of human remains from the prehistoric cemetery of Jebel Sahaba reveals the sporadic and recurrent nature of violence at one of the earliest sites linked to human warfare.

Research just published in Scientific Reports casts new light on the conflicts in which those hunter-fisher-gatherers engaged so long ago. Several of the discoveries dispute the original findings and interpretations of the site. One of the most surprising finds is that the individuals buried in the cemetery apparently fought and survived several vio‌lent conflicts, rather than dying in one major battle, as was previously believed.

Why Jebel Sahaba is Such an Important Site

In 1964, American archaeologist Fred Wendorf first identified the prehistoric cemetery located in what is now Jebel Sahaba , Sudan. Since then, the 13,400-year-old cemetery has been recognized as one of the oldest sites in the world to demonstrate prehistoric human interpersonal violence. It’s often provided as an example of early human violence and organized warfare caused by conflict for valued territory.

Excavations at Jebel Sahaba cemetery in Sudan. (Wendorf Archive, British Museum/ CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

While the new paper states that although it’s not the oldest case of interpersonal violence in the Nile valley – that’s a partial male skeleton from roughly 20,000 years ago from Wadi Kubbaniya – the Jebel Sahaba cemetery is “the most emblematic and widely cited example of early widespread violence.” The researchers also note that with radiocarbon dates ranging from 13,400-18,200 years old, the cemetery is “the earliest funerary complex from the Nile Valley.”

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Signs of Repeated Violence at Jebel Sahaba

New research led by Isabelle Crevecoeur of the Université de Bordeaux, Pessac, France and Daniel Antoine of The British Museum, London, UK has painted in important details on the nature of human warfare at Jebel Sahaba. By using the latest anthropological and forensic methods the team has shown that there was repeated, brutal armed conflict taking place at the site 13,400 years ago.

Study of the Jebel Sahaba human remains in the Egypt and Sudan Department of the British Museum. Microscopic analysis of bone lesions and anthropological characterization. Dr. M.H. Dias-Meirinho (left), Dr. I. Crevecoeur (right). (Credit Isabelle Crevecoeur and colleagues/ Scientific Reports )

The research team reanalyzed the skeletons of 61 individuals whose remains were originally excavated in the 1960s. Evidence for the recurring violence at Jebel Sahaba primarily comes in the form of healed trauma found on the remains of several of the skeletons excavated at the site. The researchers write in their paper that they completed a “full reanalysis of the timing, nature and extent of the violence” by using new microscopy techniques. Here’s a summary of what they found:

106 previously undocumented lesions and traumas on various individuals, regardless of their age or  – including signs of injuries on children as young as 4 years old

different injury types – injuries created by projectiles from arrows and spears, wounds caused by close combat, and damage to the remains that were caused by natural decay

several lithic artifacts which were located “where the soft tissues would have once been, or directly embedded in the bones ”

41 of the 61 people (67% of the individuals) buried at Jebel Sahaba di‌ed with at least one type of healed or unhealed injury

of those 41 individuals, 92% had been harmed by projectiles and close combat trauma

The researchers write that their findings “confirm for the first time the repetitive nature of the interpersonal acts of violence” at Jebel Sahaba and suggest that such conflicts “could occur several times during the life of an individual.”

Projectile impact mark with lithic flake embedded in the puncture in the posterior surface of the left hip bone of individual JS 21. (Credit Isabelle Crevecoeur and colleagues/ Scientific Reports )

Why Were They Fighting?

The study authors also write in their paper that the discovery of healed wounds in the remains of people buried at the Jebel Sahaba cemetery suggests that there were recurrent, but not always lethal, conflicts occurring between Nile valley groups who lived near the end of the Late Pleistocene period (126,000 to 11,700 years ago).

They think that different groups were likely raiding each other’s lands, ambushing each other, and skirmishing. The high number of puncture wounds, likely caused by spears and arrows, also suggests that the attacks came from a distance and were not domestic conflicts.

So what caused so much conflict?

According to the researchers the violence was “probably triggered by major climatic and environmental changes .” They believe that the people living in the area may have faced significant “environmental pressures and geographical constraints,” which incited the repeated conflicts against the people around them. As they write in their paper:

“During the Late Pleistocene, few human remains are recorded in the Nile valley […] During this time period, the survival of small groups in the fewer sustainable areas in Upper Egypt and Lower Nubia is supported by the unusual phenotypic diversity, probably related to population fragmentation and isolation, found in the Late Pleistocene fossils of this region. With variation of lithic industries indicating different cultural traditions and the co-occurrence of large cemetery spaces suggesting some level of sedentism severe territorial competition between the region’s hunter-fisher-gatherer groups is likely to have occurred when forced to adapt to the drastic environmental changes recorded at the end of the Last Glacial Maximum and the beginning of the African Humid Period. Climate change is most likely to have been a driver towards a vio‌lent competition for resources over time as documented in the ethno-archaeological record.”

Previous research by John Moore’s University, the University of Alaska, and New Orleans’ Tulane University has suggested that many of the victims of violence at Jebel Sahaba were phenotypically part of sub-Saharan populations, the ancestors of modern black Africans. Those researchers also found evidence of a group with a North African/ Levantine/European population phenotype nearby.

The new research has shed important light on what happened at a site so significantly linked to early widespread violence, but the researchers still can’t say for certain if this is a burial ground for a specific set of people who were victims of violence or anyone who di‌ed in the community. They think that funerary rituals were also involved, at least in some cases. For example, while the team could identify cutmarks resulting from projectiles penetrating bone, they couldn’t say for certain if some cuts may have been deliberate acts taken after death – as some sort of “mortuary treatments.”

Burials 13 and 14, 20 and 21, and the distribution of artifacts located in them, none embedded in the skeletons. Re-elaborated from Wendorf 1968a. (Donatella Usai/ CC BY 4.0 )

The paper, ‘New insights on interpersonal violence in the Late Pleistocene based on the Nile valley cemetery of Jebel Sahaba’ is published in Scientific Reports.

Top Image: Archival photograph showing a double burial from the Jebel Sahaba cemetery in Sudan, with pencils marking the position of as‌sociated lithic artifacts. Source: Wendorf Archives of the British Museum/ Scientific Reports

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