Did Climate Change Drive Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers in Sudan to War?

Some 13,400 years ago, rival communities in the Nile Valley likely clashed over scarce resources

Jebel Sahaba burial
Researchers had previously theorized that the 61 people buried in the Jebel Sahaba Cemetery were the victims of a single battle or massacre. A new study suggests the remains actually belong to hunter-gatherers killed during a series of smaller raids. Wendorf Archives of the British Museum

In the 1960s, archaeologists discovered the remains of dozens of hunter-gatherers at the Jebel Sahaba Cemetery in Sudan. The find represent some of the earliest known evidence of warfare among humans.

Dated to about 13,400 years ago, many of the 61 bodies discovered bore fatal wounds inflicted by other people, leading scholars to theorize that the grave was the site of a great battle or massacre. But a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports suggests the deaths weren’t the result of a single violent outbreak: Instead, they stemmed from a series of smaller raids or skirmishes that were likely driven by competition for resources in a changing climate.

“Unlike a specific battle or short war, violence appears to have unfortunately been a regular occurrence and part of the daily fabric of their lives,” study co-author Daniel Antoine, acting head of the Department of Egypt and Sudan and curator of bioarchaeology at the British Museum, tells Reuters’ Will Dunham.

Since 1971, all traces of the ancient cemetery have been submerged in an artificial lake. But the bones the archaeologists studied remain preserved in the British Museum’s collections. Using modern microscopes, the researchers found that many of the individuals buried at the site received injuries that eventually healed. Sixteen of the 61 bodies had both healed and unhealed wounds—evidence that they survived one violent conflict only to die in another.

Most of the injuries came from arrows and spears, with flakes from the sharp stone still embedded in some bones. Though the team found evidence of hand-to-hand fighting, the combatants’ use of projectile weapons suggests the violence was neither domestic nor limited to within a community, reports Katie Hunt for CNN. Men and women were equally likely to be wounded.

“The only difference is related to what might be close combat,” lead author Isabelle Crevecoeur, a bioarchaeologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Bordeaux, tells CNN. “Women have more parry fractures of the forearm and men more fractures of the hand. In a close combat event, women might more instinctively try to protect themselves [with their arms] while men might fight more with their hands.”

Children, including very young ones, were also hurt or killed in the conflicts. Their injuries were most often the result of blunt force to the head.

Did Climate Change Drive Prehistoric Hunter-Gatherers in Sudan to War?
Some bones had fragments of stone projectile weapons still embedded in them. Isabelle Crevecoeur / Marie-Hélène Dias-Meirinho

“When you have a burial related to a single event [such as a massacre or an epidemic], the portion of the population that dies is not the usual one you’d find in any other cemetery,” Crevecoeur tells Miguel Ángel Criado of Spanish newspaper El País. “Looking at the demographic profile of the cemetery, it does not coincide with a burial related to a single event, a sudden crisis of mortality. The profile of Jebel Sahaba is that of a normal cemetery.”

The fighting took place among communities that lived near the Nile River before the rise of agriculture. They relied largely on fishing, hunting and gathering, facing an increasingly difficult environment as the last Ice Age reached its final stages. During this time of upheaval, the Upper Nile grew increasingly dry, writes Kiona N. Smith for Ars Technica. About 14,000 years ago, meanwhile, an overflowing Lake Victoria made the White Nile begin flowing northward. (The Upper and White Niles are the modern river’s main tributaries.) This created the seasonal flooding pattern that rendered the riverbanks highly fertile. Under these conditions, people from around the region may have left arid areas and found refuge around the Jebel Sahaba site.

“Pressure in terms of access to resources is one of the main reasons for conflict in the past and the present,” Crevecoeur tells Ars Technica.

Still, she adds, resource competition was probably only part of the story, with groups most likely having their own reasons for fighting their neighbors.

“Cultural/behavioral reasons that are inaccessible to us may have been stronger motives,” Crevecoeur says. “What is certain is that violent acts are recorded [for] hundreds of thousands of years, but their motives are probably as complex and varied as we can imagine.”

On the other hand, reports New Scientist’s Krista Charles, the level of intercommunity violence found at the site doesn’t seem to have been typical of other hunter-gatherer groups, which may not have faced as much resource competition.

“We do not know of any other cemetery at that time which shows such a high rate of people injured and killed,” Thomas Terberger, an archaeologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany who was not involved in the study, tells New Scientist. “This high rate of conflict is something unique and it will be a task for the future to analyze whether this is outstanding evidence, or perhaps the reanalysis of other [similarly ancient] sites will show more evidence of such conflicts.”