Prehistoric Violence at Cemetery Site Likely Caused by Climate Change, Study Finds

Scientists announced Thursday the discovery of new evidence that the people buried at the prehistoric cemetery Jebel Sahaba survived several violent assaults throughout their lives, lending credence to the idea that these hunter-fisher-gatherers battled other groups as natural resources dwindled amid a drastically changing climate.

Archival photograph showing the double burial of individuals JS 20 and JS 21 with pencils marking the position of associated lithic artifacts. (Credit: Wendorf Archives of the British Museum)

(CN) — For decades, the prehistoric cemetery known as Jebal Sahaba in the Nile Valley near the northern border of Sudan and Egypt has been credited with containing the oldest known evidence of warfare in human culture.

Discovered in 1964, the 13,400-year-old site held the skeletal remains of 61 individuals that archaeologists theorized had participated in one cataclysmic battle.

Now scientists have discovered new evidence that the people buried at Jebal Sahaba survived several violent assaults throughout their lives, lending credence to the idea that these hunter-fisher-gatherers battled other groups as natural resources dwindled amid a drastically changing climate.

Utilizing the latest microscopic technology on skeletal remains excavated six decades ago, researchers found extensive evidence of healed traumas, according to a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports. These bone scars tell a remarkable story of escalating human violence at the end of the Late Pleistocene when the climate returned to glacial conditions after a period of gradual warming.

The people buried at Jebel Sahaba lived in a time and region of the Qadan culture, which took a novel approach to gathering food by watering and caring for wild grasses and grains that they eventually harvested. But a drastic change in temperature put unbearable pressure on the animals, fish and plants they and other groups relied on, leading to inevitable conflict in the fight for survival.

However, scientists found numerous lithic artifacts from the Qadan culture within the physical spaces of the Jebal Sahaba remains in places where the soft tissue of the bodies would have been, or directly embedded in the bones.

“Given their position, these lithic artifacts cannot be considered to be grave goods, nor can the Jebel Sahaba individuals be referred to as belonging to the Qadan population,” the study concludes.

Lead author Isabelle Crevecoeur of the Université de Bordeaux in France and her colleagues identified 106 previously undocumented lesions and traumas on the remains. Remarkably, they were able to distinguish between projectile injuries (from arrows or spears), trauma (from close combat) and traces associated to natural decay.

The scientists found 41 individuals (67%) buried in Jebel Sahaba had at least one type of healed or unhealed injury. At least half of the injuries were identified as puncture wounds caused by projectiles like spears and arrows, supporting the authors’ theory that these injuries happened when groups attacked from a distance, rather than during domestic conflicts.

Both men and women buried at the site had the same percentage of healed and unhealed lesions. Nearly all the healed fractures were concentrated in the upper limbs and shoulders, with half of the healed fractures located in the hands. And the majority of the bone scars involved projectile weapons, indicating attacks from others instead of violence within the group.

Crevecoeur and her colleagues say their research proves that Jebal Sahaba is a cemetery and not a mass burial from a single battle. As evidence, they point to the “balanced demographic profile” of the remains — 48.7% female and 51.3% male. Had a single battle occurred, the remains would be overwhelmingly male.

“While acknowledging the possibility that the Jebel Sahaba cemetery may have been a specific place of burial for victims of violence, the presence of numerous healed traumas and the reuse of the funerary space both support the occurrence of recurrent episodes of small scale sporadic interpersonal violence,” the study concludes.

And the likely cause of the ongoing conflict? Climate change.

“Territorial and environmental pressures triggered by climate changes are most probably responsible for these frequent conflicts.”

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