The 59 skeletons were found in 1964, lying together in a gravesite beside the Nile near what is now the Egyptian-Sudanese border. They died between 13,000 and 14,000 years ago, and some of them seemed to have died in battle.
That was big news half a century ago, when most people still believed that organized killing was an invention of civilization. Now they are back in the news, billed as evidence of the world’s oldest known battle.
The skeletons were first dug up in haste, as part of a “salvage dig” to rescue archaeological artifacts that would soon be covered by the 500-kilometre lake rising upstream from the new Aswan High Dam. They got little further attention until two years ago.
Scientists at Bordeaux University recently re-examined them, and discovered dozens of previously undetected arrow impact marks on the bones. Most of the victims had died in a hail of arrows, killed by an organized force of enemy archers, and the deaths had occurred over a period of months or even years.
So there had been a prolonged low-level war long before the rise of civilization or even of agriculture.
The people in the graves were ethnically Africans, probably driven down into the Nile valley by the drying out of what is now the Sahara Desert. We can surmise that their enemies were probably whites of the Levantine/European/North African stock that lived around the Mediterranean and had already spread up the Nile.
The war was almost certainly about resources, for it was a time of rapid climate change and food resources were under great pressure. The two groups were hunters who had efficient weapons, so technically they could fight a war. But the weapons were not new, and neither were resource crises. So why didn’t this happen far earlier?
The skeletons of Jebel Sahaba are not just telling us that we are capable of killing our own kind. Everybody knows that, and it’s a skill that we share with our near relatives, the chimpanzees, and a number of other species.
Nor do we need them to tell us that we are capable of highly organized mass killing. All of our recorded history is filled with war.
What the graves of Jebel Sahaba are really telling us is that civilization was not the problem—and perhaps also that we are not doomed to perpetual war.
Raymond Kelly is an anthropologist who studies warfare among pre-civilized groups, and in his book, Peaceful Societies and the Origins of War, he offers us three eras.
In the first period, our hominid ancestors behaved like chimpanzees still do. If a foraging party came across a member of a neighbouring group near the borders of their territory, they would kill him if it was safe to do so— in practice, if they outnumbered him by at least three-to-one.
This behaviour had a cost, however, because it made the borders dangerous: chimpanzees typically spend three-quarters of their time in the central third of their territory, and all the rest is under-exploited. So human behaviour changed when the development of weapons that can kill at a distance (spear-throwers, slings, bows and arrows) made the outcome of any attack more uncertain.
In this second period, starting around 400,000 years ago, Kelly argues that intergroup violence fell sharply. Neighbouring human groups, made up mainly of nuclear families, worked hard at being neighbourly. At times of seasonal abundance they would even come together to socialise, trade, court spouses, and perform shared rituals. This fostered trust and peace—and they got to exploit all of their territory.
The last transformation was driven not by technological change but by the rise of what Kelly calls “segmental societies”—ones where nuclear families became associated in larger clans that extended down the generations. This allowed them to mobilize large numbers of warriors for purposeful raiding.
Now killing could happen not at the border but in dawn attacks on the places where the neighbouring group sleeps. Massacre can be the result—and so can a permanent expansion of the territory controlled by your own group.
Jebel Sahaba, says Kelly, is the first archeological evidence we have of when this last transformation occurred. War becomes institutionalised in human societies, and grows as they do.
Welcome to the present, you might say. We all still keep armies, and they are constantly preparing for wars that may no longer even involve land. But have you noticed that no great power has fought any other for the past 69 years? That is quite new in our history.
The second transformation, the one that led to about 400,000 years of relative peace, occurred because attacking your neighbours had become too dangerous: the weapons had got too lethal. It is possible that we are in the midst of a comparable transformation now, although it must be admitted that there is still rather a lot of the old behaviour around.