What life did our Stone Age ancestors lead? There are myriad ways to answer this question (not least because it is a bit vague), but it has been a centuries-old tradition to highlight the tremendous uncertainty that should shape their everyday lives. In the words of the English thinker Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) it would be an existence marked by “the constant fear and danger of suffering a violent death; and human life [era] lonely, poor, disgusting, brutal and short ”.
It should be noted that Hobbes went through this series of daunting adjectives long before any reliable information about the prehistory of our species was found. Since then, however, direct data about the supposedly “brutal and short” life has surfaced. And one of the most emblematic places to understand what happened in this distant past is the Jebel Sahaba Cemetery in the Nile Valley.
This archaeological site was located in Sudan, south of the Egyptian border and is now under the water of the huge Lake Nasser, which was created when a hydroelectric power station was built. In the 1960s, when Jebel Sahaba was originally excavated, analysis of the dozen of skeletons buried there seemed to confirm ancient Hobbes’ worst predictions (or retrospectives, since we’re talking about the past).
In short, the Sudanese site, the occupation of which stretched 18,500 to 13,500 years ago, was in every way the testimony of our species’ first war. Dozens of remains of men, women and children have been found with injuries to various parts of the body and / or in association with stone instruments that appear to have been used to massacre such people. One of the interpretations for the results is that a single violent event (a confrontation that could involve up to a few hundred hunters and gatherers in the area) would explain the burials.
However, the actual situation was likely more complex, shows a recent study coordinated by Isabelle Crevecoeur from the University of Bordeaux. In an article in the journal Scientific Reports, the French researcher and her colleagues carried out a new analysis of the skeletons of Jebel Sahaba and even identified several injuries and remains from stone weapons that were examined in the 1960s.
Of the 61 people who examined Crevecoeur and Co., 41 showed signs of some kind of violence, but only 16 of them had these injuries “perimortem”, ie at the time of death of these people. Most wounds, usually from arrows or other ranged attack instruments, healed over the course of a person’s lifetime.
In addition, the age distribution of the dead is not what one would expect from a war episode, in which there are usually more victims among youth and male members. The dataset indicates something more subtle: a community that has gradually fallen victim to minor disputes with neighbors over the decades, possibly due to the intensification of the drought in the region over the last millennia of the Ice Age.
So it was not a life in apocalyptic horror, even if it was far from a world of original peace. What made this kind of instability no longer the norm for our species was an invention that is now heavily attacked by the ignorant: the state, which is able to moderate conflicts between individuals.
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