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Ancient and Unburied

An interesting archaeological story is in the news as 2016 gets under way: the discovery of an ancient massacre in Africa. Skeletons have been unearthed on the site of a vanished lagoon in Kenya and some of the skeletons bear the signs of severe and obviously fatal injuries. By the standards of modern war, the casualties were few – twenty-seven people – but the skeletons date from about 10,000 BC and raise a lot of questions about the darker side of human existence.

The archaeologists from Cambridge University who are working on the site believe that it represents the earliest evidence to date of human beings waging war. Ten of the skeletons have crushed skulls and broken bones, suggesting wounds inflicted by heavy clubs. And arrowheads were found still embedded in a skull and ribcage. But it wasn’t a straightforward if brutal fight between ancient warriors: some of the skeletons are those of women and children, and from the position of their bones it seems that they were tied up before being killed. One of the women must have been heavily pregnant, because the bones of a well-developed foetus were found with her skeleton.

Violence and cruelty have obviously been with us for a long time, but what exactly were the motives of the killers? Were two groups in competition for food and territory? That seems a reasonable hypothesis, but perhaps less concrete motives played a part, like religious hostility or fear of strangers. It’s impossible to be sure of many of the details, but one thing seems clear: the people who were killed were from a tribe that was either completely wiped out or whose living members fled in fear of the same violence.

Why else would the bodies be left to lie where they were killed? Something that is even more common among human beings than violence and conflict is our need to bury our dead with dignity and respect. Archaeologists have found evidence at even older sites that there was belief in an after-life, because weapons, jewellery and flowers have been placed in ancient graves. This massacre may have taken place 12,000 years ago, but the culture of the area was fairly advanced: the arrowheads embedded in the bones are made of a volcanic rock called obsidian, which provides a very sharp edge but has to be chipped and worked carefully to create the right shape.

If people at the time were creating tools like that, they must have had the ability to dig proper graves and pay proper honour to their dead. In this case, that honour was never paid: the victims of the massacre were left to lie and rot, leaving only their bones as mute testimony to the violence of their deaths. The presence of the foetal skeleton is particularly poignant: it was a child who was never even born, dying before it had even breathed the air or seen the sun.

Death comes to us all in the end, but it matters very much how it happens. And few people would say that they don’t care what then happens to their bodies or to the bodies of their loved ones. We expect some kind of ritual and some kind of acknowledgment of the life that is over. War can violate that expectation, tearing people from life painfully and suddenly, and sometimes leaving them without proper burial or cremation.

That’s what happened 12,000 years ago in Kenya. It’s hard to know whether to be reassured or saddened that war has been part of human existence for so long, but the news isn’t unexpected. Art and stories have been telling us of war for thousands of years, right back to the earliest civilizations in ancient Egypt and Babylon. This archaeological discovery confirms what many already suspected: that the darker side of human existence has very deep roots.