What kind of life did our Stone Age ancestors lead? There are countless ways to answer this question (not least because it is somewhat vague), but a tradition that has lasted for centuries is to emphasize the tremendous insecurity that should characterize their daily lives. In the words of the English thinker Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), it would be an existence characterized by “the continuous fear and danger of suffering a violent death; and man’s life [era] lonely, poor, disgusting, brutal and short”.
It should be noted that Hobbes ran through this string of disheartening adjectives long before reliable information about the prehistory of our species was unearthed. Since then, however, direct data about the supposed “brutal and short” life have surfaced. And one of the most emblematic places to understand what happened in this remote past is the Jebel Sahaba Cemetery, in the valley of the Nile River.
This archaeological site was located in Sudan, just south of the Egyptian border, and today it is under the waters of the gigantic Lake Nasser, created during the construction of a hydroelectric plant. In the 1960s, when Jebel Sahaba was originally excavated, analysis of the dozens of skeletons buried there seemed to confirm old Hobbes’ worst predictions (or retrospectives, since we’re talking about the past).
In short, the Sudanese site, whose occupation would have extended between 18,500 years and 13,500 years ago, had every way of being the record of the first war of our species. Dozens of remains of men, women and children were found with injuries to different parts of the body and/or associated with stone instruments that appeared to have been used to massacre such people. One of the interpretations for the findings is that a single violent event (a confrontation that could have involved up to a few hundred hunter-gatherers in the region) would explain the burials.
The real situation, however, was probably more complex, indicates a recent study coordinated by Isabelle Crevecoeur of the University of Bordeaux. In an article in the specialized journal Scientific Reports, the French researcher and her colleagues conducted a new analysis of the skeletons of Jebel Sahaba, even identifying several injuries and remains of stone weapons that had passed through studies in the 1960s.
Of the 61 individuals studied by Crevecoeur and company, 41 show signs of some type of violence, but in only 16 of them these injuries occurred “perimortem”, that is, at the time these people died. Most of the wounds, usually from arrows or other instruments used for ranged attacks, ended up healing over the course of people’s lives.
Furthermore, the distribution of ages of the dead is not what one would expect from an episode of war, in which there are usually more victims among young people and male members. The data set indicates something more subtle: a community that has been gradually victimized, over the decades, by small-scale disputes with neighbors, perhaps because of the intensification of drought in the area in the final millennia of the Ice Age.
So it was not a life of apocalyptic horror, even though it was far from a world of primeval peace. What made this type of instability cease to be the norm for our species was an invention that is now much attacked by ignorant people: the State, capable of moderating conflicts between individuals.
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