Sign of foul play. A projectile point (arrow) in the neck of an ancient skeleton hints at an early start to human violence.

The Beginning of Violence

Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya, Darfur, Kashmir--in nearly every corner of the world, violence and warfare are raging. It's today's news, but it's nothing new. A projectile point embedded in an ancient skeleton lends credence to the notion that the violence began soon after humans started living together.

Anthropologists and archaeologists have long suspected that social tensions began to arise after the advent of settled life, when hunter-gatherers formed close-knit communities and eventually took up farming. Yet evidence for this hypothesis has been lacking. The best-studied early sedentary peoples, the Natufians--who occupied parts of present-day Israel beginning about 14,500 years ago--were thought by many researchers to have been fairly peaceful.

Now a study of one of the richest collections of Natufian skeletons, from Kebara Cave on Mount Carmel, has turned up fresh evidence of violence among these early settlers. In the July-August issue of the Journal of Human Evolution, archaeologists Fanny Bocquentin of the University of Bordeaux, France, and Ofer Bar-Yosef of Harvard University report finding a small, crescent-shaped stone projectile embedded in a thoracic vertebra of a mature male, as well as skull fractures and other injuries on two other of the 17 Natufians found buried at Kebara. The skeletons, which were excavated in 1931 and are now housed in Harvard's Peabody Museum, had never been exhaustively studied. From the position of the projectile, Bocquentin and Bar-Yosef conclude that the assailant struck at close range, perforating either the left lung or the heart and aorta of the victim.Other experts on the Natufians cautiously welcome the study. "The presence of this embedded projectile illustrates clear evidence for interpersonal conflict," says archaeologist Ian Kuijt of Notre Dame University in Indiana. And Phillip Edwards of La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia, calls the paper "very significant." But both Kuijt and Edwards warn against drawing sweeping conclusions about early warfare from one set of skeletons. "It is entirely possible that these actions were the end result of an act of violence within a family," Kuijt says.

Related site
Information about Natufian culture