The Roots of Violence


In the early 1960s, archaeologists from around the world descended on the Upper Nile Valley. They were scrambling to excavate ahead of the construction of the Aswan High Dam, which would submerge dozens of archaeological sites, including a 13,400-year-old cemetery called Jebel Sahaba, by the decade’s end. The cemetery, in what is now northern Sudan, was found to contain the skeletons of 61 men, women, and children. While excavating their remains, the late archaeologist Fred Wendorf of Southern Methodist University noticed unmistakable signs of violence—broken bones, smashed skulls, and stone projectiles embedded in the people’s bones or lying near their bodies. He concluded that they were victims of a battle or massacre. At the time, the idea of organized warfare in the distant past was revolutionary. “Prevailing archaeological doctrine in the peace-and-love era of the 1960s held that war and violence were modern inventions,” says Christopher Knüsel, a physical anthropologist at the University of Bordeaux. “There was a long period when archaeologists said warfare didn’t happen in prehistory.”

By Andrew Curry, Published January\February 2022

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