Prehistory: the oldest known armed conflict reveals some of its secrets

It is the marker of the oldest known conflict: the Jebel Sahaba cemetery, in the Nile valley and present-day Sudan, with remains dating back more than 13,000 years. The site was discovered in the 1960s. And it continues to deliver valuable information. Researchers from the CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) carried out new analyzes on the bones, kept at the British Museum, in London, and their study was published Thursday in Scientific Reports.

The bones indicate the presence of lesions, which were notably caused by projectiles, such as spears or arrows. For researchers, this is not a simple armed conflict. They speak of a “succession of violent episodes”, certainly exacerbated by climate change. The competition for access to resources would indeed be at the heart of these violent episodes, which modifies the history of violence in prehistoric times.

Major climatic variations

In total, the bones of 61 individuals were analyzed. In addition to the 20 skeletons identified, 21 other skeletons show lesions: traces of projectile impacts or fractures. And 16 individuals have both healed and unhealed lesions, “suggesting repeated episodes of violence throughout a person’s life.” In addition, men, women and children present similar injuries – whereas one would have expected men to be more targeted in times of war.

“These new results make it possible to reject the hypothesis of a disaster cemetery linked to a single war. This site would rather testify to a succession of raids or more limited ambushes towards these hunter-fisher-gatherers, at a time of major climatic variations (end of the last ice age and beginning of the African wet period) “, can we read on the website of CNRS.

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“The concentration of archaeological sites of different cultures in a small area of ​​the Nile valley at that time suggests that this region should constitute a refuge area for human populations subjected to these climatic fluctuations”, it is specified.

Competition for access to resources

“The region was very constrained, and offered few other food resources than those which came from the Nile”, explains Isabelle Crevecoeur, researcher in bio-archeology at the University of Bordeaux and at the CNRS, who took part in the study, in The Parisian. “The climate underwent erratic changes around 15,000 years ago. The presence of several human groups in a small area, and the need to adapt to limited resources may have generated tensions.”

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Thus, one of the causes of this conflict is probably competition for access to resources. For the researchers, this finding alters the history of violence, and could lead to similar results in the analysis of other sites. But despite these elements, all the motivations are not yet fully understood.



By Cécile Maisonneuve, President of Le Fabrique de la Cité and senior fellow of the Institut Montaigne

Applied Economy


Applied Economy



Christophe DonnerBy Christophe Donner

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