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The Earliest Instance Of Warfare Between Humans

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Human nature has been subject to evolution, alteration, and divergence from past practices from the emergence of humanity itself. The juncture at which human societies first engaged in warfare with one another is not only indicative of a change in the nature of the human species, but also of a change in the environment in which they resided. While the majority of sources present a unique, rigid explanation of what warfare is interpreted as, no set definition will be adhered to in this essay, as using one author’s beliefs to examine the works of others can result in a flawed, one-dimensional analysis of evidence. Jebel Sahaba: Techniques and Significance Jebel Sahaba, also known as Site 117, is an archaeological site located along Sudan’s northern border and within Nile River Valley is one of, if not the most popularly “cited evidence of warfare or systemic intergroup violence” (Ferguson, 2000, p. 159).

The site, identified as a cemetery dating back approximately 12,000 to 14,000 years (though it is only proven to be at least 11,600 ± 600 years old), contains the remains of 61 humans, 21 of which were found with small stone and chert artifacts thought to have been projectiles within the skeletons (Friedman, 2014, p. 3-4). Archaeological techniques and analysis used to examine these remains support the idea that these humans were victims of long-term, systematic conflict between communities.

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According to Antoine, Zazzo, and Friedman, the measure of apatite, used as an alternative to collagen, in the enamel, dentine, and bones were used to radiocarbon date four skeletons, which establishes the cemetery to be of Qadan culture, and of the Epipaleolithic period (2013, p. 3). Experts have determined that at least 45% of those buried at Jebel Sahaba died from violent wounds, citing weapon fragments embedded in remains, markings on bones indicative of combat wounds, and perhaps most significant, evidence of healing of some damaged bones as evidence (Friedman, 2014, p. 3). The creation of Jebel Sahaba is believed to be a product of the early Qadan culture, which coincides with early iterations of societies that rely both on hunting and cultivation of wild plants, such as grasses and grains, for sustenance (Philipson, 2008, p. 149). Verification for this assertion comes from the prevalence of grindstones found in Qadan sites coated in a glossy residue, identified as silica left crushing plant matter on them (Philipson, 2008, p. 150).

Jebel Sahaba: Theories and controversies. Even the cause of warfare between communities in Upper Egypt at this time period is debated by archaeologists; the three most prominent theories attribute the cause as either driven by competition for desirable food sources, the change in climate, or a combination of the prior two concepts. Ferguson describes how the reliance on early crop cultivation was “brought to a crashing halt by climactic change which would have put extreme pressure on all peoples throughout the region, especially those in favorable locales like Site 117” (2000, p. 159). An article by A. E. Carlson from the Encyclopedia of Quaternary Science states that the Younger Dryas reportedly caused a decrease in both temperature and precipitation in North Africa, supporting the aforementioned theory by Ferguson (2013, p. 127). Friedman, conversely, presents a range of potential causes for conflict near Jebel Sahaba, diverging from the single-viewpoint system used frequently by others. He confers the possibility of Ice Age aridity impacting North African climates, the significance of the Nile as a valuable yet unpredictable resource, competition for gathering and fishing grounds, and the proximity of nearby cemeteries to Jebel Sahaba, which could imply that multiple communities considered that area as their home (Friedman, 2014, p. 4). A select few sources state that an entirely different ethnic variant of humans were the ones who killed those buried in Site 117, some proclaiming them to be Natufian, while others identify them to be some sort of European, Levantine, or North African subgroup that operated in the same region as the Qadan culture (Keys, 2014, p. 2-3). Other discrepancies, specifically the total count of the skeletons found at Site 117 differ by account, ranging from 58 to 61.

Presence of public archaeology. Fred Wendorf is the archaeologist that is credited with leading the team that discovered Jebel Sahaba in 1964. The only information about his team in this essay’s sources is that they were sponsored by the UNESCO High Dam Salvage Project (Antoine et al. , 2013, p. 2). While this implies that the native Sudanese or Egyptian population was ignored in the process of this excavation, the information recovered by his expedition does potentially hold relevance to the ancestors of some surviving North Africans. Rather than embracing this potential use of public archaeology, however, Wendorf kept the artifacts recovered at Jebel Sahaba in his own possession, and later donated them to the British Museum in 2001 (Judd, 2006, 153). None of the sources cited in this essay state that Wendorf used the artifacts or remains obtaining at the site for public archaeology of any kind. This fact is particularly unfortunate, as descendants of those whose remains are now displayed in the United Kingdom could have been exposed to information about their prehistoric ancestors and exemplifies the prevalence of ethnocentrism still affecting archaeology in the current century.

Further controversy and goals. While the intentions of Wendorf may have been unethical to a degree, the research conducted from his findings is being used to further the contemporary understanding around prehistoric (specifically Pleistocene and Epipaleolithic) peoples. Fry compares two potential goals originating from archaeological research conducted on Jebel Sahaba: the identification of correlations between population pressure and violent conflict in prehistoric communities, and the desire to further our insights into the development of pre-agricultural societies through ethnographic analogy (Fry, 2013, p. 8-9). The age of Jebel Sahaba is also currently being compared to that of a similar site, Nataruk, as some archaeologists stress that the methods of radiocarbon dating used in the 1960s are somewhat unreliable; Jebel Sahaba is still believed to be older than Nataruk (Antoine et al. , 2013, p. 4).

Conclusion and Ties to Class Lectures

Comprehensively, each this essay covers techniques and information discussed in class in a critical and interpretive manner. As of 2018, evidence presented by archaeologists can be used to conclude that Jebel Sahaba can be classified as the earliest known instance of warfare between two organized human communities, but this assertion may be refuted if new, antithetical evidence is presented. Likewise, while we cannot be absolutely certain of the cause of the conflict that led to the burials at Jebel Sahaba, we can make inferences using relevant archaeological techniques, such as radiocarbon dating, analysis of human remains, and examination of artifacts for pertinent residue or remains. As technology advances, our understanding of past societies will evolve, potentially granting further insights into the lives of prehistoric humans that cannot be uncovered today.


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