Clive Robinson February 10, 2016 6:12 AM

The expedition leader’s words, are actually not that surprising,

Lahr’s conclusions are grim – the extreme violence used was typical rather than a brutal exception. She argued: “Nataruk may simply be evidence of a standard antagonistic response to an encounter between two social groups at that time.”

It certainly sounds like the killings had a ritualistic element, similar to that we still see today when “messages are sent”. such as drugs gangs killing civilians and leaving their mutilated bodies on display in public places.

Andrew February 10, 2016 7:06 AM

The narrative being created is complete conjecture though. All they found was physical evidence; the story being created about what that means is complete fabrication. Not saying it didn’t happen this way, but that there’s really no way to actually know.

The author’s conclusion that this is typical behavior just shows the type of perspective she wants to create. This is ONE archaeological site; there’s absolutely no way to draw such a wide-ranging statement from a single instance like this.

Andrew February 10, 2016 7:07 AM

Also, calling this warfare is just silly. Nothing here suggests this is warfare rather than (at worst) a mass killing or fight involving multiple victims.

Bruce Schneier February 10, 2016 9:05 AM

“Also, calling this warfare is just silly. Nothing here suggests this is warfare rather than (at worst) a mass killing or fight involving multiple victims.”

I thought about that.

Near as I can tell, this is what anthropologists call primitive warfare. There are many accounts of this sort of thing by anthropologists in the previous century observing primitive tribes in conflict with each other.

When I first started reading about these, I also didn’t like calling it “warfare.” But I’ve come around — what else would you call it? And what else would primitive warfare be?

Bardi February 10, 2016 9:08 AM

Those who parse the word “warfare” so that mass killing means something else are naive.

An obsidian arrowhead is likely the “nuke” of weapons of that era and until you find rusted out tanks, planes and artillery pieces from that era, for all intents and purposes, it was warfare. Genocide is always “warfare”.

and, about “messages are sent”, gangs are hardly the only groups to “send messages”. The US failure in Vietnam was an attempted message sent to the world, just one step ahead of “gangs”.

Clive Robinson February 10, 2016 10:48 AM

With regards “warfare” what else would you call it?…

Or to put it another way, what do you call the current violence between street gangs? It’s often called “gang warefare” by both politicians and journalists.

Look at it another way how do you decide if something is “violent street crime” involving disfigurement, disabling / dismembering and murder from the same or similar actions carried out on a battlefield? Which is “crime” and which is “warfare” and what is the essential difference that sorts on from the other?

Most of our modern distinctions have no meaning just a couple of hundred years ago, and we are talking hear of fifty times that of ten thousand years ago when civilisation was at best at the tribal stage.

Mark Johnson February 10, 2016 12:53 PM

Speaking of violence, I saw this: “Drugs, guns, and hitmen more common on dark web than religious extremism”

I guess it made me wonder how many are those discussing the technical aspects of security do so for this purpose. Not sure. My friend says that the most liberal are actually the ones that will burn your house down if you dare disagree with them. Just wondering if that is true.

Joe K February 10, 2016 12:58 PM

@Clive Robinson

With regards “warfare” what else would you call it?…

As far as I can tell from the newspaper article, ‘massacre’ seems apt.

Present-day state-prosecuted warfare does indeed include massacres, but do we call the massacre of the Branch Davidians in Waco ‘warfare’?


Or to put it another way, what do you call the current violence between street gangs?

Battles? Rumbles?

Do you really mean street gangs, or do you have in mind international drug cartels?

Distinctions might be made. And many are.

In any case, will we see a trial at the Hague featuring El Chapo? I think not.

It’s often called “gang warefare” by both politicians and journalists.

Two occupations intimately familiar with the practice of manufacturing consent for present-day, state-prosecuted warfare, proper.

Most of our modern distinctions have no meaning just a couple of hundred years ago, and we are talking hear of fifty times that of ten thousand years ago when civilisation was at best at the tribal stage.

Indeed. Which is why calling this prehistoric incident ‘warfare’, in an newspaper article aimed at a present-day popular audience, is a questionable practice.

I expect it would be a waste of time to try to interpret the prehistoric event in question through the lens ofSmedley Butler’s treatise.

Does that mean General Butler lacked insight into the nature of warfare? Or, instead, does it mean that a Guardian journalist, and perhaps an archaeologist or two, might be prone to oversimplifying the nature of war?

park 'n drive February 10, 2016 1:01 PM

Read Keeley’s “War before Civilization”

“The myth of the peace-loving “noble savage” is persistent and pernicious.”

Marcos El Malo February 10, 2016 3:33 PM

It’s not an area of expertise, but iirc, Bronze Age warfare in the Med was conducted with very small armies by today’s standards. Battles were fought with armies of a few hundred soldiers. Only the major rulers might have armies larger than that.

It’s an error to use our recent history to decide if something is worthy of being called warfare. It’s also poor security.

Rather than argue about sizes of armies or numbers killed, we should remember Clausewitz’s dictum, “War is a continuation of politics by other means”.

Marcos El Malo February 10, 2016 3:56 PM


You might enjoy this book: Motel of the Mysteries

Even when there is a written record, archaeological conjecture is often merely conjecture (albeit it might be informed conjecture). Absent a written record, even more so. While archaeology strives to be as scientific as possible, it will probably never achieve the “solidity” of the physical sciences.

Clive Robinson February 10, 2016 5:46 PM

@ Joe K,

As far as I can tell from the newspaper article, ‘massacre’ seems apt.

For the “physical act” I would agree but that says nothing of the “context of the act” which would involve the socio/political aspects of the attack.

It’s a problem I’ve come up against before, society moves, thus politics moves, but at each point in time the lense society sees through is different to any other point in time. But language changes more slowly than society does, so words change their meaning depending on what sociatal lens is viewing the word at any given point in time.

Normaly when discussing this I try to use an unemotive word like “Manufacture” which originaly means “Made by hand”, but few people would say that if you ask them these days we look on it more as “made by machine”, but also in a much more expanded form as well such as “manufacturing industry” and “manufacturing economy”.

A more contempory example would be “gay”. In Victorian london “going gay” refered to what would be called “casual prostitution”, in the “inter-war” years “bachelor gay” was an expression for a “lounge lizard” or loathario. In more recent times it has broader meaning refering in part to same sex relationships. But the definition of sex or gender now has a much richer context and is in part how an individual sees themself and how the various levels of society see the individual.

Thus my point about the maturity of society and how that effects it’s point in time lense. Our current society has so many different definitions for varying kinds of conflict that it’s most easily seen as a spectrum with a number of dimensions. One dimension is the physical act of conflict, another is the mental aspect another the social and so on.

I have no idea what the social, language, mental etc maturity of our ancesters 10,000 years ago was, or if it is actually deducible or not. All I do know is that most of our current definitions of conflict are inappropriate, and are more likely to confuse or clarify.

We only have knowledge of the victims and partial knowledgr of the weapons their attackers used, but not their tactics or numbers. It might be that the attackers were very few and the superiority of weapons such as bows and arrows enabled them to incapacitate or capture a larger group of victims, that they could then dispatch individually rather than on mass. That is it could have been in effect asymmetric warfare. But we don’t know even what the relationship between the attackers and victims were, were they from the same social group or different social groups.

We simply have no knowledge of the number of attackers and their tactics, relationship to the victims etc. Thus a great deal of information is unavailable. In hard science this is generaly not an issues as experiments and Occams Razor can be used. However in the softer social sciences you can not experiment, and Occams Razor is about as much use as a “chocolate teapot”. Thus the few facts realy can not speak for themselves, thus we are left with conjecture coloured and shaped by our social lense…

tyr February 11, 2016 12:02 AM

@Clive Robinson

One thing we are sure of is that there were no armies
made up of the current composition. Most were made of
what we would call pre-teens and very young teens.
This was the case until the mid 20th century and a
lot of the troops then lied their way into combat.
The major exception being Genghis Khans troops, that
was another factor in their sweep of the field for

If you think about as two bunches of hotheaded kid
gangs led by a me first teen loudmouth you will have
a much clearer picture of ancient warfare style. It
took the Romans quite awhile to herd those fools into
a partially disciplined mass that could mow their way
through most ragtag gangs of the times. They also kept
the survivors as they got older in the back ranks and
put the eager dumbass glory hounds up front.

The next invention was the levee en masse of the French
who with an age spectrum much wider mopped up the pros
who were supposedly highly trained. In one of the true
ironies the mighty French got the shit kicked out of them
by a bunch of dirty colonial Indios (still celebrated as
Cinco de Mayo by the victors).

It is an interesting subject for study as it morphs as
different techniques get tried and become ineffective over
a long timeframe. If you find a lot of unbroken projectile
points and no evidence that it was a point factory then
you can assume battlefield.

Winter February 11, 2016 2:32 AM

From the Nature article of the original study it was suggested that the region was “rich” by local standards. It was a lake side with a lot of food and there was evidence of pottery, indicating the people had something to store, and steal.

This means that the usual tactic of hunter gatherers of avoiding violence by moving away from competing groups might not have worked here as the victims probably were semi-sedentary.

I believe the anthropological literature calls this type of attack a raid. It looks pretty much like head-hunting raids among pre-modern Papua people.

And if anyone still has illusions about the people of old being noble and peaceful, please read “The Better Angels of Our Nature” by Steven Pinker.

Believe it or not, but this might actually be the safest time in human history.

bob February 11, 2016 3:39 AM

@Mark Johnson

“My friend says that the most liberal are actually the ones that will burn your house down if you dare disagree with them.”

Then your friend isn’t using a dictionary I’m aware of. Maybe “Liberal” (NB the capital L) at which point it’s just another label used to categorise in lieu of though.

ianf February 11, 2016 5:54 PM

@ Andrew argues that “the conclusion that this is typical behavior just shows the type of perspective [the 22 scientists] want to create. This is ONE archaeological site; there’s absolutely no way to draw such a wide-ranging statement from a single instance like this.

Look at it this way: an archeologist discovers a trove of Holocene remains (residents of Africa way past the big out-of-Africa migration) apparently violently murdered and thrown/ drowned in a lake. The scientist tries to make sense of it, weights various scenarios as to how that might have happened. The scientist consults with others, and together [the 22 authors fronting the report] arrive at a hypothesis that this mud mass grave in once lagoon (now ~30m from the shore) can but have been the result of a violent clash among competing groups of hunter-gatherers. I.e. the scientists do not want to create some perspective out of the data, nor fit them to some preconceived pet idea, but arrive at an educated guess anchored in both their aggregated experience and the probability theory. That’s what is called workable hypothesis, a staple of scientific inquiry (valid until overturned by a more plausible one). And the probability here is strongly in favor of this being a typical (read: common) outcome of such clashes, rather than unusual, fluke, atypical one.

    This is not any proof of that, only a poignant counter-analogy: observe that assorted self-deluded conmen and -women who claim to have memories of (or just are channeling) past existences, ALWAYS “lived” extraordinary, i.e. atypical, lives as Queen Sheebas, etc., if not some famous named courtesans; NEVER as (what would have been more typical) no-name milkmaids, cobblers, or farmhands. Explain that using your powers of iconoclastic perception!

You are correct in asserting that one such discovered instance of prehistoric mass-violence does not yet warfare make, but then note, that there are more meanings to that term than your own – like, e.g. recurring inter-group violence (… “among early Holocene hunter-gatherers of West Turkana, Kenya“) which happened to be the title of that report; and that multi-corpse massacres, while rare, are not exactly absent from the historical record.

As for paleoanthropologists etc trying to conjure up visions of prehistory out of, basically, shards of bricks and pottery, and scattered heaps of bones, let me point you to the controversy over what exactly was the Yewden Villa in the Midlands, where 97 newborns were buried in Roman times (150-200AD). The original hypothesis of there having been a brothel just down the road from a sizable Roman fort, unpalatable to Christian minds, has lately been questioned in favor of it being some “multiple Mother Goddess cults” worship site, in effect an international childbirth centre where expectant mothers could seek shelter in these trying times. Hence these burials could have represented natural stillbirths, or deaths during labour. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of the two scenarios sounds more plausible, or (your pet objection) typical.

ianf February 11, 2016 6:03 PM

@ Marcos El Malo, not sure if Andrew above, who seems to prefer certainty over probability, would enjoy such a speculative fantasy work as that David Macaulay’s “Motel of the Mysteries” (1979), but I liked this 12m long audiovisual adaptation of it.

This is a great premise, discovery of once lost/ suddenly buried advanced civilization for which the discoverers have no contextual “Rosetta stone,” or other decoding clues; too bad this written up as tongue-in-cheek joke, rather than ambitious sci-fi tale chronicling future common misunderestimations (pace G.W.Bush) of found culture while the excavators attempt to make sense of what they are faced with.

In fact, I keep waiting for a novel written along the lines of “post-apocalyptical dispersed society with basic mechanized drilling etc technology, but culturally in constant rogue violent turmoil [Mad Max on steroids] that comes across and tries to dig into previous advanced civilization’s nuclear waste repository—a buried site that’s been set up some 100,000 years earlier in such a fashion as to demotivate and prevent future excavations, which would only lead to new contamination. Designed to communicate that DANGER message un am bi gu ous ly across millennia to possibly devolved future civilization that has yet to rediscover the atom.

    Only I want that novel to be as realistic in its depiction of past-culture forensic inquiry, as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” was in presenting of discovery of the Monolith on the Moon, not some repulped religious claptrap akin to the “Canticle for Leibowitz.”

Marcos El Malo February 12, 2016 1:14 PM

Thank you, that video version was great. The narrator’s voice is not at all how I heard it when reading the book (nor did I imagine background music), but I enjoyed that, too.

Steve Kinney February 13, 2016 1:45 PM

I have some input with regard to Mark Johnson’s question, “My friend says that the most liberal are actually the ones that will burn your house down if you dare disagree with them. Just wondering if that is true.”

First and foremost, it depends on what we mean by “liberal.” We may call FDR and his supporters Liberal, what with the New Deal, WPA, CCC and all that. But they did burn down a lot of people’s houses, for instance in Dresden, Tokyo and Kobe.

Today, white celebrities who self identify as liberal tend to enthusiastically support Bernie Sanders but, by and large, studiously ignore Black Lives Matter. Bernie’s platform on foreign policy amounts to “four more years of Bush/Obama,” while BLM only calls for the reduction of deadly violence by State actors.

Associating liberals with pacifism and nonviolence seems to be a misnomer; they behave like natural enemies. Consider the New Left, a media circus that effectively displaced the original anti-war movement in media coverage in the late 1960s. The New Left opposed the draft, but only because of their pro-communist position; these folks account for the folk tales of “hippies” spitting on returning servicemen.

After the fall of Saigon, a group of pacifists took out a full page ad in the New York Times condemning Hanoi for mass purges in South Vietnam, with Joan Baez as the lead spokesperson. A leftist group promptly took out a full page congratulating and praising Hanoi, with Jane Fonda as the lead spokesperson.

In the U.S. today, extremists on the Right Fringe include overt Fascists who make a major issue of their imagined racial superiority and occasionally burn down churches. On the Left Fringe we find “eco terrorists” who occasionally take a monkey wrench or a torch to a bulldozer or lumber mill. Which crew is more likely to burn your house down for disagreeing with them? Depends the nature of the disagreement, but I would guess the KKK on the Right would be more likely to than the ELF on the Left.

Pacifists may appear to naive observers as Liberal or Conservative depending on context and bias, because their ideologies do not fall on a one dimensional Left/Right scale. Much the same can be said for Anarchists. Both meet the definition of Radical, as their agendas include changing the way business is done, not just unto who the business is done. Neither has a particular bias toward burning your house down because you disagree with them; more likely the opposite.

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