Violence, trauma, and hunter-gatherers

(Dewar, 2010)

A fascinating project I’m currently working on involves twelve ~2000 year old San hunter-gatherer skeletons.

These were found in Faraoskop Rock Shelter, where they were (likely) all buried at the same time. They include two children of 2 and 6 years old. How could this possibly have come about? There are no other findings of this many individuals buried in one event in the Late Stone Age of South Africa.

The possibilities include;
1.  They all died from illness (unlikely in nomadic populations)
2.  They were attacked by a large predator (no signs of this)
3.  They were part of some sort of ritual sacrifice (unlikely in these numbers)
3.  They died from exhaustion or another incident (but these are professional hunter-gatherers)
4.  …OR they were murdered (perimortem trauma as we like to call it)

Despite surviving on an omnivorous lifestyle (meat and two veg), San hunter-gatherers have always seemed rather gentle in the minds of the public. I’m afraid there’s plenty of archaeological evidence to suggest that they too resorted to their fair share of manslaughter, and perhaps our Faraoskop folk were the unlucky ones. Here are some of the highlights of South African archaeological hunter-gatherer violence:

These are all perimortem, but there are plenty of cases where intentional damage is evident but they survived the attack (antemortem – here’s a good review)

So perhaps the most likely explanation for fourteen ~2000 year old San hunter-gatherer individuals being buried at the same time is that they were victims of violence… digging sticks, sharp stone tools, and bows and arrows have all been shown as weapons. So it seems that Late Stone Age San hunter-gatherer life wasn’t entirely rosy, and indeed still isn’t: Richard Lee has observed that one contemporary San group (Dobe Kung) may have a murder rate of 30 per 100,000 (compared to 8.4 per 100,000 in Mexico City)! Not so rosy at all.

Next step: properly analyse the Faraoskop skeletons for damage. Go!


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