The Roots of Violence

Archaeology magazine, a publication of the Archaeological Institute of America, in its January/February 2022 issue has an article on violence titled “The Roots of Violence” written by Andrew Curry.

Skeletons found at Jebel Sahaba
Northern Sudan
Photo Courtesy of the Wendorf Archives
of the British Museum

The article deals with the discover of the remains of 61 men, women, and children found at a cemetery called Jebel Sahara located on the Upper Nile Valley. According to the archaeologists, the remains are 13,400 years old. Below is an excerpt from the article:

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.”

For decades after their discovery, scholars pointed to the skeletons of Jebel Sahaba as the earliest evidence of violence, and even warfare, in deep prehistory. But at the time of the dig, the science of physical anthropology-the investigation of human bones for clues to how people lived and died-was in its infancy, and no comprehensive analysis of the remains was undertaken.

Fifty years after the original excavation, in 2014, Isabelle Crevecoeur, an archaeologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, began investigating the causes of the millennia-long shift from hunting and gathering to herding and farming in the Nile Valley. She thought one way to shed light on this question might be to reexamine the bones from Jebel Sahaba, now housed in the British Museum

The team’s findings suggest that the cemetery wasn’t a mass grave resulting from a single battle, but something perhaps grimmer: evidence of decades of continual violence among neighboring groups in the form of frequent raids, sneak attacks, and ambushes. Crevecoeur identified numerous skeletons with both healed and unhealed wounds-people who had survived one violent encounter, only to be slain months or years later.

On a battlefield, the dead are mostly people in the prime of their lives-for example, young men defending their village. But the Jebel Sahaba skeletons belong mostly to the very young and very old. Crevecoeur suggests that young, healthy people are absent because they would have been more likely to survive an ambush, escape an attack, or recover from their wounds. Equally grim are the individual wounds, including fractured hands and forearms perhaps incurred as people died trying to ward off blows. Some skeletons have evidence of arrow strikes and blows to their backs, as though the people had been struck down while attempting to flee.

You can read the entire article on “The Roots of Violence” by visiting Archaeology online.

Notice the statement by Knüsel: “Prevailing archaeological doctrine in the peace-and-love era of the 1960s held that war and violence were modern inventions.”

Human violence goes back to the beginning of civilization. According to the Bible, the first act of human violence was Cain’s murder of his brother Abel. My book Divine Violence and the Character of God deals with the problem of human violence and divine violence. In the book I have an extended discussion of Cain’s violence against his brother. I also I try to show that human violence begets divine violence.

Divine Violence and the Character of God was published on February 1, 2022. The book deals with God’s violent acts in the Old Testament in light of God’s character as a gracious and merciful God. You can order a  copy of the book at a 40% discount.

NOTE: For other articles on archaeology, archaeological discoveries, and how they relate to the Bible, read my post Can Archaeology Prove the Bible?.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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