“These remains were discovered during the Nubian salvage when they were building the Aswan Dam. UNESCO funded surveys to go around and salvage as much as they could of the archaeology before it was flooded.
“It was all divided up by time zones, so people who were interested in the early period went around and surveyed the entire area for just sites of early period. Fred Wendorf was the researcher at the time and he discovered these remains and did two seasons of excavation there. And they quickly realized he was onto something quite remarkable when they were finding the remains of weapons still embedded in the bodies mixed in with the bones of these very early burials.”
One aspect that caught the public’s imagination of is the remains themselves—clearly displayed signs of violent injury—in all probability caused by other human beings.
“There are cut marks on them, probably from the passage of arrows shot at high velocity. There are other cut marks that may be due to knives, they have broken bones, broken arm bones, probably from protecting themselves against blows. They have depressed fractures in their skulls—many of which they have survived. So, they’ve been subject to a great deal of violence, probably long term, maybe not a lot at any one time. So skirmishes, raids by other neighbours... accrued over a certain period of time.”
The British Museum team has evidence that these remains date back to 13,000 years ago. But there seems to be a misconception about the group of remains.
“All the people buried in this particular cemetery, which was by the second cataract of the Nile, they are all, as far as we can tell, of one culture and of one genetic type. Where that misconception is coming from is that there are cemeteries further south of this find that are showing people of apparently a different racial type, of a more Mediterranean, North African look. While the people Jebel Sahaba, these people who have all this violence, are probably ancestral to Sub-Saharan Africa.”
So, whether or not they’re different cultures, what the British Museum can be sure of is 13,000 years ago people were fighting.
“We know people were fighting, we know it was a time of scarce resources, and a lot of people were moving out deserts and were all collecting along the Nile. So, it certainly is not surprising if you would get different people of different cultures or different races running into each other. But we cannot say from the evidence that we have the weapons are from the same culture as the people themselves. So, we are not getting foreign arrows in these people—these are arrows they made themselves. So, it may be different tribes of the same people, just fighting over access to the best resources when people are getting desperate. But we have no evidence that there were people of a different racial type coming up and inflicting violence on these people. We don’t see genetic replacement. There were many other cemeteries found around the Jebel Sahaba cemetery, all the same racial type and those people showed very little evidence of violence. So, to say that this is a racial war, really misrepresents the evidence we have.”
While the skeletal materials were found during the flooding of the Aswan Dam, more than 30-odd years ago, the remains have now been donated, by the original excavator, to the British Museum.
“We have now had the chance to reconserve them, because at the time they were covered in a varnish and wax to try to support these very old bones. We’ve now cleaned that off and are using new conservation techniques, so we can see a lot more evidence for violence, we can see more evidence of healing, we are getting a much better view of the physical anthropology now that we were able to use modern techniques on them.”
Of the 59 Jebel Sahaba victims, skeletal material from two has been included in the new Early Egypt gallery, which is permanent. The display includes flint arrowhead fragments and a healed forearm fracture.