Genocidal Altruists: Are We ‘Naturally’ Violent? Altruistic? Both?

“We know that we are apes, but we cannot be classified simplistically as ‘naked apes’ or ‘killer apes’ or ‘moral apes.’…Our past is complicated; so is our present, and so will be our future.” – Paul Ehrlich (2000: 331)

“When we are bad, we are worse than any primate that I know. And when we are good, we are actually better and more altruistic than any primate that I know. ” – Frans de Waal


The Eagles headed back to their cabin feeling dejected after losing a tug-of-war contest to their rivals, the Rattlers. Along the way, one of the boys noticed the Rattlers had forgotten their flag on the baseball field, leaving it unprotected. Craig and Mason soon seized it, but struggled to tear it to pieces. McGraw then presented some matches and suggested they burn it instead. The group then hung the flag’s charred remains from the top of the backstop fence. Mason said, “You can tell those guys I did it. If they say anything I’ll fight ‘em.”

The above scene is from the psychologist Muzafer Sherif’s classic social psychology experiment at Robbers Cave, Oklahoma during the summer of 1954. Sherif divided twenty-two 11-year-old boys with comparable backgrounds into two even groups at nearby cabin sites, with the boys kept unaware of the other group’s existence.

After giving them a week to bond among themselves, Sherif introduced the groups to each other and announced that they would be competing for prizes in team sports and other events. Eventually the rivalry grew heated, and the boys turned to name-calling, flag-burning, and vandalizing each other’s cabins. The competition nearly escalated into serious violence, with sticks and rocks as potential weapons, before adults intervened.   

Sherif’s experiment is sometimes cited as a depressing warning of how easily people can slide into “us versus them” hostilities, even if the groups are formed rather arbitrarily, and even if we’re only talking about preadolescent boys with little at stake except ego and trivial prizes. There is truth to that warning. People can cling tightly to group identities, sometimes resulting in serious animosity toward outsiders.

Rivalries that fall along national, ethnic, ideological, or religious divides have the potential to escalate into more severe vitriol, violence, and even war: Sunni–Shia, Muslim Seleka–Christian anti-Balaka, Israelis–Palestinians, Kyrgyz–Uzbeks, Hutu–Tutsi, Russians–Ukrainians, Americans–Afghans, etc. Certainly, rivalries are not the entire story of human group interactions, but they occur often enough that many have wondered whether group conflict is an inevitable part of human existence. Others have asked if the roots of intergroup conflict stem from the base of our evolutionary lineage as a species, or possibly even earlier.

These are difficult questions, partly because our past is often mythologized, where it is tempting to make sweeping generalizations that venture beyond the facts. One famous example includes Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech when he said that: “War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man.” Winston Churchill thought similarly.

However, such claims are often based on an imagined past, not evidence, and reconstructing an accurate picture of our species’ prehistory is a notoriously difficult task. To do so, researchers usually round up some of the usual anthropological suspects by studying: (1) our primate cousins, to ascertain possible shared characteristics we may have inherited from a common ancestor; (2) living hunter-gatherer populations as an (imperfect) model of our more recent evolutionary past; (3) cross-cultural variation, to assess the full range of human behavior; and (4) most directly, the archaeological record.

By now, it is fairly well-known that chimpanzees, one of our genetically closest relatives (the other being the peaceable bonobo) engage in lethal violence within and between neighboring groups. In a paper published last September in Nature, Michael L. Wilson and twenty-nine fellow primatologists reported that across eighteen chimpanzee communities in east and west Africa, there had been 152 killings over 426 total years of field observations (Wilson et al 2014). Furthermore, killings were observed in fifteen of eighteen of the communities, including those with minimal human interference. Most victims (63%) were from different communities than the attackers, and the authors concluded that killing among chimpanzees was adaptive and a means of removing unrelated rivals when one group had superior numbers and the potential risks from engaging in an attack were low.

What to make of this? On one hand, we can see tantalizing parallels between chimpanzee and human intergroup violent behavior. For one, chimpanzee killings are overwhelmingly a male activity, as they comprise 92% of participants in attacks. Killings also occurred over a wide geographic range, from Senegal to Tanzania, and were therefore not merely an aberrational phenomenon specific to one community or the result of human impact.

On the other hand, lethal violence was rather infrequent, as the majority of communities had rates of less than 0.2 killings per year. In some communities lethal violence had never been observed. These rates are not easily translatable to human societies today simply because we live in much bigger groups, and a single chimpanzee victim will be much more impactful. Still, if lethal violence among chimpanzees is adaptive, it appears to be only sporadically so, not a regular feature of daily life. Lethal violence is also more likely to occur under specific circumstances. For example, Wilson et al. found that chimpanzees were more likely to kill when there were more males around, and when population densities were higher. As is the case in humans, chimpanzee behavior is flexible and responsive to social and ecological variables. They are no more automatons than we are.

Elsewhere, Wilson wrote that he was agnostic about what chimpanzee lethal violence means for us, adding that “definitive claims about human behavior need to be based on data from humans.” But the human data are also tricky. The historians Will and Ariel Durant once suggested that: “War is one of the constants of history…In the last 3,421 years of recorded history only 268 have seen no war” (1968: 81). That seems rather conclusive: war is a part of who we are. However, the Durants’ calculation does not mean that war was present everywhere on the planet simultaneously, and if we cast our net wide enough it makes sense that we would find conflict somewhere. Nor does it necessarily mean that war was common in pre-history.

Contemporary hunter-gatherer societies are often viewed as stand-ins for our prehistory. While anthropologists emphasize that all societies change over time, the rationale is that prior to agriculture, humans acquired food in this manner for the vast majority (>90%) of our species’ history. When the anthropologists Douglas Fry and Patrik Söderberg (2013) looked at violence in twenty-one contemporary and historical mobile hunter-gatherer groups, they found 148 lethal incidents in the ethnographic record dating back to the early 1800s, with a median of 4 incidents per group.

Their findings were not very consistent with the idea that war and intergroup aggression were a consistent feature of mobile hunter-gatherer groups. Only a minority of lethal incidents occurred between different societies. Instead, 36.3% of lethal incidents were within the same local group (relatives, spouses, other group members), 48.7% were within the same society but not the same local group, and 15.0% were between different societies (neighboring cultures, missionaries).

Additionally, most killings were dyadic, consisting of one aggressor and one victim (that is, homicide). These often had personal motives such as sexual jealousy or revenge, rather than stemming from impersonal intergroup hostilities. Only 22% of the incidents involved coalitionary violence, where more than one person participated in killing more than one person. Roughly half of the groups (10 of 21) had no coalitionary violence events, while three had no lethal events at all.

However, the most obvious and direct way to understand violence in our prehistoric past is through the archaeological record. There are clear examples of skeletal trauma indicating that interpersonal and group-level violence appeared in prehistory well before modern nation-states. Our ancestors were not complete peaceniks. Like us, they were complex.

But this is a far cry from saying that war has been unending since the beginning of humanity. In fact, violence seems to have been relatively rare before the increasing population densities and fixed settlements that accompanied agriculture. In a thorough review of prehistoric violence, the archaeologists Jonathan Haas and Matthew Piscatelli wrote, with emphasis, that:

“globally, at least 2,930 skeletal remains of Homo sapiens have been recovered at over 400 archaeological sites dating prior to 8000 BC/10000 BP… the small number of skeletal finds mentioned above showing ambiguous signs of conflict come from a comparatively small number of sites. Rather than demonstrating the commonness of ancient warfare among humans, consideration of the entire archaeological data set shows the opposite… The archaeological record is not silent on the presence of warfare in early human history. Indeed, this record shows that warfare was the rare exception prior to the Neolithic pressures of population densities and insufficient resources for growing populations” (2013: 182-3).

Prior to agriculture, there were several reasons that mobile hunter-gatherers would have little incentive to engage in warfare. These include small group sizes, an egalitarian social structure, kin and social ties to neighboring groups who were a source of mates and trade, low population densities that allowed easy mobility to new territory should tensions arise, and the relative lack of accumulated wealth that could be an incentive to attack one’s neighbors (see Fry and Söderberg 2013’s appendix for a fuller list).

So, were our ancestors naturally violent or peaceful? It doesn’t appear that war was ubiquitous in our hunter-gatherer ancestors. But perhaps a better answer to that question is “it depends.” As with chimpanzees, intergroup violence in humans likely ebbed and flowed situationally rather than being an inevitable outcome of human nature. Context matters, and any attempt to extrapolate clear trends of violence over human pre-history risks sacrificing nuance and understanding local variation. Along these lines, in a recent paper in the Yearbook of Physical Anthropology, the bioarchaeologists Debra Martin and Ryan Harrod write that patterns of violence via skeletal trauma “suggest variability, nuance and unevenness in the type, use, and meaning of violence across time and space and therefore defy generalizations or easy quantification” (in press).

Another reason the question is so difficult to answer is that humans are so behaviorally flexible, with a capacity not just for hate and conflict, but also for cooperation and love, even for non-kin and members outside of our group. Aggression and violence are part of our species’ behavioral repertoire, but at what frequency, and in what form, are more complex questions. We have the capacity to give someone the shirt off our back, and the kidney underneath it, but we can also pick up an automatic weapon and aim it at an ‘enemy’ or even participate in genocide. The challenge is not to figure out whether our species is inherently violent or altruistic, but why both extreme capacities are found within a single species, and what circumstances and social structures facilitate or impede those behaviors.

Finally, to return to the boys at Robbers Cave, the last stage of the experiment is at times forgotten. Sherif created situations that required the Rattlers and Eagles to put aside their differences in order to achieve “superordinate goals” that neither group could accomplish alone – pooling their money to pay for a movie (“Treasure Island”), fixing a damaged water tank that supplied both cabins, etc. By the end of camp, both groups agreed that they would travel home to Oklahoma City on the same bus. Sherif noted that the boys chose to sit intermingled, rather than strictly along group lines. On the trip home, they sang together (Oklahoma!), exchanged addresses, and at a refreshment stop the Rattlers volunteered to pay for malt drinks for both groups.

The lesson of Robbers Cave is not that the boys were biologically inclined to be vicious or virtuous. Rather, they were capable of moving in either direction. Same boys. Different circumstances. This makes sense. From an evolutionary point of view, flexibility is the very essence of behavior, as it allows organisms to respond to external conditions. After all, we can find violence in ‘peaceful’ bonobos, fruit-eating in alligators, and meat-eating in herbivorous orangutans. And perhaps one of our species greatest assets is our adaptability, to be flexible enough to live in a range of physical environments, consume a variety of diets, and respond to the other highly intelligent, behaviorally complex, humans around us. Sometimes we compete, sometimes we cooperate; we come equipped for both.



Durant W and Durant A. 1968.  The Lessons of History. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ehrlich PR. 2000. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Shearwater Books.

Fry D, Söderberg P. 2013. Lethal aggression in mobile forager bands and implications for the origins of war. Science 341(6143): 270-273.

Haas J and Piscatelli M. 2013. The prehistory of warfare, In War, Peace, and Human Nature. Pp. 168-90 in: D Fry (ed.) Oxford University Press.

Martin DL, Harrod RP. In Press. Bioarchaeological Contributions to the Study of Violence. Yearbook of Physical Anthropology.

Wilson ML, Boesch C, Fruth B, Furuichi T, Gilby IC, Hashimoto C et al. 2014. Lethal aggression in Pan is better explained by adaptive strategies than human impacts. Nature 513(7518): 414-7.

[I originally wrote this essay for the website This View of Life in January.]

14 thoughts on “Genocidal Altruists: Are We ‘Naturally’ Violent? Altruistic? Both?

  1. Man IS naturally violent. That is not the same as saying he is naturally aggressive. He CAN control or redirect his violence, IF he chooses to do so. ….but….he is also naturally stupid…Just about all aggression is accompanied by a rationale, however unreasonable, of defence (defense). So the USA will provide weapons to Ukrainians, who usurped their elected government, to prevent Russia taking over the Balkan States. Any similarity to 20th century support for Franco and (earlier) Mussolini is purely coincidental (?). Perhaps the real tragedy is that those who make such public rationales are among the most educated and privileged members of all societies. I can only presume that education and stupidity can and do go hand in hand. How come no university has yet offered a doctorate in Stupidity?

    • Hi Robert, I appreciate the distinction between being violent and aggressive, as well as the emphasis on our ability to choose (despite our stupidity). I probably should have chosen a better word than ‘naturally’ because it’s so open to interpretation. At one end of the spectrum, everything we do is natural since a behavior wouldn’t exist otherwise if it was unnatural. At the other end, natural to some people means ‘inevitable.’ I guess we are naturally violent in the first sense, but not so much in the second. I worry about people using the second interpretation because of the potential for the self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. Here we go again with Wittgenstein’s ghost looking over our shoulders and Levi-Strauss having a good laugh. Unnatural behaviour exists every bit as much as natural behaviour (so what’s unnatural about it?). The dichotomy is only in our mind (and IS our thinking). War and Peace. Love and Marriage. Birth and death. All in the mind.

    We need to scrub our minds clean, but whenever we try to do so we start cutting off heads ~ our own or those of others.

    There is a lot to be said for doing nothing. Neutrality.

      • After a lifetime of to and fro on the basically good/basically evil debate, old age has brought the wisdom to see it as a non-debate. I am no more altruistic or genocidal than my dog. I think the really big difference is that my dog would (probably) never contemplate or commit suicide. Admittedly his dash across the road and the subsequent life-saving operation appeared suicidal from a human perspective, but I’m pretty sure he just wanted to get to the bitch across the way. Admittedly too, it would be difficult for any non-tool-using animal to top himself. I suppose my dog could jump from the third floor and plan to land on his head, but I’m pretty sure it will never happen. If we can understand why man kills himself and harms himself, we might begin to understand why he harms others. Is suicide in our nature?

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  5. It is notable that human evolution as a supremely cultural species happened while humans were still all living within forager economies. Yet for the past hundred years, most people have assumed that the lives of people in such economies are confined to a narrow set of social connections of limited scope and potential. This is still the most common and popular view: early human groups were tiny tight-knit collections of closely related people who shared food and moved around their territory together. This “in-group” is often pictured as having occasional alliances, but more often hostile relationships with neighboring “out-groups”. Very similar ideas appear in many other writings by evolutionary theorists speculating about the origins of human cognition and behavior in biology, psychology and anthropology today.
    You will find this view in the recent book by E.O.Wilson (page 243, the Social Conquest of Earth) .

    “Throughout prehistory, as humans evolved their cognitive prowess, the network of each individual was almost identical to that of the group to which he belonged. People lived in scattered bands of a hundred or fewer (thirty was probably a common number). They had knowledge of neighboring bands, and, judging from the lives of surviving hunter-gatherers, neighbors to some degree formed alliances. They participated in trade and exchanges of young women, but also in rivalries and vengeance raids. But the heart of each individual’s social existence was the band, and the cohesion of the band was kept tight by the binding force of the network it composed…. With the emergence of villages and then chiefdoms in the Neolithic period around 10,000 years ago, the nature of the networks changed dramatically. They grew in size and broke into fragments… in modern industrialized countries, networks grew to a complexity that proved bewildering to the Paleolithic mind we inherited…”

    This hypothesis fails, however, when tested against all the evidence from contemporary work with foragers. Hunter-gatherer bands, the units referred to in Wilson’s work, do not correspond to his description at all. They are not tight-knit and stable groups of people, but rather ephemeral and fluid. Bands do not raid each other, or “exchange young women”: when they meet they exchange gossip, stories, scandals, new songs, innovations in technology, dance, art, tattoos, and jokes. Personnel move frequently between different bands, and they are certainly not all young women.

    Bands, in fact, are temporary camping groups, part of a much larger community that shares the same dialect or language, numbering in the many hundreds, or even thousands, of people. Most of these people know each other, or at least know of each other through their individual social networks of friends and family. The hunter-gatherer data suggests that where individual networks extended furthest, the flexibility would be greatest, and the long-term effect would be a more successfully reproducing population. Territorialism, resulting in mutual aggression, is likely to have been counter-productive to long term survival. Competitive exclusion, whereby some groups expanded at the expense of others, ignores the simpler strategy of impulse control and opportunistic negotiation. The latter enlarges the scope of caloric throughput from one generation to the next, without the stress of fighting and injury. Even small positive increments in reproductive success would be enough to make this a dominant strategy.

  6. Having hostile relations and picturing human evolutionary history as a competition between different bands of at most hundred members is, frankly, ridiculous. If there was “group level” selection going on, it was of a completely different character.. it had to do not with the ability to make war and take over territory and “females” but rather with the ability to keep generating a pattern of organization and technology that was compatible with long term sustainability. And this involved retaining a lot of flexibility about how people were distributed over the landscape. Climatic and environmental shifts were brutal and unpredictable during most of the Pleistocene.

    Having wide networks that included friendships and intermarriages with neighbouring communities, multilingualism, and frequent long range visiting back and forth could be a life line for people in a region where a volcanic eruption had just happened, or where local drought was destroying plant growth and starving game.

    It was the people with an ability to maintain large networks, the people who handled relationships with neighbouring groups with diplomacy and an eye to the potential benefits of mutual aid, who became our ancestors, not those who only saw the distant folk over the hill in terms of temporary targets of a raid to get women… as for “territory” – why? The population density of humans during most of the pre-Holocene was extremely low – as most of you know. And why would men even imagine that a woman who has been taken by raiders, whose father, brothers, husbands, and sons were just killed or maimed by those raiders… that such a woman would tamely settle down to be a wife? Hunter-gatherer women are usually armed with knives and sharpened wood spears (digging sticks) and are perfecting capable of killing for revenge… and of infanticide.

    It is not that humans have no capacity for violence! It is that that capacity, at least among foragers, tends to be used to enforce egalitarian sharing, to face down bullies and murderers, and to make things like the use of force really really unproductive and stupid.

    I have spoken to a Kua who, together with his father and brothers, resolutely set off to track down and execute a murderer (it was his own brother) because it HAD to be done before the guy killed another woman or weaker person. I am therefore not saying that nomadic hunter-gatherers are PACIFIST or any such nonsense. I am saying that the constraints and logic of their economic system generally made it unintelligent to be aggressive and warlike and thus to cut off the opportunities opened up by a more diplomatic and shrewd approach. Killing someone, according to my informants, is like “lighting a fire of vengeance, a fire that will burn for untold generations and destroy many innocents”.

    I know I am describing modern people with modern cognition. Was the ancestral hunter-gathering more rudimentary? I am not saying early Homo were the same animal as modern humans, but that the pattern we see today is a pattern that evolved and became universal because it was the successful one. If the life of early Homo was more rudimentary, what pattern of behaviour would have resulted in this success? Look at several aspects in turn: technology use, communication, networking and intelligence.

    The CULTURAL data on the width and time death of networks and gene flow among hunter-gatherers, (based on contemporary fieldwork where blood work was done to establish past flows) indicates that the ONLY logical prediction is this: there was, whenever climate permitted, constant exchange of genes (including personnel) and information over all landmasses occupied by human hunter-gatherers throughout most of our evolutionary history. We could not have developed cultural systems of adaptation otherwise.

    This means that a story about some unusual incident or discovery, made along the coast of China by a bunch of “Homo sapiens erectus” or whatever you want to to label them, would eventually have been channelled back to the tip of southern Africa. The story or the new technique, would be told or demonstrated from campfire to campfire; at all the little occasions when people met and camped along overlapping gathering or hunting grounds… and by the same token, gene flow would have continued to trickle back and forth across even such vast distances.

    We are a species adapted to learning numerous languages in a single lifetime. This is no accident. We are a curious and gossipy lot, and we love stories, and we love novelty. This is no accident. We tend to feel a special thrill when we encounter people with a hint of the exotic about them, gene flow ensues. This is also no accident. It is all part of the pattern of behaviour that saw us poised over and over again on the brink of extinction – and these were the sources of the helping hands that brought us back from that edge.

    Eurasia was often hell on earth during the Pleistocene. Africa was pretty damn dry at times, but that is better than being buried under a mile of ice. It is no surprise most humans, and most human diversity, survived in Africa than in Eurasia, and that the outwash from the most populous zones (both in Africa and beyond) are what we find represented in our genome today. We owe something to ALL the survivors who contributed, no matter how big their brow ridges.

    This process goes back a long long way, and that we need to start looking at these models for the late Miocene and early Pleistocene as well. We are clearly the last of widespread collection of species, of genera, which were fundamentally terrestrial generalists, creatures that survived on acquired sets of knowledge and skills, and on relationships that defy the easy cop-out models based on mere “territoriality” or instinctive “killer-ape” behaviour. Look at the teeth on the Naledi fossils.

    Look at them.

    Much of the technology used before 100,000 years ago has not been preserved. Gathering bags made of leather or woven fibres leave few traces, nor do fibre snares or nets, or digging tools made of wood. We have stone and some bone tools, going back a million years, but no clear idea about how they were used. The fires used in temporary camps are relatively small and leave few traces.. nor do the huts, unless deeply dug in or built incorporating stones or bone.

    We can assume they did not have the modern brain size or life span, nor the rate of maturation we see in Homo sapiens. The evidence does however show consistent relentless positive selection pressure for larger brains – especially frontal lobes and the prefrontal cortex area – throughout human evolution. What were these pressures?

    The kind of cooperative economy described earlier would have directly favoured survival of individuals who contributed to it. Division of labor and sharing of meat above the household level might offer clues to a human evolutionary behavioral trajectory consistent with positive selection pressures for brain enlargement, prolonged childhood, and extended life spans. A tendency to pair bond and collaborate balanced sex ratios and reduce work stress involved in provisioning larger numbers of juvenile dependents for longer periods of time.

    Any individuals who disrupted this pattern of cooperative economy would leave fewer surviving offspring. Our ancestors were not the ones fighting over food or access to sex, refusing to bring food back to camp, tolerating youngsters tagging along on hunting or foraging trips. Such behaviours would lead to lowered reproductive fitness – it resulted in a higher mortality rate of offspring. Retaliation, by refusing to share meat with that particular individual and their dependents, meant a less balanced diet, since hunting success is never certain.

    Freeloading and troublemaking may even result in expulsion. One of the useful things about individual networks extending beyond the current band is that word of such behaviour can literally spread from camp to camp, cutting off options for malcontents and those who refuse to share. More importantly it gives rise to a new form of competition for rank, not based on aggression, but rather on reputation. Ranking based on each individual’s observed behaviour within a group does not just stay in that group. Language makes it possible to report infractions: if trouble follows certain individuals, it can now also precede them.

    Besides, we are sensitive to this for a very good reason: being generous is not all we would like to be known for, being regarded as diligent rather than lazy goes to the core of an individual’s value to the collective economy. Even now.

    The assumption that agriculturalists were able to “replace” hunter-gatherers in so much of the world often starts with the idea of there being much higher rates of population growth in the former, due to shorter birth spacing due to high calorie weaning foods. I worked with that assumption for some time, until I started looking into the increased childhood mortality figures for farming populations. Now I doubt that growth rates for population much exceeded the normal .05-.03% per annum we see in hunter-gatherers.

    Having looked at what is happening at the interface between h&g and farmers in the Kalahari, I was impressed by the environmental deterioration – mostly due to livestock grazing pressure, but also due to concentrated hunting and logging by the more sedentary farming populations, which made lowered the carrying capacity of these areas and made it impossible for hunter-gatherers to persist there unless they participated in that encroaching economic system. As long as they had intact wild ecosystems on sufficient land base, they could opt to remain within a purely hunter-gatherer economy. But in the Kalahari, as may have been the case throughout much of Eurasia, farming people tended to settle on major water points with good supplies of forest timber for building and good bottom land to supply grazing after they had been deforested and turned to growing crops.

    This often removed vital components of the hunter-gatherer ecosystem. Progressive deforestation becomes a hallmark of the changing landscape in many parts of Eurasia as agricultural systems intensify, whether this occurs due to the increase population of farmers due to natural increase, due to the somewhat involuntary recruitment of the hunter-gatherers. In any case, I suspect that the progressive deforestation and faunal impoverishment caused by farming systems has more of a role in the “replacement” of hunter-gatherers by farmers. In the Kalahari it had not penetrated very far due to the fact that this region, like many other ecosystems where hunter-gatherers survive, are marginal for farming or for livestock (or both). Lack of standing water, the infestation of the Tsetse fly, a very short growing season, are all among the number of other factors making an ecosystem marginal for “post-neolithic” economies, but just fine for hunter-gatherers.

    Evidence of Warfare in prehistoric hunter-gatherers

    There is one really obvious factor overlooked in the analysis as it has been presented so far in the case of Nataruk: the people who were killed clearly fit the typical profile of a hunter-gatherer camping party (band). I have looked at the range of age and sex and this appears to have been a single camping party consisting of four or five families.

    But what about the attackers? In the paper it is just ASSUMED that the killers were another group of the same composition as themselves – that these deaths were the outcome of a fight between two bands.

    I doubt this very much. First, they appear to have been left where they fell. If this had been a mix of people killed in a battle BETWEEN two “nomadic” bands, then why did none of the survivors bury their dead? Why leave young children lying among their dead mothers and fathers.. and grandmothers and grandfathers?
    No, this looks like an attack ON a band of possibly nomadic hunter-gatherers, but that does not make it an attack BY nomadic hunter-gatherers.
    There is evidence of sedentary communities along the Nile and into the richer area of Lake Turkana during this same time period In the case of Nataruk, there is evidence of pottery indicating storage in a fixed locale, and the site is located in what would have been an extremely prime fishing location. Remember Jebel Sahaba, excavated back in the 1960s? It had a cemetery with burials of over fifty people, and about half of them showed injuries similar to the ones on the Nataruk skeletons. That was dated to about the same period as Nataruk. And associated with sedentary villages.
    This particular region has a long long history of early sedentism, with some sites showing semi-permenent villages claimed to be as ld as 70,000 years

    The distribution of ages and sexes of the dead indicate a typical hunter-gatherer camping party. This was not the result of a “battle” between two hunter-gatherer bands. This was not “war”,

    There is no way that the Nataruk massacre was the outcome of a battle between two nomadic hunter-gatherer bands. It is jumping to a hasty and unwarranted conclusion.

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