Mass Conflict in the Neolithic

The subject of conflict between early human settlements is naturally controversial. We know from historical experience that no human culture has been immune from violence, either as perpetrators or victims, so it seems more then plausible that our ancestors were no different. However, actual physical evidence of conflict is rarely preserved. Earlier this month (August 2015) research was published by the Universities of Basel in Switzerland and Mainz in Germany, documenting not only the violent death but also the mutilation of bodies recovered from a 7000 years old mass grave in Germany.

The Neolithic was an important time for Northern Europe as this was moment we changed over from being mostly hunter-gatherers to becoming mostly farmers. How smooth and rapid this transition was is itself controversial but the discovery of two mass graves from this date has further complicated the picture. One of these sites is Schöneck-Kilianstädten in Germany, discovered in 2006 and dated to around 7000 years old. At the time the area was inhabited by the so-called Linear Pottery Culture, named after the distinctive decoration they used on their pots. This culture persisted from around 5500-4500 BC and was widespread across much of Northern Europe, however its important not to think of this ‘culture’ as one, cohesive population or kingdom. Instead these people would have lived in small, separate communities of subsistence farmers united by some trade and their shared pot-making techniques. It isn’t even clear whether the emergence of this culture was the result of some mass migration into Europe or simply the spread of farming techniques into already settled areas. Either way evidence of conflict within these communities has been sparse, until now.

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Skull injuries inflicted on a child, 3-5 years old. Credit: PNAS, University of Basel.

The researchers examined in total 26 individuals from the grave at Schöneck-Kilianstädten. Almost all were male, adults and children, with only a few female bodies. All showed severe damage to the bones, especially the head, face and teeth some of which were consisted with arrow wounds. Since none of the wounds had begun healing they were either fatal or inflicted post mortem. Most chilling of all though were the legs of the victims which had been systematically broken, suggesting deliberate torture and mutilation prior to death. Since there were few female remains the researchers concluded that women had not taken an active part in the fighting and had probably been abducted by the perpetrators. They also concluded that such a massacre as this suggests the deliberate destruction of a whole community, rather then a quick raid or ceremonial executions, and considering the distances involved between the two known mass graves neither was an isolated or local incident.

This discovery paints a rather grim picture of life in Neolithic Northern Europe with warring groups massacring each other and stealing women. Exactly who the aggressors were is impossible to say but it seems plausible that they were either members of the neighbouring communities, or perhaps raiders from further a-field. Tragic as it is though these discoveries are our only available insight into the conflict and warfare of the time and so are very important if we are to understand the evolution of these early farming settlements.

Reference: Meyer, C., et al. 2015. The massacre mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals new insight into collective violence in Early Neolithic Central Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1504365112

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