"Long before it's in the papers"
August 18, 2015


Vicious massacres may have riled Europe at dawn of farming

Aug. 18, 2015
Courtesy of the University of Basel
and World Science staff

Vi­o­lent con­flicts in Eu­rope at the dawn of farm­ing there were more wide­spread and bru­tal than pre­vi­ously un­der­stood, a study finds.

The con­clu­sions emerge from an anal­y­sis of the roughly 7,000-year-old mass grave of Schö­neck-Ki­lian­städ­ten in Ger­many.

A shattered shin­bone from the site. (Cre­dit: PNAS & U. of Ba­sel)

The 26 or more vic­tims were mur­dered and de­lib­er­ately mu­ti­lat­ed, pos­sibly tor­tured, while wom­en may have been ab­ducted, the re­search­ers sug­gest. The find­ings are pub­lished in this week’s edi­tion of the jour­nal Pro­ceed­ings of the Na­tio­n­al Aca­de­my of Sci­en­ces.

An­thro­po­l­o­gists have de­bat­ed to what ex­tent con­flicts and wars fea­tured in the era known as the early Ne­o­lith­ic, and es­pe­cially in its Lin­ear Pot­tery cul­ture, so called for its pot­tery de­cora­t­ion style.

The find­ings show “mas­sacres of en­tire com­mun­i­ties were not iso­lat­ed oc­cur­rences but rath­er were fre­quent fea­tures of the last phases of” the Lin­ear Pot­tery cul­ture, es­ti­mat­ed to have lasted from 5600 to 4900 B.C., the re­search­ers wrote.

The Lin­ear Pot­tery cul­ture even­tu­ally van­ished mys­te­ri­ous­ly. Some the­o­ries at­trib­ute its de­mise to strife, so­cial un­rest and vi­o­lence. So far two mass gra­ves from this pe­ri­od were known to stem from armed con­flicts: one at Tal­heim, Ger­ma­ny, and an­oth­er at As­parn/Schletz, Aus­tria.

The newly an­a­lyzed mass grave was dis­cov­ered in 2006. The re­search­ers ex­am­ined and an­a­lyzed the bones and skele­tons of at least 26, mainly ma­le, adults and chil­dren—most of them show­ing se­vere in­ju­ries.

Be­sides bone in­ju­ries caused by ar­rows, the in­ves­ti­ga­t­ion al­so pointed to many cases of mas­sive dam­age to the head, face and teeth, some in­flicted shortly be­fore or af­ter death.

In ad­di­tion, the at­tack­ers sys­tem­at­ic­ally broke their vic­tims’ legs, point­ing to tor­ture and de­lib­er­ate mu­tila­t­ion, said the au­thors, from the Un­ivers­i­ties of Ba­sel and Mainz in Ger­ma­ny. Few female re­mains were found, which in­di­cates, they added, that wom­en weren’t ac­tively in­volved in the fight­ing and that they were pos­sibly ab­ducted.

The au­thors sug­gest such mas­sacres rep­re­sented fre­quent fea­tures of the early Cen­tral Eu­ropean Ne­o­lith­ic pe­ri­od. That the mas­sa­cre sites ex­am­ined so far all lie at some dis­tance to each oth­er fur­ther un­der­lines this con­clu­sion, they said, adding that the mas­sive and sys­tem­at­ic vi­o­lence may have been aimed at an­ni­hi­lating whole com­mun­i­ties.

* * *

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Violent conflicts in Europe at the dawn of farming were more widespread and brutal than previously understood, a study finds. The conclusions emerge from an analysis of the roughly 7000-year-old mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten by researchers at the Universities of Basel and Mainz in Germany. The victims were murdered and deliberately mutilated, possibly tortured, and women may have been abducted, the researchers suggest. The findings are published in this week’s edition of the journal PNAS. Anthropologists have debated to what extent conflicts and wars featured in the era known as the early Neolithic era (5600 to 4900 B.C.), and especially in its Linear Pottery culture, so called for its pottery decoration style. The findings show “massacres of entire communities were not isolated occurrences but rather were frequent features of the last phases of” the Linear Pottery culture, estimated to have lasted from 5600 to 4900 B.C., the researchers wrote. The Linear Pottery culture eventually vanished mysteriously. Some theories attribute its demise to strife, social unrest and violence. So far two mass graves from this period were known to stem from armed conflicts: one at Talheim, Germany, and another at Asparn/Schletz, Austria. The newly analyzed mass grave was discovered in 2006. The researchers examined and analyzed the bones and skeletons of at least 26, mainly male, adults and children—most of them showing severe injuries. Besides various bone injuries caused by arrows, the investigation also revealed many cases of massive damage to the head, face and teeth, some inflicted shortly before or after death, the study found. In addition, the attackers systematically broke their victims’ legs, pointing to torture and deliberate mutilation, the authors said. Few female remains were found, which further indicates that women weren’t actively involved in the fighting and that they were possibly abducted. The authors suggest such massacres represented frequent features of the early Central European Neolithic period. That the massacre sites examined so far all lie at some distance to each other further underlines this conclusion, they said, adding that the massive and systematic violence may have been aimed at annihilating whole communities.