Researchers Reveal Grim Details Of An Early Neolithic Massacre

Cranial injury of an 8-year-old child from the Neolithic mass grave. Christian Meyer

The early Neolithic period in central Europe was a rather chaotic time. On the one hand, it's characterized by the first true farming communities, appearing around 5500 BCE, who made pottery in a distinct decoration style that gave them their German name, Linearbandkeramik Culture (LBK). On the other hand, there’s also an increasing amount of evidence to suggest mass violence was a regular feature as the population peaked and declined. Now, researchers have provided further information from a mass grave in Germany that reveals the victims were either tortured while alive or mutilated after they were killed.

Researchers detail their rather grim findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. At least 26 individuals were ruthlessly killed and dumped in a mass grave at Schöneck-Kilianstädten in Germany. The grave was first discovered by accident in 2006 during road-building activities. Similar to other mass grave sites, researchers found evidence of lethal blunt force trauma affecting the skulls as well as possible evidence for arrow injuries. They also found new evidence to suggest victims were tortured or mutilated after death as the lower leg bones of some of the individuals appear to have been systematically smashed.

Lead researcher Christian Meyer, from the Institute of Anthropology at the University of Mainz, tells IFLScience that, "As this is not the first massacre to be found from this farming culture and this period of time, we already suspected to find some signs of perimortem violence in the bones, but still there were the quite surprising injuries to the tibia and fibula as well. This is a rather new pattern, which adds to our knowledge and possible interpretation of sites like these."

A perimortem fracture in a reassembled adult human tibia from the mass grave. Image credit: Christian Meyer

Anthropologists have long debated whether there was a lethal crisis at the end of LBK that led to the indiscriminate violence. There were a mixture of adults and children in the mass grave, with the youngest victim thought to be just six months old.

"There was an absence of young women in the mass grave, which could suggest they were abducted by the attackers," Meyer adds.

Meyer suggests that with the current evidence, it’s almost impossible to determine whether the victims were tortured while alive or whether their corpses were mutilated systematically. It's possible that the legs of the victims were smashed to reiterate the futility of resistance and escape.

"With several different sites now available which all show comparable evidence for lethal collective violence, we really start to see some patterns," Meyer explains. The findings provide further evidence that there were large-scale massacres of entire communities during this period.

Meyer and his research team suggest that particular farming communities were targeted and massacred in a pattern that fits with the anthropological concept of prehistoric warfare. Researchers aren’t sure why particular groups were killed, tortured, abducted and mutilated, but they might have been singled out by close neighbors or even further groups within the region.

Skull injury in a 3- to 5-year-old child. Image credit: Christian Meyer

Researchers note that all three early Neolithic central Europe massacre sites currently date to the later phases of LBK. They have yet to find any evidence for a similar amount of violence in the earlier period of LBK.  

The causes of the increased violence are complex and probably not down to a single factor. Meyer suggests that unlike hunter-gatherers, these farmers were stuck at their farms and couldn’t evade conflict as easily. He also suspects that the significant increase in the population and unfavorable climate conditions such as droughts were contributing factors to the mass violence.  

These are all speculations for now, but further research could help Meyer and his research team piece together the evidence to get a better understanding of the overall picture. 

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