War and violence are certainly nothing new, both have played a tragically central role in the story of mankind. Yet while modern conflicts may involve high-tech weaponry and cyber tactics, a recent finding in the French commune of Bergheim has provided a window into the rudimentary nature of violence and warfare in the Neolithic period, which ended around 2,000 B.C.E.
Examining the contents of a series of burial pits, researchers noted that one in particular was “utterly exceptional in its contents.” Known simply as pit 157, the 2-meter-wide (6.5-feet) opening was found to contain bones belonging to a minimum of 14 people, who died between 5,500 and 6,500 years ago.
Of particular interest was one male skeleton, dubbed individual number 7, which displayed evidence of blows to the head that the researchers believe were “probably related to his death,” and could therefore “correspond to his execution.” The unlucky number 7 also appeared to have received man-inflicted injuries to his shoulder and ribs.
Publishing details of their discovery in the journal Antiquity, the researchers also reported finding a number of severed arms and severed hand bones, belonging to an unknown number of people, scattered around the bodies. Further analysis of the markings left on these bones indicate that they were “probably performed by violent blows inflicted with an implement such as an axe.”
The man-inflicted blows to the skull of individual number 7 are likely to have caused his death. Image credit: Antiquity
The archaeologists also placed importance upon the fact that the bodies appeared to have been carelessly tossed into the pit rather than carefully positioned, indicating that this was not a dignified burial. Furthermore, the fact that all individuals died and were buried together suggests that their deaths were not natural.
Adding all of this evidence up, the team propose two possible explanations for their findings, suggesting that they may have been mutilated and killed as a judicial punishment or as an act of war. However, analyzing their discovery further, they conclude that war is the most likely of the two possibilities. The authors offer three potential reasons for the limb amputation, stating that they may correspond to post-mortem mutilations intended to intimidate others, an act of torture, or the taking of trophies.
Though more evidence is needed in order to corroborate any of these theories in relation to European Neolithic communities, the authors note that similar examples of trophy-taking have been documented among historical groups elsewhere.
Researchers found eight skeletons in pit 157, along with severed limbs and hand bones belonging to at least seven other individuals. Image credit: Antiquity
While previous discoveries of mutilated Neolithic skeletons have sparked debate about the existence of war during this period, evidence of specific warfare practices had until now been lacking. Summing up their findings, the researchers state that “pit 157 represents clear evidence of what was probably an act of inter-group armed violence, that is to say ‘war’… To our knowledge, no other example of amputation, or even of isolated articulated limbs, has ever been recorded for the Late Neolithic [period].”