Stone Age and Bronze Age Violence and Mass Murder

Home | Category: Life and Culture in Prehistoric Europe


Examples of blunt force trauma in Neolithic crania from Northern Europe: A) Belas Knap, England (unhealed); B) Schöneck-Kilianstädten, Germany (healed); C and D) Halberstadt, Germany (unhealed)

Seven-thousand-year-old skeletons with shattered skulls and shin bones found in a mass grave in Germany, some archaeologist argue, could be signs of torture and mutilation in an early Neolithic culture. Emily Mobley wrote in The Guardian: “The chance discovery of a mass grave crammed with the battered skeletons of ancient Europeans has shed light on the lethal violence that tore through one of the continent’s earliest farming communities. In 2006, archaeologists were called in after road builders in Germany uncovered a narrow ditch filled with human bones as they worked at a site in Schöneck-Kilianstädten, 20 kilometers north-east of Frankfurt. They have now identified the remains as belonging to a 7000-year-old group of early farmers who were part of the Linear Pottery culture, which gained its name from the group’s distinctive style of ceramic decoration. [Source: Emily Mobley, The Guardian, August 17, 2015 ~~]

“In the seven metre-long, V-shaped pit, researchers found the skeletons of 26 adults and children, who were killed by devastating strikes to the head or arrow wounds. The skull fractures are classic signs of blunt force injuries caused by basic stone age weapons. Along with close-quarter fighting, attackers used bows and arrows to ambush their neighbours. Two arrowheads made of animal bone were found in the soil stuck to the skeletons. They are thought to have been inside the bodies when they were placed in the pit. More than half of the individuals had their legs broken in acts of apparent torture or posthumous mutilation. The smashed-in shin bones could represent a new form of violent torture not seen before in the group. ~~

“In the Linear Pottery culture, each person was given their own grave within a cemetery, the body carefully arranged and often buried with grave goods such as pottery and other possessions. By contrast, in the mass grave the bodies lay scattered. Christian Meyer, an archaeologist who led the study at the University of Mainz, believes the attackers meant to terrorise others and demonstrate that they could annihilate an entire village. The site of the mass grave, which dates back to about 5000BC, is located near an ancient border between different communities, where conflict was likely. “On one hand you are curious about finding out more about this, but also shocked to see what people can do to each other,” he said. Details of the study are reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ~~ “In the 1980s, a number of similar mass graves were found in Talheim, Germany, and Asparn, Austria. The latest grim discovery bolsters evidence for prehistoric warfare in the final years of the culture, and points to torture and mutilation not recorded before. “This is a classic case where we find the ‘hardware’: the skeletal remains, the artefacts, everything that is durable we can find in the graves. But the ‘software’: what people were thinking, why they were doing things, what their mindset was at this time, of course was not preserved,” Meyer said.

Theories About What Happened at a 7000-Year-Old Farming Community in Germany

Emily Mobley wrote in The Guardian: “The scientists’ best guess is that a small farming village was massacred and thrown into a pit nearby. The skeletons of young women were absent from the grave, which suggests that the attackers may have taken the women captive after killing their families . It is likely that fighting broke out over limited farming resources, upon which people depended for survival. Unlike their nomadic hunter-gatherer ancestors, people of the Linear Pottery culture settled into a farming lifestyle. Communities cleared forests to farm crops and lived in timber longhouses alongside their livestock. [Source: Emily Mobley, The Guardian, August 17, 2015 ~~]

“The landscape soon became full of farming communities, putting a strain on natural resources. Along with adverse climate change and drought, this led to tension and conflict. In acts of collective violence, communities would come together to massacre their neighbours and take their land by force. ~~

“Lawrence Keeley, an anthropologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, said that alongside Talheim and Asparn, this latest massacre discovery fits a pattern of common and murderous warfare. “The only reasonable interpretation of these cases, as here, is that a whole typically-sized Linear Pottery culture hamlet or small village was wiped out by killing the majority of its inhabitants and kidnapping the young women. This represents yet another nail in the coffin of those who have claimed that war was rare or ritualised or less awful in prehistory or, in this instance, the early Neolithic.” ~~

“But he is doubtful that the victims’ legs were broken through acts of torture. “Torture focuses on the parts of the body with the most nerve cells: the feet, pubis, hands and head. I can’t think of anywhere that torture involved breaking the tibia. “This is rank speculation, but there are ethnographic instances of disabling the ghost or spirits of the dead, especially enemies. Such mutilations were done to prevent enemy spirits from following home, haunting or doing mischief to the killers. These motives seem most likely to me. Or perhaps it was done to further revenge by crippling the enemy’s spirits in the afterlife,” he added.” ~~

Xenophobic Massacre 7,000 Years Ago in Spain?

Cave painting of a battle between archers in Morella la Vella, Spain

In a study published online February 7, 2020 in the Open Access journal Scientific Reports, researchers said that 7,000-year-old bones of nine people found in northern Spain contained evidence that they were killed and then beaten after they died and that the victims were migrants from a different region, suggesting the attack that killed them may have been "xenophobic". The skeletons were inside the cave at Els Trocs in the Bisaurri region of the Spanish Pyrenees. Human remains show the cave was inhabited by different groups of people at least three times during the Neolithic period. [Source: Tom Metcalfe, Live Science , February 21, 2020}

Archaeologists examined the cave’s oldest remains, which date from about 5,300 B.C., and found they belonged to people who were brutally murdered and then mutilated. Tom Metcalfe, Live Science: Arrow wounds were found on the skulls of the five adults in the group, but not anywhere else on their skeletons, suggesting they’d all been deliberately shot in the head at close range. The bones also showed that all of the bodies — including those of four young children, between the ages of 3 and 7 — had been violently smashed with stones or clubs after their deaths. "All the adults show fatal injuries from bows and arrows," said archaeologist Kurt Alt from the Danube Private University at Krems an der Donau in Austria. "The adults and children also exhibit blunt force trauma, for instance to the head, or to the arms and legs."

The researchers think the massacre at Els Trocs cave may have been the result of escalating disputes over land, cattle or even women. "There could have been many conceivable motives for the attack, with territorial causes perhaps the most likely one," Alt told Live Science. Tests show the victims were among the first waves of settlers who had slowly made their way into the region from the Near East over thousands of years, perhaps bringing new farming techniques with them. "The people show DNA profiles typical of Neolithic immigrants, which at this stage can be very well distinguished from the DNA of the indigenous hunter-gatherers," Alt said. The genetic tests also showed that one of the adult victims, about 30 years old, was the father of one of the child victims, a 6-year-old boy.

The evidence from the remains found in Els Trocs cave seems to suggest violence between people of "conceivably different origins and world views," the researchers wrote. 'The conflict conveys the impression of a xenophobic action; the type of aggression suggests a clash between enemy groups," they wrote. Rock paintings from the Les Dogues rock shelter, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) south of Els Trocs, show that Neolithic people "were really attacking each other with such weapons," rather than following the nonviolent, "egalitarian ethic" that was once theorized to predominate in Neolithic times.

The relatively remote location of Els Trocs cave may also have contributed to the violence: "The geographic situation could be the reason why the groups involved may not have known each other previously, and therefore clashed so violently," he said. But what appears to be a case of ancient ethnic violence could have lessons in the modern world, because it shows that humans have developed mechanisms for dealing nonviolently with disputes. "In most parts of the world, people live together peacefully. We also have certain mechanisms of control, for example through organizations like the United Nations," Alt said. "And there are plenty of examples that where the authorities earnestly work for a peaceful solution, such problems may be solved." "But on the other hand, we also have two faces — sometimes we behave like chimpanzees [which sometimes kill other chimpanzees], but most of the time we act as peaceful as bonobos," he said.

7,000-Year-Old Mass Grave in Slovakia with 37 Headless Bodies

In 2023, a mass grave filled with decapitated skeletons, dated to A 7,000 years ago, was discovered in Slovakia. Archaeologists uncovered the remains of 38 people, all without heads — with the exception of one child. [Source: Katherine Tangalakis Lippert, Business Insider, November 23, 2023]

Eric A. Powell wrote in Archaeology Magazine: A team of archaeologists from Kiel University and the Institute of Archaeology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences unearthed an unusual mass grave at the Neolithic site of Vráble in Slovakia. Vráble was inhabited from about 5250 to 4950 B.C. by people belonging to what scholars call the Linear Pottery culture. At its peak, the site consisted of three neighboring settlements of around 80 houses in all, making it especially large for the time. The team discovered 37 skeletons missing their skulls in a ditch surrounding one of the villages. Mass graves have been found in ditches at other Linear Pottery sites, but none excavated thus far have contained decapitated bodies. [Source: Eric A. Powell, Archaeology Magazine, May/June 2023

Evidence of large-scale massacres at other mass graves suggests the Linear Pottery people entered a period of crisis around 5100 B.C. The headless burials at Vráble may have been part of a response to this upheaval. “The ritual depositions could be some kind of social coping mechanism of a magical or religious nature that people performed to get back control in a time when things seemed to be falling apart,” says archaeologist Martin Furholt. Excavation and dating of other settlements in the area show that they were being abandoned around the time the headless bodies were buried. Meanwhile, the population at Vráble was growing, perhaps a result of newcomers seeking security in an increasingly unstable world.

Mass grave in Vráble in Slovakia.

41 People Butchered 6,200 Years Ago in Croatia and Dumped in Mass Grave

According to a study published online March 10, 2021 in the journal PLOS One, 41 people in what is now Croatia who were killed and buried in a mass grave around 6,200 years ago may have been murdered by members of their own community. The victims were both make and female and their aged ranged from 2 years old to 50 years old, but about half of the skeletons belonged to children. Many were dispatched with blows to the head from an attacker who was behind them. There were no marks on the arm bones which might have suggested they the victims tried to defend themselves from the attacks.[Source: Mindy Weisberger, Live Science, March 11, 2021]

The researchers said 21 of the dead were male and 20 were female. They identified 21 of the victims as children between the ages of 2 years and 17 years old, and 20 as adults between 18 years and 50 years old;. Mindy Weisberger wrote in Live Science: Genetic analysis showed that about 70 percent of the deceased were not closely related to other victims, but all shared common ancestry. Researchers suspect that the massacre may have been prompted by a sudden population boom or shift in climate conditions that depleted resources and led to indiscriminate mass murder.

The grave was discovered in 2007, when a man who lived in a small village in the hills of Potočani, Croatia, was digging a foundation for a garage, and heavy rains exposed a pit holding dozens of skeletons. Archaeologists with the University of Zagreb happened to be conducting a survey nearby, and they were able to start investigating the mass grave on the day it was discovered, said Mario Novak, lead author of the new study and head of the Laboratory for Evolutionary Anthropology and Bioarchaeology at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia.

The pit is small, measuring about 6.5 feet (2 meters) in diameter and 3 feet (1 m) deep, and at least 41 bodies had been unceremoniously dumped there. At first, the archaeologists thought that the remains were modern, either from World War II or the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s, Novak told Live Science. But there were no contemporary objects in the pit — just fragments of pottery that looked to be prehistoric. And when researchers inspected the victims' teeth, they found no dental fillings. Radiocarbon dating of bones, soil and pottery fragments confirmed the age of the burial, dating it to around 4200 B.C.

Why Were 41 People Murdered in Croatia 6,200 Years and Buried Together

How did the 41 victims killed in Croatia end up buried together and why were they murdered. To answer these questions, Mindy Weisberger wrote in Live Science, Novak and his colleagues sampled DNA from remains and analyzed the bones of 38 individuals. When the researchers inspected the bodies, they found that most had at least one traumatic injury at the back of the skull, and some skulls had as many as four punctures. Mass graves in medieval Europe frequently contained people of all ages and sexes who succumbed to the Black Death, but the victims in the Potočani pit died by violence, not of infectious disease, Novak explained. "The only plausible scenario was a massacre," he said. [Source: Mindy Weisberger, Live Science, March 11, 2021]

grave and skulls with evidence of violence from Potočani, Croatia

Distribution of men and women, and of adults and children, was roughly equal, and there were no wounds to their limbs or faces, so they likely weren't killed in a skirmish during combat. It is unknown if the victims were restrained or otherwise incapable of defending themselves — "if someone attacks you with a club or a sword, you reflexively raise up your forearm to protect the head," which would have left at least some remains with cut marks on the arm bones, Novak said. "But we didn't see any facial injuries, and no defensive injuries whatsoever."

Genetic data showed that only 11 of the victims were close relatives, so the massacre wasn't targeting a specific family group. Neither did it look like a planned discriminatory killing, in which foes tended to murder older men while taking women captive. "In this case, it was just random killing, without any concern for sex and age," Novak said..But genetic evidence also indicated that even though most of the dead weren't closely related, they shared common ancestry. This means that they weren't newcomers; rather, they came from a local population that was homogenous and stable, "so we can exclude that this massacre was associated with the influx of new immigrants," Novak said.

The most likely explanation is one that archaeologists and climatologists have suggested for other ancient massacre sites in Germany and Austria dating to about 5,000 years ago, in which adults and children were also killed indiscriminately and thrown into shallow mass graves. In those scenarios, prolonged climate change that caused flooding or droughts — perhaps combined with an unexpected population boom — could have led to squabbles over precious resources.

6,000-Year-Old Massacre in France

In 2016, archaeologists said they had found the remains of a 6,000-year-old massacre that took place in Alsace in eastern France, saying it was likely carried out by "furious ritualised warriors". AFP reported: “At a site outside Strasbourg, the corpses of 10 individuals were found in one of 300 ancient "silos" used to store grain and other food, a team from France's National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) told reporters. [Source: AFP, June 7, 2016 */]

“The Neolithic group appeared to have died violent deaths, with multiple injuries to their legs, hands and skulls. The way in which the bodies were piled on top of each other suggested they had been killed together and dumped in the silo. "They were very brutally executed and received violent blows, almost certainly from a stone axe," said Philippe Lefranc, a specialist on the period for Inrap.

“The skeletons of five adults and one adolescent were found, as well as four arms from different individuals. The arms were likely "war trophies" like those found at a nearby burial site of Bergheim in 2012, said Lefranc. He said the mutilations indicated a society of "furious ritualised warriors", while the silos were stored within a defence wall that pointed towards "a troubled time, a period of insecurity".

5,000-Year-Old Murder Victims in Poland All from The Same Family

Daniel Weiss wrote in Archaeology magazine: Fifteen people who were killed in a brutal massacre almost 5,000 years ago and buried together in southern Poland were part of an extended family, genetic analysis has revealed. “The people’s bodies are carefully arranged according to family relationships — mothers are next to their children, and brothers are close to each other,” says Hannes Schroeder, an ancient DNA specialist at the University of Copenhagen. “This shows that they were buried by people who knew them well, most likely by relatives.” Given that adult males are largely missing from the grave, Schroeder adds, they may have been the ones who performed the burial. [Source: Daniel Weiss, Archaeology magazine, September-October 2019]

“The genetic analysis also showed that all the males in the burial were from a single male lineage, whereas the women and girls were from six different female lineages. This suggests that the family, which belonged to a Neolithic farming culture called the Globular Amphora Culture, was patrilineal, with women leaving their own families to join their male partners. The massacre may have occurred as the result of tensions caused by an influx of pastoralists from the steppes to the east. “We have no way of saying who did the killing,” says Schroeder, “but when you have increased competition for resources it tends to lead to conflict.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except first skulls from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2023), first mass grave from Kiel University, grave and skulls from Mario Novak

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Ancient Foods ; Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books) and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2024

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