Bones revive a 7,000-year-old massacre

Mass grave with jumble of cracked skulls, fractured leg bones fuels debate over demise of early farmers

Massacre main

WIPED OUT  Researchers say that at least 26 people were massacred and dumped in a pit near a Central European farming village around 7,000 years ago. Enough evidence now exists to show that such attacks occurred regularly between farming settlements around that time, the scientists conclude.

C. Meyer et al/PNAS 2015

Central Europe’s first farmers cultivated not just crops but also massacres, with some villages nearly wiping out neighboring settlements, researchers say.

Evidence of this ancient warfare appears on human bones found scattered in a ditch exposed by German road workers in 2006, says a team led by anthropologist Christian Meyer of the University of Mainz, Germany. These bones represent at least 26 people who were beaten to death and possibly shot with arrows before being dumped in the ditch, the researchers report August 17 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The mass grave lies near remnants of an ancient farming site called Schöneck-Kilianstädten.

A majority of recovered skull pieces display cracks and depressions probably caused by blows from stone tools attached to handles. Two bone arrowheads also lay among the remains. Fractures on many lower leg bones indicate that attackers immobilized and perhaps tortured victims before killing them, Meyer says.  

lower leg bone
BREAKING BAD A reassembled lower leg bone (top) from an ancient mass grave in Central Europe displays a fracture caused by a blunt weapon of some kind. Investigators say that attackers immobilized many victims by breaking their legs before taking their lives. An approximately 8-year-old child’s skull (bottom) found in the mass grave also features blunt-force injuries. C. Meyer

Radiocarbon analyses of bones from four individuals date the mass grave to between roughly 7,200 and 6,850 years ago. Meyer’s group suspects that attackers and victims belonged to different farming settlements of the Linear Pottery culture, also known as LBK culture. These farmers inhabited Central Europe from around 7,600 to 6,900 years ago.

Combined with a few previously discovered mass graves in Central Europe (SN: 1/2/10, p. 10), the new report underscores “the ferocity, depth and impact of lethal violence in late LBK society,” comments archaeologist Ian Armit of the University of Bradford, England.

Bone and tooth features indicate that 13 of the victims were adults — apparently nine men and one individual whose sex could not be determined who were in their 20s and 30s, two women older than age 40, and a final adult victim whose age and sex is unknown. Of the remaining victims, 12 ranged in age from 6 months to 8 years. Another was 16 to 21 years old.

No remains of young adult women were found at Schöneck-Kilianstädten. Attackers took young women captive rather than killing them, the researchers speculate. Population increases in closely spaced villages plagued by drought-related food shortages may have contributed to this ancient massacre, the researchers hypothesize.

Archaeologist Rick Schulting of the University of Oxford, England, predicts the new report will fuel debate over whether LBK culture rapidly collapsed due to social and political conflicts, droughts or both. Other researchers argue that LBK culture gradually gave way to succeeding agricultural populations.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

More Stories from Science News on Anthropology