Bones from an Iron Age massacre paint a violent picture of prehistoric Europe

Unburied victims and abandoned jewelry suggest a power struggle rather than plunder

bones from ancient Iberian massacre

A new analysis of ancient remains suggests that a violent massacre occurred at a site in what’s now Spain at least 2,200 years ago. Scientists found this amputated forearm with five copper-alloy bracelets still attached.

T. Fernández-Crespo, A. Llanos, J. Ordoño, R. J. Schulting, © Antiquity Publications Ltd, 2020

Attacked from behind and at times dismembered, the fallen residents of an ancient Iberian village add to evidence that prehistoric Europe was a violent place.

Violence in ancient Europe isn’t unheard of, with some unearthed massacres attributed to power struggles after the fall of the Roman Empire around 1,500 years ago (SN: 4/25/18). But a new analysis of bones from 13 victims suggests that a violent massacre occurred at a site in what’s now Spain centuries before the Romans arrived, researchers report October 1 in Antiquity.

Finding “partially burnt skeletons and scattered human bones with unhealed injuries caused by sharp weapons demonstrated that this was an extremely violent event,” says archaeologist Javier Ordoño Daubagna of Arkikus, an archaeological research company in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Spain.

Ordoño Daubagna and colleagues examined nine adults, two adolescents, a young child and one infant who died sometime between 365 and 195 B.C., in the ancient village of La Hoya. One of the adults was decapitated in a single blow, the team found. And one of the adolescents, a female, had her arm cut off. The researchers found the arm bones nearly three meters away from the girl’s skeleton, with five copper-alloy bracelets still attached.

Cracks and flaking of the outer layers of some of the bones suggest that the victims were abandoned after they died, rather than buried, the report shows. Other people may have been trapped inside burning buildings — bone shrinkage and discoloration suggest that the remains were in a fire that reached 350° to 650° Celsius. The fact that the bones were only partially burned suggest that they were not scorched during cremation, a common ritual at the time, the researchers say.

“The nature of the injuries, the presence of women and young children as victims and the context of where the human remains were found on the site all indicated that this was not a battle between anything like matched forces,” says coauthor Rick Schulting, an archaeologist at the University of Oxford. “This was not a battle between noble warriors.”

The study supports the idea that Iron Age societies on the Iberian Peninsula were fully capable of resorting to brutal violence as a means of settling disputes, the researchers argue. “We can conclude that the aim of the attackers was the total destruction of La Hoya, perhaps by a rival center for political and economic dominance in the area,” Ordoño Daubagna says.

In-depth accounts of similar attacks during the pre-Roman Iron Age are rare, but this sort of violence may have been more common than scientists have realized. During that time, “power was gained by violence and control over resources,” explains Ludvig Papmehl-Dufay, an archaeologist at Linnaeus University in Kalmar, Sweden, who wasn’t involved in the study. If people think of the past as something peaceful and idealized, he says, “that needs to be revised.”

Curtis Segarra was a fall 2020 science writing intern at Science News. He has a bachelor’s degree in Earth systems science from Trinity University. He is completing a master’s program in science journalism at New York University. His work has been published at Mongabay, News-O-Matic, and Scienceline.

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