Mideast violence goes way back

Head wounds common in region throughout last 6,000 years

Head-bashing hostilities haunted the Middle East long before the region’s current conflicts arose. Skulls of people from what are now Israel and the West Bank, dating to different times during the last 6,000 years, display a consistently high rate of serious injuries.

These head wounds typically were inflicted in small-scale brawls, not wars, say anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University in Israel and his colleagues.

Skull injuries vary in frequency from about 1 percent to 25 percent at ancient sites around the world. Among human skulls previously excavated in Israel and the West Bank, 25 percent of individuals had suffered severe head wounds, whether they lived during the Copper Age or as recently as a century ago, the researchers report online July 11 in the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology.

That rate held for skulls from farming and urban populations and from societies that included Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians.

Hershkovitz’s team, which includes Palestinian anthropologist Issa. Jubrael. Sarie of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, examined 783 skulls from community cemeteries, excluding massacre sites and battle graves.

Some head injuries in the new study might have resulted from warfare, and instances of such damage would have been even greater had the researchers examined skulls from battle sites, comments archaeologist Augusta McMahon of the University of Cambridge in England. “Prehistory was not peaceful,” says McMahon, who is directing excavations of a mass grave at a 5,800-year-old Syrian settlement (SN: 2/9/08, p. 90).

For ancient populations that were armed mainly with clubs, injuries caused by one-on-one fights or warfare are difficult to tell apart. “A mace blow received from a neighbor during an argument and a mace blow received from a foreign enemy in battle look the same on a skull,” McMahon says.

Most injuries consisted of circular pits with partially healed fractures, caused either by slingshots or clubs that in some instances may have had metal heads. Knife or sword wounds first appeared around 2,000 years ago but represented only a minority of head injuries, even in the most recent populations. The scientists identified two gunshot wounds in the sample.

Overall, 34 percent of male skulls and 19 percent of female skulls bore evidence of serious injuries. Most individuals with head wounds were at least 19 years old, the investigators say.

Analyses of unearthed skulls can’t establish the actual rate of head injuries in ancient Middle Eastern populations. “But the frequency of people walking around with healed or healing head wounds during various time periods suggests that interpersonal violence, especially among men, was constant and took its toll,” remarks anthropologist Debra Martin of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Survivors of these types of head wounds would have experienced symptoms such as migraines, blurry vision and slowed decision making, says Martin, a coeditor of the journal that published the new study.

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 Humans