Mass grave from neolithic period near province Hessen (Germany) reveals collective violence

Conflict and warfare are central but also disputed themes in discussions about the European Neolithic. Although a few recent population studies provide broad overviews, only a very limited number of currently known key sites provide precise insights into moments of extreme and mass violence and their impact on Neolithic societies. At least 26 individuals were violently killed by blunt force and arrow injuries before being deposited in a commingled mass grave. Although the absence and possible abduction of younger females has been suggested for other sites previously, a new violence-related pattern was identified here: the intentional and systematic breaking of lower limbs.

The abundance of the identified perimortem fractures clearly indicates torture and/or mutilation of the victims. The new evidence presented here for unequivocal lethal violence on a large scale is put into perspective for the Early Neolithic of Central Europe and, in conjunction with previous results, indicates that massacres of entire communities were not isolated occurrences but rather were frequent features of the last phases of the Linearbandkeramik Culture.

Massacres seem to have been the most powerful strategy in prehistoric warfare, and the osteoarchaeological evidence from Early Neolithic Central Europe clearly shows that such acts of mass violence were carried out repeatedly in the deep human past by groups living in pristine prestate conditions.

Composite image of the mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten, Germany
Composite image of the mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten, Germany

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, 20km 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. Along with close-quarter fighting, attackers used bows and arrows to ambush their neighbors.

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