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Profound cranial injuries on the frontal skull bone of a child approximately 8 years old. Other such injuries are evidence of a prehistoric massacre or torture at a mass grave at Schoeneck-Kilianstaedten, near Frankfurt, Germany.

Archaeologists discover evidence of prehistoric massacre: Broken bones, smashed skulls

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Archaeologists from the University of Mainz in Germany have discovered a mass grave at Schoeneck-Kilianstaedten, near Frankfurt. The discovery may be evidence of an ancient massacre and dates to around 7,000 years ago.

This follows the discovery of two other grave sites in Germany and Austria in which the victims may have belonged to the Linearbandkeramik (Linear Pottery Culture or LBK) culture of 5,500 BC. This was a farming community that migrated into central Europe, distinguished by their particular style of pottery.

Examples of Linear pottery: "The vessels are oblated globes, cut off on the top and slightly flattened on the bottom, suggestive of a gourd.

Examples of Linear pottery: "The vessels are oblated globes, cut off on the top and slightly flattened on the bottom, suggestive of a gourd. (GDFL Wikimedia Commons )

Ancient Tragedy

The mass grave contained 26 skeletons. The victims were men, women and children and may have belonged to one of the first farming communities in Europe.  All of the skeletons showed evidence of terrible wounds including blows to the head with blunt instruments such as clubs and arrow wounds. Blows to the shins may have been an attempt to prevent the victims escaping. Some people may have survived since the violence was primarily directed towards young children and adult men and women. This indicates that any young women present may have been captured and carried off by the attackers.

“It was either torture or mutilation” said Christian Meyer speaking to The Associated Press (AP) . Meyer is an anthropologist and one of the lead authors of the study journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . “We can't say for sure whether the victims were still alive. It's about finding patterns. One mass grave was spectacular, but it was just a single grave. But when several such sites are found from the same period, then a pattern emerges.”

An ancient mass grave in Germany has revealed broken bones, such as this fractured adult human tibia.

An ancient mass grave in Germany has revealed broken bones, such as this fractured adult human tibia. Credit: Christian Meyer

The archaeologists suggest that the evidence, in conjunction with previous discoveries, points to a regular series of massacres occurring towards the end of the LBK period. A number of sites such as those at Talheim, Schletz-Asparn, Herxheim and Vaihingen show evidence of the massacre of entire villages while mutilated remains at Eilsleben and Ober-Hogern may point to cannibalism.

Escalating Tensions

Although it isn’t possible to say for sure what prompted these killings, it is known that this period was one of significant climate change in which drought may have played a part in escalating tensions. Other suggestions include a refugee crisis caused by flooding in the Black Sea, or various economic reasons. The LBK had also expanded considerably, increasing the risk of conflict with other, neighboring, communities. As farmers they would also have settled in an area rather than moving through it as hunter-gatherers do. The evidence also indicates that the various groups within the culture may have turned on each other .

These theories can be supported by the existence of an ancient border near the Schoeneck-Kilianstaedten site. There is evidence for the trading of flint implements on either side of this border, but not, apparently, across it.

An artist’s depiction of ancient Neolithic farmers.

An artist’s depiction of ancient Neolithic farmers. ( Image source )

The LBK culture is believed to have originated in what is now Hungary. They expanded along the shores of the Danube and lived in that area between 5500 and 4500 BC. Their pottery is also known as Linear Band Ware , Linear Ware, or Incised Ware Culture and was generally made of local clay mixed with organic materials, decorated with curved or rectilinear lines in bands. They were farmers who cultivated lentils, wheat and peas and kept cattle and domesticated dogs. They may also have hunted forest animals such as deer. It is believed they may have venerated a mother goddess who represented the harvest, and they lived in longhouses made of wood and wattle and daub (mud and straw) grouped in clusters of six to eight dwellings. Some of these settlements had palisade fencing around them, so it is known they experienced conflict at various times.

“What is particularly interesting is the level of violence” said archaeologist Chris Scarre from the University of Durham in the UK, commenting on the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences . “Not just the suppression of a rival community – but the egregious and systematic breaking of the lower legs.”

Mr Scarre added that this suggests the use of terror tactics as part of a wider occurrence of inter-community violence. This may have in turn been ritualized or been largely based on social or class differences.

Featured image: Profound cranial injuries on the frontal skull bone of a child approximately 8 years old. Other such injuries are evidence of a prehistoric massacre or torture at a mass grave at Schoeneck-Kilianstaedten, near Frankfurt, Germany. Credit: Christian Meyer

By Robin Whitlock

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