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The pit of arm bones (Antiquity photo)

Pit of Amputated Arms in France from 6,000 years ago Suggest War and Trophy-Taking


About 6,000 years ago in France some hostiles in an apparent act of warfare and trophy-taking killed a group of adults and children, amputated their arms and buried the limbs in a circular pit underneath some other bodies. It was a common practice to bury people in circular pits at the time in a large area of Europe, but this gruesome case stands out from the rest as the only one with violence done to those buried.

French researchers from various institutions wrote the article “A farewell to arms: a deposit of human limbs and bodies at Bergheim, France, c. 4000 BC” in the journal Antiquity (abstract). The researchers are Fanny Chenal, Bertrand Perrin, Hélène Barrand-Emam and Bruno Boulestin.

The people who attacked the victims fractured their arms and chopped them off, then apparently buried those limbs in a layer in the pit underneath some other skeletons, all of which had their arms except one. The upper layer also contained a fragment of an infant’s cranium.

Dr. Chenal told Ancient Origins via e-mail that she does not know why the severed arms were buried underneath the other people’s remains, but her team assumed they were all of the same social group but were treated differently.

“The lowest individual (number 7), a male between 30 and 59 years of age, is distinguished by having had his left upper limb amputated through the arm. He also bears several marks of violent blows, notably on the skull, which probably correspond to his death. None of the bones from the other six bodies display any modification. Unfortunately, we were unable to determine whether any of the amputated limbs in the underlying deposit belonged to individual 7,” the authors wrote.

“Pit 157 represents clear evidence of what was probably an act of inter-group armed violence, that is to say ‘war’, although the true nature of these practices remains difficult to understand,” they wrote. “Interpreting this unique case is not easy, as, to our knowledge, no other example of amputation, or even of isolated articulated limbs, has ever been recorded for the Late Neolithic.”

A Neolithic axe from France

A Neolithic axe from France (Photo by Didier Descouens/Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers ruled out funerary practices common among other societies around the world, including human sacrifice, killing of slaves to accompany persons to the afterlife, or the destruction of prestige goods in the form of human arms. They conclude:

“The evidence from pit 157 undoubtedly testifies to armed violence, and the amputated arms, most probably trophies, are suggestive of an act of war. The presence of women and children in the pit does not go against this hypothesis: They may have been victims of raids, killed on the scene of the confrontation or captured and executed afterwards—although women and children were often enslaved, they were also sometimes tortured and killed. Whether they were victims of warfare or the recipients of judicial punishment, the case supports the idea that the haphazardly deposited individuals were either dependants or excluded individuals.”

A photo and a drawing of the skeletons in a layer above the layer that contained the amputated human arms.

A photo and a drawing of the skeletons in a layer above the layer that contained the amputated human arms. (Antiquity)

They speculated that the victims were either tortured, amputated after death to offend the dead or intimidate living people, or had their limbs taken as trophies.

The practice of offending the dead was documented in Florida in the 16 th century AD. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues wrote then that he saw Timucua natives there cutting off arms at the shoulder and legs at the hip and breaking the bones with a club.

Dr. Chenal wrote in e-mail that trophy-taking has been known in almost all cultures around the world and still occurs even today.

As for war, she wrote to us:

There is a very big literature dealing with the question of war in Neolithic societies (see in particular Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization). For a long time, Neolithic societies were considered relatively egalitarian and peaceful, but since several years a lot of research has shown that it was not the case. Neolithic societies are stratified societies and ‘war’ (armed conflicts) were probably very common, as, for example, in native American societies, where armed conflicts were endemic.

We have no other clear evidence of warfare in the archaeological records at this date in that part of France but some evidences are present in the neighbouring region of Germany, in the same culture, essentially in contemporaneous ditches.

We also know many other sites in that part of France with human deposits in circular pits, but Bergheim is however the only one with amputated limbs and almost the only one with evidence of violence on the deposited humans.

Jacques le Moyne de Morgues reported mutilation of bodies by Florida Indians in the 16th century, including cutting off arms and legs

Jacques le Moyne de Morgues reported mutilation of bodies by Florida Indians in the 16 th century, including cutting off arms and legs. (Wikimedia Commons)

One of many Stone Age practices of disposing of the dead in Central Europe was to bury them in circular pits. The practice was common from about 4500 to 3500 BC from the Rhone Valley in France to Slovakia and Hungary. The authors wrote that in some areas this was the only type of burial researchers know about. Researchers have interpreted the pits as disused silos. Some contain isolated bones, anatomical parts or complete or partial skeletons. Some pits contain the remains of one person, others contain multiple people’s remains. Some of the people had grave goods or animal parts with them, though some of them have none. At Bergheim they had very few grave goods and two rabbits that may have fallen into the pit.

Pit 157 has a layer of six adult arms and one child or adolescent arm with scattered hand bones buried at the bottom. Above it is a layer of burials with complete skeletons (except for the missing arm) of two women, a man and four children ranging from about 2 to 4 to about 10 to 13 years old, and the skullcap of an infant. The pit is 2 meters (6.56 feet) deep, 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) in diameter at the bottom and 1.9 meters (6.23 feet) in diameter at the ground surface.

An eighth body, of a woman, was deposited in the pit sometime later, after the surface dirt had been packed down.

Some researchers say these European burials represented funerary practices and that the pits were made just for the purpose of burying the dead, the authors wrote in Antiquity. Others say the dead in these pits were deemed unworthy of formal funerary practices and rites and were unceremoniously dumped in the pits. “The recurrence of this depositional pattern in the archaeological record also enables us to confirm that this was a regular practice, and reinforces the idea that it was truly funerary in nature,” they wrote.

Featured image: The pit of arm bones (Antiquity photo)

By: Mark Miller

Mark Miller's picture


Mark Miller has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and is a former newspaper and magazine writer and copy editor who's long been interested in anthropology, mythology and ancient history. His hobbies are writing and drawing.

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