Farming came to Central Europe in the early Neolithic age, about 7,500 years ago. Archaeologists call that period the “linear pottery culture” because the people of the time – who were settled in small villages and sustained themselves by primitive farming – made ceramic vessels with characteristic linear patterns.
However, as these people lived and died 7,000 years ago and left no written records, when it comes to knowing their beliefs and culture, we are largely in the dark. Hence, even the most eminent archaeologists have still often had no choice but to fall back on educated speculation.
Now fast-forward to 2006. A gang of road workers were digging at Schöneck-Kilianstädten, about 12 miles from the city of Frankfurt in Germany. Then, out of the blue, their tools turned up something from the earth that came as a complete shock. There, strewn in a ditch, the workers found a collection of human bones; and at that stage, of course, the age of the bones was impossible to know.
Understandably disturbed by this unexpected discovery of human remains, then, the workers downed tools and informed the authorities. So, the bones were subsequently removed from the ground, packaged in newspaper and sent to the University of Mainz; and there, a team led by bio-archaeologist Christian Meyer examined them.
Meyer and his team eventually established that the bones were some 7,000 years old, from the linear pottery culture era we’ve already heard about. Furthermore, despite the fact that the human remains were in an advanced state of decay, it was nevertheless clear that they had originally been thrown into a ditch and then covered with soil.
More specifically, the bones from 26 skeletons of both adults and children had been dumped into a V-shaped ditch just over 20 feet long. But this was no normal linear pottery culture burial. Usually, the people of the time buried their dead in individual graves in cemeteries, often leaving pottery and other goods with the departed. These bodies, however, appeared to have been carelessly tossed into their last resting place.
What’s more, the 26 individuals had clearly not died peacefully in their beds. Fractured skulls exhibited telltale signs of having been smashed in with rudimentary stone age weapons. Animal bone arrowheads were also found embedded in some of the remains. These people, perhaps an entire village, had been violently murdered.
Just as horrifically, there were also signs that these unfortunate people may have been tortured. Many of them had had their shin bones brutally smashed, although it’s impossible to ascertain whether this had been done before or after death. Yet if it did occur when the victims were alive, then this would be evidence of previously unknown levels of barbarity from this era.
University of Illinois anthropologist Lawrence Keeley is skeptical of the torture theory, however. Talking to The Guardian, he said, “Torture focuses on the parts of the body with the most nerve cells: the feet, pubis, hands and head. I can’t think of anywhere that torture involved breaking the tibia.”
Meanwhile, Meyer himself said, “Such mutilations were done to prevent enemy spirits from following home, haunting or doing mischief to the killers. These motives seem most likely to me. Or perhaps it was done to further revenge by crippling the enemy’s spirits in the afterlife.” Whatever the explanation, though, this was evidence of shocking brutality.
One other noticeable thing about the human bones found in the ditch was that there were no remains of young women among them. Potentially shedding light on this, the archaeologists told The Guardian that while everyone else from the village was killed, the young women might have been abducted. The researchers added that the women may have been valued as potential child bearers.
Keeley also expanded upon this theory about the fate of the women. “The only reasonable interpretation of these cases, as here, is that a whole typically-sized linear pottery culture hamlet or small village was wiped out by killing the majority of its inhabitants and kidnapping the young women,” he said.
And there is other evidence that this was an organized raid conducted with the intention of wiping out a small community. You see, the location of the village and the massacre was near to a boundary that formed a dividing line between two tribes. This could, therefore, have made conflict all the more likely.
The linear pottery culture people had spread westwards from the Middle East in this period of the Neolithic era. Farmers were clearing the land for cultivation and creating settled communities. This in turn meant that in some locations land would have been at a premium, intensifying competition for resources. And this competition could have potentially led to open warfare.
Evidence of conflicts does in fact exist from other linear pottery culture sites where mass graves have been discovered. One example, also in modern Germany – and known as the Talheim death pit – came to light in 1983. The grave at Talheim had 34 sets of human remains, including those of 16 children.
Furthermore, some of the skeletons at Talheim exhibited clear signs of old wounds that had healed, which could suggest that violent conflicts were not uncommon. That said, the bones also showed signs of traumas that certainly must have been the causes of death. Many of the skulls had suffered wounds indicating blows with stone adzes; some also appeared to have been hit by arrows.
Another mass grave was also uncovered at Schletz-Asparn in modern-day Austria, some 20 miles north of Vienna. The number of bodies disinterred there was 67, but only part of the site has been excavated, and the burial pit may contain as many as 300. The 67 that have been examined all showed clear signs of violent death, however.
Just as at the Schöneck-Kilianstädten site, the Schletz-Asparn grave contained a disproportionate number of men; this again indicates that women may have been abducted rather than slaughtered. Archaeologists also uncovered evidence that this site had been fortified. And this would suggest that people lived in a state where they felt the need to protect themselves – perhaps from violent raids by neighboring communities.
So, what does all of this compelling evidence of violence, mayhem and murder tell us? Archaeologist Christian Meyer told The Guardian, “On one hand you are curious about finding out more about this, but also shocked to see what people can do to each other.” He believes that the people who committed the massacre wanted to demonstrate their power by slaughtering an entire community.
And Lawrence Keeley says these massacres show that the idea of ancient communities living together in peace is a fantasy. Speaking to The Guardian, he said, “This represents yet another nail in the coffin of those who have claimed that war was rare or ritualized or less awful in prehistory or, in this instance, the early Neolithic.”