neolithic massacre cranium

A cranial injury on the frontal bone of a roughly 8-year-old child. Credit: Courtesy of Christian Meyer, via LiveScience

The discovery of a mass grave in Germany shows that 7,000 years ago, attackers killed 26 victims, including children, systematically breaking their shins before dumping them in a pit. So were early Neolithic farmers really all that peaceful?

The first farmers came from Anatolia and the Middle East, bringing sheep, goats and other domesticated animals with them as they began settling central Europe 7,500 years ago. They built homes, grew crops, made pottery and lived relatively settled lives. But did they also engage in warfare and other types of organised violence?

Archaeologists have long debated the question, and the early Neolithic in Europe is often painted as a relatively peaceful period in our past. But the grisly discovery of a mass grave in Schöneck-Kilianstädten, Germany, is just one of a series of more violent finds.

Early Neolithic burials typically hold one body per grave, and about 50 percent of them contain goods such as pottery, stone tools or ornaments made of shells.

By contrast, says Christian Meyer, a bioarchaeologist from University of Mainz and lead author of the study, this grave contains the comingled remains of 13 adults, one teenager, and 12 children—the youngest of which was only 6 months old.

The skulls showed signs of lethal blows, and over half of the shinbones recovered from the grave were broken. There was no sign of care or ritual given to the bodies as they were buried, and no grave goods either.

It’s not the first such case. In the 1980s, researchers uncovered two other Neolithic mass graves — a “death pit” with 34 bodies in Talheim, Germany, and the remains of at least 67 individuals at Schletz-Asparn, Austria — similarly dated to the early Neolithic period in central Europe between 5600 B.C. and 4900 B.C.

All three graves are linked to the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) culture, a group named for the linear ornaments on their pottery, and in all three cases, whole villages, which usually numbered only 30 to 40 people—were apparently wiped out.

Linda Fibiger, a bioarchaeologist from the University of Edinburgh, said that the new grave site sits close to a border between two Neolithic groups who maintained distinct trading networks, and that trading networks might reflect the legacy of such ancient massacres for generations.

Always wanted to try archaeology?

DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Support one of our digs and you can choose to watch our discoveries as they happen, or roll up your sleeves and excavate alongside our team!

Choose a dig

Maiya Pina-Dacier

Head of Community at DigVentures, Maiya digs with a trowel in one hand, and a Twitter feed in the other. She reports on all our discoveries live from the trenches, and keeps our Site Hut full of the latest archaeology news. Got a story? Just drop her a line...

Full Author Profile +