The mass grave in Germany that alludes to a Neolithic massacre 7,000-years ago

Germany-mass-grave-neolithic-massacre_1A fractured skull of a child, from the site. Photo Credit: Christian Meyer

Back in 2006, archaeologists came across a 7,000-year-old mass grave, just 12 miles (around 20 kilometers) from Frankfurt in Germany. A reanalysis of the site done in 2015, revealed the battered skeletons of 26 individuals, with the youngest being a 6-month-old baby. Experts believe the later gruesome discovery points to an early Neolithic massacre that had likely wiped out an entire village.

Assessment of the skeletons showed signs of severe injury and torture. These included skull fractures, quite possibly inflicted with the two bone arrowheads found at the site, as well as broken leg bones (both tibiae and fibulae). According to the researchers, the lacerated bodies suggest that the victims were either tormented before death or butchered afterward. Dating back to circa 5000 BC, the grave provides evidence of rampant violence, in central Europe, during the early Neolithic period. Speaking about the discovery in 2015, Christian Meyer, an archaeologist responsible for conducting the study at Germany’s University of Mainz, said:

On one hand, you are curious about finding out more about this but also shocked to see what people can do to each other.

Originally unearthed in 2006, by road builders working at Schöneck-Kilianstädten, the V-shaped ditch is one of the three Neolithic mass graves that have been discovered on the European continent. Back in the 1980s, archaeologists found a “death pit”, containing the skeletal remains of 34 individuals, in the town of Talheim in south Germany. A similar grave, containing 67 ancient bodies, was uncovered in Asparn in the northeastern part of Austria. Belonging to the period between 5600 BC and 4900 BC, each of these graves is linked with the Linear Pottery (or Linearbandkeramik or LBK) culture. Meyer explained:

We have these three massacres now from roughly the same period, from different areas within the Linearbandkeramik world, so we know this period of time was quite violent, actually.


A fractured adult shin bone recovered from the site. Photo Credit: Christian Meyer

Commonly regarded as one of Europe’s earliest farming communities, the culture acquired its name for its unique technique of pottery decoration. Although agriculture was introduced by the Starčevo culture some 500 years before the emergence of the LBK, the latter’s arrival coincided with the initial spread of farming in the central part of the continent. These ancient people settled along the Danube, the Elbe, and the Rhine, establishing farms and small villages that relied mainly on farming and rearing livestock.

Published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences journal in 2015, the newer study surmised that the massacre was likely the result of a conflict between two neighboring communities of the LBK culture. According to the researchers, excessive farming could have led to an increased strain on the available natural resources which, coupled with unfavorable climatic conditions and drought, might have created an atmosphere of tension and violence.

Previously, analysis of early Neolithic cemeteries had shed some light on the burial practices of the LBK communities. A separate grave was allotted to each person, where the body was carefully buried, often surrounded by grave goods like pottery, ornaments, and tools. In case of the mass grave, however, the burial was conducted without any sort of ritual or ceremony. Furthermore, the skeletons, most of which show signs of blunt-force trauma, were not accompanied by any kind of funerary object. Meyer stated:

This is a classic case where we find the ‘hardware’: the skeletal remains, the artifacts, everything that is durable we can find in the graves. But the ‘software’: what people were thinking, why they were doing things, what their mindset was at this time, of course, was not preserved.


Reconstruction of later Bronze Age fighters involved in the Battle of Tollense River, Germany, circa 1250 BC.

The severe mutilation, of the bodies, indicated that the buried were victims of an ominous pre-historic massacre. Of the 26 bodies found in the grave, 13 were children, the majority of whom were below the age of 6 years at the time of death. Examination of the skeletal remains has shown that the youngest victim was only 6 months old. The remaining 13 individuals were adults, with only two among them being women. The lead archaeologist hypothesized:

…we have a lot of children there, so there must have been a lot of women around.

The absence of young women, from the group, suggests that they were likely kidnapped by the attackers, after the carnage. Lawrence Keeley, a professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois in Chicago, made her case:

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. 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. 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.

The newer study was originally published in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences journal, in 2015.

Source: ScienceMag