Traditionally, the Neolithic has been viewed as a generally peaceful period – but this has been slowly changing over recent decades, as a growing body of evidence comprising both individual skeletons and mass-fatality sites with indications of collective violence has emerged across Europe. Now research by an international team of osteologists collating evidence for Neolithic violence across western Europe has put the final nail in the coffin, suggesting that the idea of a ‘peaceful Neolithic’ is dead. In this month’s ‘Science Notes’, we will explore the evidence for this hypothesis, and examine how violence-related injuries are distinguished in archaeological human remains.
Identifying a violent injury on a skeleton, as opposed to an accidental one, is not straightforward. Even injuries that seem self-evidently violent, such as stab or projectile wounds, could have been caused by an accidental fall on to a sharp object or a stray arrow. If more than one injury is present on a skeleton, or if multiple individuals with injuries are buried together, however, it may be more likely that they reflect an intentional act, or acts, of violence. Additionally, although this is by no means conclusive, there are certain injury characteristics that hint at deliberate violence. Such criteria include large, depressed skull fractures above what is called the ‘hat brim’ line (i.e. any injuries located on the cranium that a hat would cover); fractures to the distal third of the ulna (forearm bone), which are called ‘parry fractures’ as they are most often caused by blocking a blow with one’s arm; and, of course, cut, puncture, and projectile wounds made by various weapons.
While on an individual basis these types of injuries may be hard to diagnose unequivocally as caused by deliberate assaults, collating such data from a large number of skeletons provides a better idea of the kinds of injuries that were common in certain locations and time periods, allowing researchers potentially to compare them with other datasets. The main problem with using such a strategy for Neolithic remains, however, is that these skeletons are often highly fragmentary and not very well-preserved, meaning that many injuries that may have been present will no longer be visible. And, of course, any wounds that only affected soft tissue are invisible osteologically. In such cases, focusing solely on injuries affecting the cranium may be the most accurate approach, as not only is the head one of the main targets of violence but, in particularly fragmented assemblages, counting one body element allows researchers to establish a minimum number of individuals present for statistical purposes.
In collating the data from across western Europe, the team found that, on average, nearly 11% of Neolithic individuals displayed at least one cranial injury, with just over 3% having cranial trauma that would have been lethal. Additionally, it is during this period that we first begin to see large numbers of mass-fatality sites, with 18 such locations identified in this research. Taken in conjunction with the scant evidence for Mesolithic violence, these figures suggest that, while the entire Neolithic may not have been bloody, there were probably certain places and periods where violence was endemic.
What might have caused Neolithic violence? There is no definitive answer, but it could be due to an increase in economic disparity that may have arisen during this time. The Neolithic is when nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers began to adopt a more settled, agricultural lifestyle, and, as successful farmers were able to accumulate more ‘wealth’ through cleared land and livestock, they may have been able to create larger families – perhaps through polygamy, as evidenced by the recent aDNA evidence from the Hazleton North chambered tomb (see CA 384). They then could pass their amassed wealth on to their descendents. This would have left some men in Neolithic society unable to marry, and could have potentially caused a rift between the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, which may have ultimately led to conflict, both interpersonal and structural (i.e. warfare).
Summarising their conclusions in a paper recently published in PNAS, the authors write: ‘While violent hostilities between groups were not an innovation in themselves, the practice, scale, and prevalence of human violence appear to have undergone dramatic and lasting changes during [the Neolithic]. It is likely that war developed greater meaning and complexity as a social strategy, with implications for both individuals and groups to advance themselves at the expense of others, setting a pattern that was to persist.’ The paper can be read for free at https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2209481119.