Mass grave at Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals Neolithic massacre

Chilling discovery at LBK site in Germany

Schöneck-Kilianstädten is a Neolithic mass grave in Hesse, Germany, which was discovered by chance in 2006 during road building works. The site is associated with the Linearbandkeramik (Linear Pottery) Culture or LBK, a Neolithic farming culture that emerged in Hungary around 5600 BC. The LBK is named for its distinctive pottery with banded incised decoration, and it is noted for its characteristic settlements comprised of clusters of massive timber-built longhouses, sometimes measuring up to 70 m (230 ft.) in length.

The LBK was a widespread phenomenon. LBK farmers spread rapidly across Central Europe, their dispersal probably aided by boats. They reached the Rhineland by 5300 BC, followed by the Paris Basin and they also spread eastwards as far as Ukraine and Moldova. Despite its success, evidence has emerged over the last thirty years that relations between LBK farming groups were not always positive.

A mass grave known as the Death Pit at Talheim, Germany, was found in 1983. It contained the remains of 34 individuals, including women and children, most of whom showed evidence of violence. Victims had been hacked or bludgeoned to death with stone adzes and three had been struck by arrows. The use of Neolithic stone tools as murder weapons suggests that the attackers were neighbouring LBK farmers rather than local hunter-gatherers, though the motive remains unknown.

Another example of internecine violence between LBK communities was found at the site of Schletz, Austria, where the remains of 67 individuals were found in an enclosure that was probably built as a defensive structure in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep hostile neighbours at bay. Here again, the victims were bludgeoned to death with stone adzes, ruling out a clash with local hunter-gatherers.

However, the most disturbing find to date is a mass grave discovered by chance during road building work at Schöneck-Kilianstädten, Germany, in 2006. The grave dates to around 5000 BC and it has now been reported that it held the remains of at least 26 individuals including 13 predominantly male adults, one young adult and twelve children, mostly aged no more than six years old. The youngest was just six months old. The bodies had been dumped in the burial pit without any of the grave goods that normally accompanies LBK burials.

Again, the skulls showed signs of violence, but there was an additional find. Around half of the shin bones recovered from the grave had been freshly broken and while the corpses could have been systematically mutilated after death, the more sinister possibility is that individuals were tortured before they were killed.

These three sites, widely separated geographically but all dating to the later stages of the LBK, paint a grim picture of widespread violence in Neolithic Europe.

Reference:

Meyer, C., Lohr, C., Gronenborn, D. & Alt, K., 2015. The massacre mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals new insights into collective violence in Early Neolithic Central Europe. PNAS, 8 September, 112(36), pp. 11217-11222.

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