Mass grave reveals prehistoric warfare in ancient European farming community

Shattered skulls and shin bones of 7000-year-old skeletons may point to torture and mutilation not previously observed in early Neolithic Linear Pottery culture

A portion of a child’s skull, displaying classic signs of blunt force injuries caused by basic stone age weapons. Photograph: Christian Meyer

The chance discovery of a mass grave crammed with the battered skeletons of ancient Europeans has shed light on the lethal violence that tore through one of the continent’s earliest farming communities.

In 2006, archaeologists were called in after road builders in Germany uncovered a narrow ditch filled with human bones as they worked at a site in Schöneck-Kilianstädten, 20km north-east of Frankfurt.

They have now identified the remains as belonging to a 7000-year-old group of early farmers who were part of the Linear Pottery culture, which gained its name from the group’s distinctive style of ceramic decoration.

In the seven metre-long, V-shaped pit, researchers found the skeletons of 26 adults and children, who were killed by devastating strikes to the head or arrow wounds. The skull fractures are classic signs of blunt force injuries caused by basic stone age weapons.

Along with close-quarter fighting, attackers used bows and arrows to ambush their neighbours. Two arrowheads made of animal bone were found in the soil stuck to the skeletons. They are thought to have been inside the bodies when they were placed in the pit.

More than half of the individuals had their legs broken in acts of apparent torture or posthumous mutilation. The smashed-in shin bones could represent a new form of violent torture not seen before in the group.

A fractured adult shin bone from the mass grave, which could indicate torture or posthumous mutilation. Photograph: Christian Meyer

In the Linear Pottery culture, each person was given their own grave within a cemetery, the body carefully arranged and often buried with grave goods such as pottery and other possessions. By contrast, in the mass grave the bodies lay scattered.

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