It’s easy to romanticize the past in just about any period of human history. And as scary and complicated as the world often seems today, many people like to think about how much better their lives would be if they had been born earlier.
The truth is that ancient peoples weren’t nearly as technologically advanced as we are now, and there’s no reason to believe that they were any less violent, either. In fact, there’s reason to believe that they may have been even more hawkish!
A series of recent discoveries in Europe suggest that these seemingly “simple” ancient civilizations were absolutely brutal… and they’re still disturbing to see even now.
Roughly seven-and-a-half centuries ago, during the early stages of the Neolithic period, central Europeans started farming in a time known as “Linear Pottery culture.” It was marked by the distinctive ceramic containers these pioneering farmers used back then.
Unfortunately, there are no records (in writing, at least) of this unique culture, so detailed information about them remains scarce. Even so, historians continued to use what little evidence they had to make educated guesses about their findings—and they’ve discovered some brutal truths…
In 2006, something incredible happened near Frankfurt, Germany, in the town of Schöneck-Kilianstädten. Completely by accident, a road work team dug up something shocking: a pile of human bones in a ditch…
Stunned and presumably terrified, the crew stopped working and immediately contacted the authorities. Shortly afterward, the bones were extracted and delivered to bio-archaeologist Christian Meyer at the University of Maine.
Meyer discovered that the bones were roughly 7,000 years old and from the Neolithic era. Obviously, they had decayed quite a bit over the last several thousand years, but one thing was obvious: they had been thrown into the ditch and buried intentionally.
All in all, there were 26 skeletons, belonging to both adults and children, littered throughout the 20-foot-long ditch. Interestingly, this was not typical of Linear Pottery culture, when people ritualistically buried their dead in cemeteries. So why the mass grave?
Clearly, these 26 people befell a terrible fate, not just because of their inhumane burial, but because the fractures in their skulls showed that they had been clobbered with primitive weapons of the Stone Age. Similarly, some remains showed arrowheads made of animal bones.
Worse yet, many signs pointed to the fact that the people had been tortured, as some of their shins had been smashed. Clearly, somebody had a serious bone to pick with these individuals. This couldn’t have been an easy era to live in…
Even so, some experts expressed skepticism. “Torture focuses on the parts of the body with the most nerve cells: the feet, pubis, hands and head,” Lawrence Keeley, an archaeologist with the University of Illinois, said in an interview with The Guardian. “I can’t think of anywhere that torture involved breaking the tibia.”
Christian Meyer thought a bit differently, emphasizing the brutality of the day. “Such mutilations were done to prevent enemy spirits from following home, haunting or doing mischief to the killers,” he said. “These motives seem most likely to me. Or perhaps it was done to further revenge by crippling the enemy’s spirits in the afterlife.”
It should be noted that none of these skeletons belonged to young women. Archaeologists suggested that instead of being murdered like the men in the village, the women, as potential child-bearers, may have been abducted.
Keeley had an additional suggestion. “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,” he explained.
There’s even more evidence supporting the theory that there was a concerted effort to destroy the entire community, as the village in question was located near a dividing line between two potentially warring tribes.
Earlier in history, the people of the Linear Pottery culture had migrated west from the Middle East, as farmers had been settling and cultivating their communities after clearing the land. This made certain locations more appealing… and competitive.
As horrifying as this mass grave may have sounded, it was not entirely unique for the era and region. For example, in 1983, the Neolithic “Talheim death pit” was found in Germany, which included as many as 32 skeletons, some of which even belonged to children.
As for those skeletons, some of them had old wounds that had later healed. Clearly violence was not foreign to these people; they exhibited other injuries that were definite causes of death, with many marks on several skulls that appeared to have been the result of fatal blows.
In the nearby Austrian city of Schletz-Asparn, roughly 20 miles from Vienna, there was initially a group of 67 disinterred bodies found in the first site. That was before the entire burial pit was uncovered and revealed a total of 300 bodies that had died violently.
Similar to the mass grave at Schöneck-Kilianstädten, the burial pit at Schletz-Asparn had far more men than women, further supporting the theory that the women were abducted. According to archaeologists, the site was also heavily fortified, so these people clearly (and probably rightly) felt like they needed to defend themselves.
The conclusions that these findings lead to were disturbing. “On one hand you are curious about finding out more about this, but also shocked to see what people can do to each other,” Meyer said in an interview with The Guardian, adding that the raids may have been a show of power.
Meanwhile, Keeley emphasized that these findings debunked the idea that ancient people were more peaceful. 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 period.
There graves may be disturbing, but they shed some much-needed light on how the world used to be. Perhaps we’re luckier to live in modern times than we thought!
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