War before civilization in Late Neolithic Europe

A new ancient DNA paper, Unraveling ancestry, kinship, and violence in a Late Neolithic mass grave:

We sequenced the genomes of 15 skeletons from a 5,000-y-old mass grave in Poland associated with the Globular Amphora culture. All individuals had been brutally killed by blows to the head, but buried with great care. Genome-wide analyses demonstrate that this was a large extended family and that the people who buried them knew them well: mothers are buried with their children, and siblings next to each other. From a population genetic viewpoint, the individuals are clearly distinct from neighboring Corded Ware groups because of their lack of steppe-related ancestry. Although the reason for the massacre is unknown, it is possible that it was connected with the expansion of Corded Ware groups, which may have resulted in violent conflict.

The context is that these individuals were from the Globular Amphora culture (GAC), which preceded the Corded Ware culture (CWC), which itself was descended from the broad complex of Yamna and Yamna-related cultures of the steppe. The genetics here are not new findings. The GAC culture seemed to be dominated by individuals descended mostly from “Early European Farmers” (EEF), and on a genome-wide level, their broad genetic patterns were almost exactly the same as the Neolithic people of Ireland, thousands of miles to the west.

Genetically, and judging by the pigmentation loci, physically, the GAC’s closest analogs today are probably the people of Sardinia, who have the largest fraction of EEF ancestry among modern Europeans. Because EEF fractions are still rather high in Southern Europe, the late Neolithic people of much of Northern Europe are genetically more similar to modern Southern Europeans than they are to later Northern Europeans who succeeded them.

These later Northern Europeans, the predominant ancestors of modern Northern Europeans, had an ancestral component which comes out of the steppe and forest-steppe zones. In the context of the North European plain the massive replacement of Neolithic European societies by these post-steppe societies in the centuries after 2800 BC happened so quickly and substantially that the genetic differentiation between modern Northern European groups remains very modest (and is due to a combination of substrate admixture, accrued genetic drift, and in some cases later admixture from the east).

Rather than the broader human geographic context, the most fascinating thing about this paper is the granularity they bring to what was clearly some sort of directed violence that may have been genocidal in intent. I will quote extensively from the paper:

Overall, we identified four nuclear families in the grave, which are for the most part represented by mothers and their children (Fig. 3). Closely related kin were buried next to each other: a mother was buried cradling her child, and siblings were placed side by side. Evidently, these individuals were buried by people who knew them well and who carefully placed them in the grave according to familial relationships. For example, individual 14, the oldest individual in the grave, was buried close to her two sons (individuals 5 and 15), whereas individual 8, a 30–35-y-old woman, was buried with her teenage daughter (individual 9) and 5-y-old son (individual 13). Using genome-wide patterns of IBS, we were also able to reconstruct more complex relationships: individuals 5, 10, 11, and 15 all appear to be brothers, and yet they do not have the same mother (individual 14 is the mother of individuals 5 and 15, but not 10 and 11), suggesting that they might be half-brothers. However, all four of them share the same mitochondrial DNA haplotype, suggesting that their mothers might also have been related.

Interestingly, the older males/fathers are mostly missing from the grave, suggesting that it might have been them who buried their kin. The only father present in the grave is individual 10, whose partner and son are placed together opposite him in the grave. In addition, there is a young boy (individual 7), aged 2–2.5 y, whose parents are not in the grave, but he is placed next to other individuals to whom he is closely related through various second-degree relationships. Finally, there is individual 3, an adult female, who does not seem to be genetically related to anyone in the group. However, her position in the grave close to individual 4, a young man, suggests that she may have been as close to him in life as she was in death. These biological data and burial arrangements show that the social relationships held to be most significant in these societies were identical with genetic and reproductive relationships. However, they also demonstrate that nuclear families were nested in larger, extended family groups, either permanently or for parts of the year.

These prehistoric people lived in a sometimes brutal world. But they were just like us in deep and fundamental ways. This was a patrilineal kinship group, sharing the same Y chromosomes. The women too may have been distantly related.

Details of kinship relationships and how they were placed next to each other in death flesh out the world of these people in an almost novelistic manner. And, it asks us to consider the motivations of the people who killed them (the authors speculative CWC, though obviously, they can’t be sure). In many premodern societies, women and children of the enemy are viewed as goods which can be captured and appropriated. “Male-mediated gene flow” is a word that describes what happens genetically, but in terms of history and anthropology we are pointing to the phenomenon of men moving across a landscape rapidly without women and children, and eventually obtaining families by hook or crook. There is some suggestion that agricultural words in Germanic languages come from a pre-Indo-European substrate. Not all of these people were killed.

So why kill these women and children in this case? If these people were the same as us, with the same capacity for horror, then imagine the feelings of the men and women who arrived back in the village after the slaughter. Not only did they have to see the dead bodies of their children and their wives, but they had to confront the fact that the event occurred because they weren’t there to protect them. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, the author depicts a similar genocide in early 6th century Britain, which had the two-fold effect of traumatizing the warriors who came home to the slaughter of their families, as well as killing the young boys who would one day become fighters.

When inter-group conflict results in the killing of young women I think a Marxist materialist framework fails us. Yes, there is something animalistic and Malthusian in the competition for resources of premodern people. But humans personalize conflict and ideologize it.


10 thoughts on “War before civilization in Late Neolithic Europe

  1. Been a long time since I’ve read War Before Civilization, but I think the author said killing women and children wasn’t uncommon (stealing them wasn’t always a feasible option). You might be sending a signal and trying to drive off survivors. Or it could be retaliation. Both motives have a type of horrible logic to them.

    Or there could be no logic at all, just brutality.

    It’s touching to see modern science reveal something much less brutal happened with the burial.

  2. There is another possibility. The husbands and fathers killed their women and children (to prevent them from falling into the hands of their enemies) and fled and/or perished in battle elsewhere.

  3. Twinkie, wasn’t it the men who presumably buried these women and children?

  4. @Twinkie: it would be possible, indeed, but the brutality inflicted on these ones makes that very improbable

  5. “suggesting that it might have been them who buried their kin.”

    Should be:

    suggesting that it might have been they who buried their kin.

    You’re welcome.

  6. Read Table S2. There were 4 adult males in the grave, although only one was a father of some of the children in the grave: one aged 16-17, one 20-25, one 18-20 and one 40-50. So at least three and maybe all four were of fighting age. The one aged 20-25 had injuries to the right arm, suggesting that he might have put up some resistance before being overcome and executed by blows to the head. He was the only one to exhibit any defensive injuries to the bones, although soft tissue injuries can’t be ruled out.

    I think that rules out the theory that the men killed their own women and children.

    What seems most likely to me is that most of the men left the settlement, maybe to attend to their grazing livestock, leaving a small number of males behind to guard the settlement, but that they were surprised and overcome by a larger force of attackers. When the main body of men returned to the settlement, after the attackers had gone, they found what had happened and then carried out the burials in a careful manner with full knowledge of the relationships between the deceased.

    Motive: either competition for grazing land for livestock, or genocidal.

  7. Nope, I missed a couple – there were 6 adult males in the grave: 16-17, 20-25 (with right arm skeletal ‘defensive’ injuries), 18-20, 30-40 (partly charred, so no idea what happened to him – maybe pushed into a fire after being killed) and two aged 40-50. It doesn’t change my assessment.

    Plus the guy with the arm injuries had cut marks on the arm bones, so soft tissue injuries to some of the others can’t be ruled out – someone was using a bladed weapon.

    Someone please tell me if I am reading this wrong.

  8. I think this is a good assessment:

    “What seems most likely to me is that most of the men left the settlement, maybe to attend to their grazing livestock, leaving a small number of males behind to guard the settlement, but that they were surprised and overcome by a larger force of attackers.”

    If the attackers were Corded Ware Indo-Europeans, one tremendous advantage they would have over their GAC victims was horse mobility. Even if they did not use horses much in battle (probably some fought from chariot, but who knows how a raiding party would have been disposed), horses would give them the ability to appear as if out of nowhere, strike a settlement, and be gone before any effective resistance could be mustered. Your scenario of the village being raided while the men were out in the fields and coming home to butchered kin and ruined homes is very plausible in light of that.

    That ability to appear out of seemingly nowhere with great violence and then vanish again must have inspired great terror and dread that magnified the effect of these war bands beyond their numbers. It recalls the advantages of seaborne mobility, relative to their static victims, that their descendants the Vikings would exploit millennia later.

  9. @Twinkie: it would be possible, indeed, but the brutality inflicted on these ones makes that very improbable

    What Neolithic technology would have enabled a “non-brutal” way of killing someone quickly?

    The paper seems to indicate that they died from head trauma – head blows were probably the number one way to kill someone quickly (and relatively painlessly) with impact weapons. There is another “benefit” to such a blow – there is relatively little blood shed compared to severing an artery with a blade. I might speculate that killing by shedding a lot of blood (especially of kin) was taboo in many ancient cultures.

    Moreover, I was merely suggesting another possibility rather than advocating for a probable scenario. The fact is, we have NO IDEA why and by whom they were killed. We only know their genetic relationships, how they were buried, and what (likely) killed them. It’s possible that they were killed by raiders or warriors of a competitor group. Or perhaps they were killed by their own men. There also might have been ritualistic motives.

    All are speculations. In my view, assuming that enemies killed them, though plausible, is a rush to judgment given the very limited evidence.

  10. They were the victims of raiders and most males fit to fight were absent.
    The raiding party might be even hunted and committed the massacre while being on the run themselves.

    If they were followed by the defenders, they wouldnt have had much time to take prisoners anyway, but they could still inflict huge damage to the locals, as they did. Probably because of hate, retaliation, or to spread terror and ruin the hostile population.
    Obviously its easier to kill a cub than waiting for the lion to be grown.

    They didnt conquer the area and the defenders were close. Thats why the dead were so carefully buried soon afterand taking prisoners alive would have been rather difficult.

    The wounds might give us the clue to which people did it, because of the tools used. I would guess CW warriors, but a careful forensic analyse is the only way to be sure.

    Also, they might have taken some handpicked females alive with them, we dont know.

    Actually, in a lot of such cases young and attractive females in particular might have had a bitter choice, either go with the invaders and be submissive, or get killed.

    If they refused to leave their kin, they might have been killed for sure. If they were ready to live on that way under a new master, they had a chance depending on the foreign warriors mood and customs.
    A lot of Celtic and Germanic women preferred death before slavery. Probably some of those women made the same decision.


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