7,000-Year-Old German Grave Shows New Side of Neolithic Brutality

The eight men and one woman bear signs of precisely inflicted blunt force cranial trauma, suggesting they were victims of mass execution

The unusual placement of the victims' limbs (the right humerus, or upper arm bone, in yellow, is tossed across the right femur, or thigh bone, in red) suggests they were strewn haphazardly across the burial pit rather than carefully buried. Copyright LDA Sachsen-Anhalt/Christian Meyer

The nine bodies were unceremoniously dumped into a burial pit, tangled in a jumble of limbs anathema to the precise arrangements typically seen in Early Neolithic graves. Eight were men, the youngest of whom was between 16 and 20 years old, and the ninth was a 21- to 26-year-old woman. All bore signs of blunt force cranial trauma.

Archaeologists discovered the mass grave, which dates to the Linearbandkeramik (LBK, or Linear Pottery) era, in Halberstadt, Germany, in 2013, roughly 7,000 years after its inhabitants met their demise. The researchers’ analysis, detailed last month in Nature Communications, reveals unsettling violence practiced by the first farming settlers of Central Europe.

Live Science’s Laura Geggel reports that the nine individuals were “interlopers.” Scientists analyzed the isotopes in their bones and teeth, which vary depending on diet, and found that the nine individuals' remains contained different isotopes than those present in the remains of other nearby bodies, thought to be the settlement’s residents. It’s unclear who the outsiders were—potential identifications include prisoners of war and failed raiders—or exactly where they originated, but the brutality associated with their deaths is viscerally apparent.

According to the study, the Halberstadt victims’ injuries are located almost exclusively at the back of the head. Other Neolithic mass graves found in Kilianstädten and Talheim, Germany, and Asparn, Austria, reveal an array of wounds likely inflicted as victims ran from their attackers during a surprise massacre. The precise nature of the Halberstadt death blows suggests they occurred as part of a mass execution, the likes of which have never been seen at a Neolithic site.

“Where [other] chaotic massacres occurred, injuries are usually spread out over all areas of the skulls," lead author Christian Meyer, an archaeologist who conducted the study for the State Office for Heritage Management and Archaeology of Saxony-Anhalt, tells Geggel. "Some of the injuries [at Halberstadt] also appear quite similar in size and shape, so overall one can assume a rather controlled application of lethal violence."

The Halberstadt grave is also unique in its demographic makeup, which is heavily tilted toward young adult males. The absence of children and women hints that the dead constituted an unsuccessful attacking, rather than attacked, group.

Geggel writes that LBK culture, which flourished between 5600 and 4900 B.C., included the first Central Europeans to plant crops and raise livestock. Unlike their Mesolithic foraging predecessors, the LBK people established permanent settlements and practiced elaborate funeral rites. Typical burials involved cremations or individual plots in dedicated cemeteries, a far cry from the haphazard mass grave found at Halberstadt.

Evidence of violence amongst LBK communities is rampant, with some sites suggesting massacres occurred at the hands of neighboring settlers. Science’s Jennifer Carpenter notes that the Kilianstädten grave, discovered in 2006, was situated at the border of two groups that had cultivated separate trading networks. The potential annihilation of a neighboring group and the territory to be gained provided ample motivation for surprise attacks.

Despite its similarities to other mass graves, the Halberstadt site is distinctive for its suggestion that LBK mass execution, previously discussed but never verified, occurred as an essential aspect of intergroup warfare. The victims, “irregularly deposited and severely traumatised,” according to the study, were discarded without ritual, strewn at the bottom of a pit where they would remain ensconced for the next 7,000 years.