The Neolithic massacres at Talheim and Schletz-Asparn in northern Europe are usually interpreted in terms of village against village. But could they reflect something more familiar, the killing of a particular section of the community?
It’s a story of misery, ethnic tensions and massacres in northern Europe. It would make for unconfortable reading in one of those difficult modern history novels you’re supposed to read as an adult. But luckily it happened long ago to people very different from us… probably.
The Linear Pottery Culture
The Neolithic ‘Linear Band Keramik’ (or LBK) culture occupied a band of land across the north of Europe between about 6000 and 5000BC. It is defined by the particular pottery is used, a ware decorated with linear bands. It was also the first culture associated with farming in northern Europe.
As such the LBK farmers must have met the local hunter-gatherers of northern Europe. These hunter-gatherers had been there since the ice retreated several thousand year before and farming was a new way of life. In fact, the LBK farmers may have included both converts and the descendants of some of those hunter-gatherers.
The LBK ‘massacres’
The story of the LBK ‘massacres’ is a well known and much discussed one in archaeology. It concerns a moment or period around 5000BC and is centred on three archaeological sites. Talheim, Herxheim and Vaihingen in Germany, and Schletz-Asparn in Austria, all part of the LBK culture.
At Talheim a mass grave of 34 individuals was found, of which 16 were children, 7 women and 9 men. Most victims had evidence of wounds to the head from an adze (a sort of digging stick made from a wooden handle with a stone chisel on the end). A few had been shot with arrows. Strontium isotope evidence indicates that the victims may have come from three different places and were not necessarily originally from the area.
At Schletz-Asparn, 67 individuals were excavated (from an estimated 300). 27 of the 67 were children, 26 men (16 young, 10 old) and 13 women (4 young, 9 old). One adult was of unknown sex. They had again been adzed to death. Evidence of animal tooth marks and missing hands and feet suggest that they were left unburied for a few months. Strontium isotopes suggest a local origin for all of these victims.
At Vaihingen, 12 people’s bodies were buried or dumped in two pits outside the ancient village. Strontium isotopes indicated that perhaps 40% of these people were born elsewhere. Indications of violence are present in some of the bodies.
At Herxheim the evidence is very different although equally macabre. Parts of more than 400 bodies were found, mostly tops of skulls which may have been worn as caps. Whilst many skulls showed evidence of violence, wounds often seem to have healed, suggesting that this may not have been the cause of death. This doesn’t sound like a massacre, more a pretty wierd bad habit, indulged over a longer period. Therefore I shall not discuss it further.
Inter-village – intra-village
There is a growing concensus emerging amongst archaeologists about the massacres at Talheim and Schletz-Asparn. This is that the killers were probably farmers, judging by their choice of weapons, and that the victims were probably also farmers, due to their numbers and demographics. Understandably, people have suggested an attack by one farming village on another.
Evidence sited for this is the lower numbers of young women that seem to have been killed, perhaps suggesting that they may have been abducted in a raid. Also, there are fortifications around some of the later LBK villages.
However there is another possibility, one which is more familiar to us now. When the massacres of people termed Tutsi by people termed Hutu happened in Rwanda, this was not a division by village but a division within the village. As Jared Diamond stated in ‘Collapse’ the evidence points to murder of victims partly because of their ‘ethnicity’ and partly because they and their families had too much – too much wealth, too much land, too much influence.
In fact similar reasons can be argued for the holocaust in Nazi Europe, or for the Sack of Canton in 878 AD. Massacres often occur at times of economic crisis or change where some particular section of society is blamed. We are as familiar with this today as the LBK farmers probably were back in the Neolithic.
There are various explanations as to why LBK society went mental around 5000BC. Among others are exhaustion of the land, a refugee crisis from flooding in the Black Sea, an excess of young males in the population or complex economic reasons in an overstretched society. At the moment I couldn’t even guess which, if any, might be right.
Whatever, the LBK massacres are generally taken to highlight the endemic, possibly even ‘ritualised’ nature of violence in LBK society. The evidence from Herxheim suggests that there are good reasons for saying this.
But what they also might show up is the differences in status of people within a society generally asssumed to be egalitarian and unconnected to the rest of the world. These differences in status may have included being perceived to be too ‘wealthy’, too influential, too dark-haired or that age old favourite, not being born here.
Such differences, given the right conditions, can lead to violence (if the twentieth century is anything to go by). What intrigues me is whether any of those families were killed not by men from another village but by resentful Mr Pegler from number 32, Longhouse Row and his ilk.
Bentley, A. 2007 Mobility, specialisation and community diversity in the Linearbandkeramik: isotopic evidence from the skeletons. Proceedings of the British Academy 144, p117-140.
Diamond, J. 2006 Collapse – How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin pp591.
Golitko, M. & Keeley, L.H. 2007 Beating ploughshares back into swords:warfare in the Linearbandkeramik, Antiquity 81, p 332-342.
Price, D. 2006 Isotopic Evidence for Mobility and Group Organization Among Neolithic Farmers At Talheim, Germany, 5000 BC, European Journal of Archaeology 9, p259-284.
Techler-Nicola, M. et. al. 1999 Evidence of Genocide 7000 BP – Neolithic Paradigm and Geo-climatic Reality, Coll. Antropol 23, p437-750.
Wild, E.M. et al. 2004 Neolithic massacres: Local skirmishes or general warfare in Europe? International Radiocarbon Conference 18, Wellington, New Zealand, p377-385.