LBK massacres – who killed whom?

by Edward Pegler on 16 January, 2011

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.

LBK Status

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.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Adrian December 21, 2013 at 11:02 pm

“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.”

Sounds like the Marxist interpretation of history if you ask me. Personally, I take a more “tragic” view of human nature. It is what it is. The “noble savage” myth is… a myth.

Maybe this documentary will offer some insight into the violence present in primitive societies; it did for me:


Edward Pegler December 22, 2013 at 6:43 pm

Dear Adrian

Seems to be a missing link here. Either way, I have no problem with the violence of ‘primitive’ societies. The point of debate is more what causes it, evolution or cultural norms. I suspect that an ageing population really helps reduce it too.

best wishes



Vittorio Ferretti November 23, 2013 at 10:56 pm

why did LBK terminate abruptly after -5000? Was it the first Kurgan wave reaching W Europe?

Best regards!


Edward Pegler November 24, 2013 at 2:50 pm

Dear Vittorio

What a question. Answer, of course, I don’t know. However, recent genetic evidence perhaps indicates that LBK populations are not the main ancestral lines of modern north Europeans. This could be a result of disease spreading through Europe as a consequence of the spread of pastoral farming (kurgans or no), or it could be the result of the original population being swamped by carriers of a gene for lactose tolerance (again pastoralists). These carriers may have come in from the SE (the Balkans is currently favoured as the location of one genetic mutation for lactose tolerance).

I think the evidence needs to be read in terms of whether there is an indication of population decrease at the end of LBK times or whether there is evidence for a population increase. Decrease might indicate disease, increase might indicate either improvements in nutrition (say from cow’s milk). There is a third possible explanation, which is that the advent of copper smelting in the Balkans/Anatolia changed the pattern of economic interaction between northern Europe and SE Europe. However, how that would play out in terms of populations I don’t know.

Either way, I’m not much of a fan of migrations without a precipitating reason for them.

Hope that makes some sense as it seems like a stream of conscious reply.



Geoff Carter February 6, 2011 at 10:48 am

A very interesting article, I been meaning to comment on this for a while.

For starters, there are probably two groups in LBK world; they are an intrusive population of farmers with a different culture from the native [Mesolithic?] population. Such interactions are not normally mutually beneficial.

The assumption of early Neolithic societies lived in a sort of Eden is also inherent in some views. They had derived from the Near East city economies, which were highly stratified and slave based.

We should not assume that circumstances are consistent in each example.
The key issue is burial, who buried them and why?. You don’t bury your enemy in their own space, or clean up someone else’s environment.


Edward Pegler February 6, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Dear Geoff

Thanks for the comment. Yes, I presume that there are at LEAST two cultures at the time. What intrigues me is the possibility that there was more than one cultural identity even within a village.

I could (as I once mentioned) envisage a macho, frontier-type society, such as is recalled of the fur-traders of Canada and NW America… but even more lawless. One the other hand I could also envisage something far more established and ritualised. Either way, like you I don’t believe that these communities were completely egalitarian though.

In terms of burial, looking at Bosnia and Rwanda for comparisons is interesting. In Bosnia the perpetrators tended to bury the evidence of the atrocity in some sort of attempt to cover their tracks. In Rwanda, it seems, they didn’t. People in Bosnia were expecting to be judged at some point, I guess.

The Schletz-Asparn case suggests that the killers were not worried about not burying the bodies, although apparently someone did, eventually, bury them. At Talheim, the bodies were buried, one supposes shortly after their death (but by which side?). This does suggest different local circumstances. Vaihingen perhaps makes clearer sense if it is the result of massacre by some members of a village. Unfortunately, we’ll never know exactly what happened, but I’m sure that more evidence will help to eliminate some versions.

Perhaps the most interesting elimination I’ve heard is that the Black Sea did not extensively rise in level during the Neolithic, so the idea of population pressure due to refugees from the Black Sea area will need a different explanation.




rose ruth June 16, 2015 at 8:50 am

I believe a push factor may have cone from growing incursions into the black sea region from the steppes although this was apparently more evident later.


Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: