Sunday, 23 August 2015

Mass grave at Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals Neolithic massacre

 Chilling discovery at LBK site in Germany

Schöneck-Kilianstädten is a Neolithic mass grave in Hesse, Germany, which was discovered by chance in 2006 during road building works. The site is associated with the Linearbandkeramik (Linear Pottery) Culture or LBK, a Neolithic farming culture that emerged in Hungary around 5600 BC. The LBK is named for its distinctive pottery with banded incised decoration, and it is noted for its characteristic settlements comprised of clusters of massive timber-built longhouses, sometimes measuring up to 70 m (230 ft.) in length.

The LBK was a widespread phenomenon. LBK farmers spread rapidly across Central Europe, their dispersal probably aided by boats. They reached the Rhineland by 5300 BC, followed by the Paris Basin and they also spread eastwards as far as Ukraine and Moldova. Despite its success, evidence has emerged over the last thirty years that relations between LBK farming groups were not always positive.

A mass grave known as the Death Pit at Talheim, Germany, was found in 1983. It contained the remains of 34 individuals, including women and children, most of whom showed evidence of violence. Victims had been hacked or bludgeoned to death with stone adzes and three had been struck by arrows. The use of Neolithic stone tools as murder weapons suggests that the attackers were neighbouring LBK farmers rather than local hunter-gatherers, though the motive remains unknown.

Another example of internecine violence between LBK communities was found at the site of Schletz, Austria, where the remains of 67 individuals were found in an enclosure that was probably built as a defensive structure in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to keep hostile neighbours at bay. Here again, the victims were bludgeoned to death with stone adzes, ruling out a clash with local hunter-gatherers.

However, the most disturbing find to date is a mass grave discovered by chance during road building work at Schöneck-Kilianstädten, Germany, in 2006. The grave dates to around 5000 BC and it has now been reported that it held the remains of at least 26 individuals including 13 predominantly male adults, one young adult and twelve children, mostly aged no more than six years old. The youngest was just six months old. The bodies had been dumped in the burial pit without any of the grave goods that normally accompanies LBK burials.

Again, the skulls showed signs of violence, but there was an additional find. Around half of the shin bones recovered from the grave had been freshly broken and while the corpses could have been systematically mutilated after death, the more sinister possibility is that individuals were tortured before they were killed.

These three sites, widely separated geographically but all dating to the later stages of the LBK, paint a grim picture of widespread violence in Neolithic Europe.


Meyer, C., Lohr, C., Gronenborn, D. & Alt, K., 2015. The massacre mass grave of Schöneck-Kilianstädten reveals new insights into collective violence in Early Neolithic Central Europe. PNAS, 8 September, 112(36), pp. 11217-11222.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Still no consensus on cause of Late Quaternary mass extinction

Studies reach opposite conclusions on humans vs climate change debate

The cause of the mass extinction of megafauna (land-living species with an adult mass of over 45 kg (100 lb)) during the last Ice Age has been debated since the late eighteenth century. Two main theories have predominated for much of that time: human causation and climate change. Two new studies, published in the journals Science and Ecography respectively, suggest that the debate is set to continue.

In the first study, published in Science, an Australian team compared ancient DNA and radiocarbon data from 31 detailed time series of regional megafaunal extinctions and replacements over the past 56,000 years with standard and new combined records of Northern Hemisphere climate in the Late Pleistocene. The researchers used ancient DNA to identify particular species, claiming that this is more reliable than traditional means of identifying fossil remains at species level. It was found that extinctions peaked during abrupt warm climatic episodes known as Dansgaard-Oeschger events, and the researchers claimed that it was these that had been primarily responsible for the extinctions, with human impact as no more than an exacerbating factor.

The second study, conducted at the University of Exeter and published in Ecography, reached the exact opposite conclusion. In this study, the researchers searched for all published records of dated remains or extinction estimates for terrestrial animal genera potentially present in the past 80,000 years with an adult mass of at least 40 kg (88 lb). In this case, there was no attempt at species-level resolution. By this means, last appearance dates were obtained for megafauna in 14 regions across the Americas, Eurasia, Africa, Australia, Tasmania, New Zealand, New Guinea and Madagascar. These dates were compared with dates of human arrival and episodes of climate change. It was concluded that the extinctions were primarily linked to the former and that the latter was only a secondary factor.

While these studies, with their very different methodologies, make a valuable contribution to our understanding of the Late Quaternary mass extinction, they do illustrate the point that it is very hard to make a convincing case for either climate change or humans being solely responsible on a worldwide basis. Overall, it seems likely that different factors operated in different places and at different times.

Bartlett, L. et al., Robustness despite uncertainty: regional climate data reveal the dominant role of humans in explaining global extinctions of Late Quaternary megafauna. Ecography (2015).
Cooper, A. et al., Abrupt warming events drove Late Pleistocene Holarctic megafaunal turnover. Science 349, 602-606 (2015).