Mass Murder in the Late Neolithic

A family meets a violent end in Poland, c. 2800 BC

(Note: I’m trying something a little more organic and closer to historical fiction, like the openings of my Tides of History episodes, to start this week’s newsletter. Hope you find it interesting.)

The faces stared upward out the shallow pit, illuminated by the last rays of the evening sun. Tiny fragments of bone stood out from their skulls, stark white against the brown of drying blood and dark hair. The men and boys gathered around the grave’s opening could barely stand to look down at what remained of their family: their mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, and children, infants and the elderly. Fifteen people lay in the grave, all with their skulls crushed and mangled by a cascade of vicious blows, most of them children and women. They hadn’t even been able to fight back.

Most of the men had been away, watering their cattle at the river or hunting deer in the nearby forest, when the attackers had come. They returned to the cluster of temporary square houses of timber and earth to find a scene of bloody carnage amid the still-smoking cookfires they had left behind. Their family group and their world was gone, utterly destroyed.

All that was left was to bury the dead. An older man placed his elderly wife with their two adult sons. A young father, his wife dead in childbirth two years before, carefully positioned his young son next to the boy’s aunt, his sister. A mother lay on her side next to her teenaged daughter, arranged together in death by the woman’s husband, the girl’s father. He carefully placed a small clay pot next to his daughter’s head, one of many items that accompanied the dead on their next journey: flint axes, the tusks of boars, bone pendants, amber jewelry, tools of stone and bone.

As the sun set and darkness fell on the pit, the small group covered the bodies with dirt, the freshly turned earth marking the spot just north of the Carpathian Mountains where they left their families behind for all eternity, nearly 5,000 years ago.

Some time around 2800 BC - the probabilities provided by radiocarbon dates span the years from 2880 to 2776 BC - this extended family was brutally murdered near the village of Koszyce, about 30 miles east of Krakow in what is now southern Poland. They stayed there for almost 5,000 years, until archaeologists discovered and excavated the mass grave in 2011.

Over the past decade, researchers have applied the most advanced tools available to understand these Neolithic people buried near Koszyce: their ancestry, the populations to which they were genetically closest, how they were related to one another, the place where they lived, the precise manner of their deaths, and even what they looked like.

Kinship. (A) Artistic reconstruction of the Koszyce mass burial based partly on phenotypic traits inferred from the ancient genomes (reconstruction by Michał Podsiadło); (B) Schematic representation of the burial and pedigree plots showing kinship relations between the Koszyce individuals inferred from genetic data. (C) kinship network based on kinship coefficients inferred from IBS scores for pairs of Koszyce individuals showing first-and second-degree relationships. Kinship coefficients and R scores are reported in Dataset S7 and plotted in SI Appendix, Fig. S9.
Artistic reconstruction of the Koszyce mass burial based partly on phenotypic traits inferred from the ancient genomes (reconstruction by Michał Podsiadło); (B) Schematic representation of the burial and pedigree plots showing kinship relations between the Koszyce individuals inferred from genetic data. (C) kinship network based on kinship coefficients. Accessed via ResearchGate.

But who were these people? Who killed them? And why?

We can answer the first question in a few different ways. Based on the grave goods, the burial rite, and the date, the occupants of the mass grave were representatives of what’s known as the “Globular Amphora Culture.” These people lived in what’s now central and eastern Europe in the centuries around 3000 BC. They were farmers and herders, descended mostly from the Neolithic farmers who populated most of Europe at that time. Their ancestors had come from the Near East around 4,000 years before, bringing farming techniques with them across the Aegean to Greece and then north and west throughout the continent, occasionally mixing with the hunter-gatherers who already made Europe their home. The Globular Amphora Culture is known for a particular kind of decorated pottery vessel called, obviously enough, the globular amphora:

The people buried in the grave near Koszyce belonged to an extended family group. The men were all closely related to one another, bearing the Y-chromosome haplogroup I2a-L801. The women, by contrast, had a variety of different mitochondrial DNA haplogroups, six in total. In essence, the grave contains a patrilineal kinship group, one organized around a specific male lineage. It was also patrilocal, meaning that women left their kin behind and joined their husband’s group when they married.

This family was highly mobile, moving from place to place over the course of the year with their livestock. We know this because the isotopes in their tooth enamel, particularly strontium isotopes, have a wide array of values: There’s no consistent signature that would suggest some members of the group were local to anywhere, Koszyce or someplace else, while other people had moved there from elsewhere. This is often the case with patrilineal and patrilocal kinship systems: The men tend to be local, but the women come from somewhere else, what we would call female exogamy. The best way to explain the isotope values is that the group moved from place to place over the course of the year, spending a few months over the summer at one temporary settlement adjacent to rich pastures, then perhaps taking their livestock to a safe, sheltered spot to graze during the harsh winters.

Given this information, we can surmise that the group interred in the mass grave at Koszyce was a kinship unit, presumably the basic unit of social organization among the Globular Amphora people. Yet only a couple of adult men were found in the grave. Most of the victims were infants, adolescents, and women of varying ages. The best explanation for this disparity in age and gender is that the adult men were away from the settlement when it was attacked, but returned home to bury their dead with care and respect. (It’s pretty doubtful that the killers who had spent frenzied moments murdering these people took the time to inter them with their close kin and a series of significant grave offerings.)

But who killed them, and why?

Those are much harder questions to answer. The murderers left behind no smoking gun to identify themselves, not even a diagnostic type of arrowhead buried in the bone of one of the victims. We can start, however, by coming to grips with the precise manner in which the killings were carried out.

This wasn’t a fight; it was a mass execution. Only one of the dead, Individual 5 - one of the two adult men in the collective grave - had any injuries that look like they might have been sustained in the course of combat: He had fractures to his right arm, what look like defensive wounds called “parry fractures”: When somebody tries to hit you in the head, your instinctual reaction is to raise your dominant arm to protect yourself, resulting in injuries to that arm.

Every other injury suffered by a person in the grave, from infants under the age of 2 to adults, was to the head. Moreover, all of those injuries - with the exception of one jaw fracture, suffered by the only other adult male in the grave - were to the cranial vault, the top of the head, rather than the face. All of them appear to have been inflicted by the same kind of weapon, probably a stone axe, that left rectangular and oval-shaped holes in the skulls of the victims.

It’s impossible to overstate how brutal this attack was. Most of the dead were struck at least twice. The researchers who analyzed the injuries suggested that in a few cases, the killers might actually have used a chisel to carry out the final blow, hammering the implement into the victim’s head with their axes or a mace. One of the skulls, the badly damaged cranium belonging to Individual 12, has extensive evidence of charring.

The most likely explanation for all of this involves a mass execution. The people in the grave were captured, mostly without a fight, and then systematically murdered. I’m not a forensic expert, but from the location of the injuries on the skulls, I’d guess the victims were probably seated or kneeling, or perhaps restrained, when they were killed.

Who could do this? Who would kill children and adolescents with so little compunction? And why would they do it?

Perhaps it was another group of Globular Amphora people, a rival male lineage fighting for prime pasture land along the Vistula River. Or maybe the killers were newcomers, maybe Indo-European-speaking herders moving west from the open grasslands of the Eurasian steppe, representatives of what archaeologists call the Corded Ware Culture. Whoever the killers were, they weren’t trying to frighten or run off their adversaries. Viewed in cross-cultural perspective, raiders often capture children and women, taking them as slaves. That wasn’t the case here; the attackers were trying to exterminate their adversaries. Were they rivals for resources? Was there a cultural barrier or set of taboos marking the two groups off from one another? What process of dehumanization was necessary to make this act possible?

We’ll never know the answers. The dead have their story to tell, but on these questions, they remain silent.

If you’d like to know more about the Corded Ware Culture and the world of the late Neolithic, check out today’s episode of Tides of History.

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Schroeder, Hannes, et al. "Unraveling ancestry, kinship, and violence in a Late Neolithic mass grave." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116.22 (2019): 10705-10710. Linked here.

Konopka, Tomasz, et al. "Evidence of interpersonal violence or a special funeral rite in the Neolithic multiple burial from Koszyce in southern Poland: a forensic analysis." Anthropological Review 79.1 (2016).