February 29, 2024

Revising History: Spanish Skeletons Point to a Forgotten European War 1,000 Years Earlier Than Thought

Noelithic Era ConflictNoelithic Era Conflict

Ancient skeletal remains from a 5,000-year-old mass burial site in Spain point to early warfare in Europe, occurring over 1,000 years before previously known large-scale conflicts. The study reveals high injury rates, with a disproportionately high percentage of males affected, suggesting an extended period of conflict, possibly several months. The reasons for the conflict remain uncertain, but potential causes include tensions between cultural groups during the Late Neolithic.

A re-examination of more than 300 sets of 5,000-year-old skeletal remains unearthed in Spain reveals that a significant number of these individuals may have fallen victim to one of Europe’s earliest recorded periods of warfare, occurring over 1,000 years before the previously known large-scale conflict in the region. This study, published in Scientific Reports, points to both the quantity of injured individuals and a disproportionately high percentage of males affected, strongly indicating that these injuries resulted from an extended period of conflict, potentially lasting several months.

Early Conflicts in the European Neolithic Period

Conflict during the European Neolithic period (approximately 9,000 to 4,000 years ago) remains poorly understood. Previous research has suggested that conflicts consisted of short raids lasting no more than a few days and involving small groups of up to 20–30 individuals, and it was therefore assumed that early societies lacked the logistical capabilities to support longer larger-scale conflicts. The earliest such conflict in Europe was previously thought to have occurred during the Bronze Age (approximately 4,000 to 2,800 years ago).

Re-evaluation of Skeletal Remains

Teresa Fernández‑Crespo and colleagues re-examined the skeletal remains of 338 individuals for evidence of healed and unhealed injuries. All the remains were from a single mass burial site in a shallow cave in the Rioja Alavesa region of northern Spain, radiocarbon dated to between 5,400 and 5,000 years ago. 52 flint arrowheads had also been discovered at the same site, with previous research finding that 36 of these had minor damage associated with hitting a target.

Findings Indicating Warfare

The authors found that 23.1% of the individuals had skeletal injuries, with 10.1% having unhealed injuries, substantially higher than estimated injury rates for the time (7–17% and 2–5%, respectively). They also found that 74.1% of the unhealed injuries and 70.0% of the healed injuries had occurred in adolescent or adult males, a significantly higher rate than in females, and a difference not seen in other European Neolithic mass-fatality sites.

Implications and Potential Causes of Conflict

The overall injury rate, the higher injury rate for males, and the previously observed damage to the arrowheads suggest that many of the individuals at the burial site were exposed to violence and may have been casualties of conflict. The relatively high rate of healed injuries suggests that the conflict continued over several months, according to the authors. The reasons for the conflict are unclear, but the authors speculate on several possible causes, including tension between different cultural groups in the region during the Late Neolithic.

Reference: “Large-scale violence in Late Neolithic Western Europe based on expanded skeletal evidence from San Juan ante Portam Latinam” by Teresa Fernández-Crespo, Javier Ordoño, Francisco Etxeberria, Lourdes Herrasti, Ángel Armendariz, José I. Vegas and Rick J. Schulting, 2 November 2023, Scientific Reports.
DOI: 10.1038/s41598-023-43026-9

The study was funded by the British Academy, the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, and the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.