6,000-year-old massacre found in Neolithic silo

Archaeologists from France’s National Institute for Preventative Archaeology (INRAP) have unearthed the skeletal remains of a Neolithic massacre in a silo in Achenheim, Alsace, northeastern France. The silo is pit number 124 of more than 300 used to store grain and other food staples unearthed inside a large Neolithic compound surrounded by a V-sectioned ditch with defensive bastions at the entrances. The silos were only used for food storage temporarily. Once they were emptied, they were used as garbage dumps or graves. The compound dates to between 4400 and 4200 B.C., a turbulent time in Alsace which explains why the settlement needed extensive protective measures.

Silo 124 is one of the larger pits at almost 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) in diameter and it was set apart from the other silos either on the site of a dwelling or in a residential area. Inside the silo archaeologists found the complete skeletons of six people, five adult males and one teenage male between 15 and 19 years of age. The fact that the six complete skeletons were all male indicates this may have been a group of warriors, or at least defenders of the settlement. They were found lying on their back, stomach and sides, sometimes intermingled. The position of the bodies indicates they were dumped in the pit and no further attention was paid to them. They were not buried with the care evinced in other silo graves; these bodies were disposed of, pure and simple.

All six of the skeletons have numerous broken bones. There are fractures on the legs, hands, feet, ribs, collar bones, skulls and mandibles. The fractures were on living bone, and the extent and quantity of the broken bones suggest they were brutally beaten to death with blows from a stone axe. The wounds are too extensive to have been received in combat. This was a methodical punishment inflicted off the battlefield on helpless individuals.

The violence wasn’t just perpetrated on the living bodies, but on their corpses as well. Post-mortem wounds were also found on the bones. The corpses were all put in the silo at the same time, meaning they likely died in the same event, a single episode of killing in a larger conflict.

In addition to the complete skeletons, archaeologists found the upper left arms of three adults and the left forearm of a youth 12 to 16 years old. The forearm was cut in the middle of the humerus. The arms are believed to be “war trophies.” It’s not possible from osteological examination to determine the sex of the people’s whose arms were severed and thrown into the silo, nor were archaeologists able to discern whether the arms were severed pre or post-mortem.

The severed left arms are reminiscent of another very similar massacre discovered in Bergheim, 35 miles southwest of Achenheim. In 2012, archaeologists found the skeletons of eight individuals, also tossed in a silo and who also died in a single event. Under the complete skeletons at the bottom of the pit were seven left upper arms. The Achenheim and Bergheim date to the same period, the Middle Neolithic.

(INRAP archaeologists also found skeletal remains in an ancient silo about 70 miles west of Achenheim in the Lorraine town of Marsal. Eight skeletons, two of them children, were discovered tossed haphazardly over each other in the silo, but they were much more recent, dating to around 500 B.C.)

Archaeologists think both the Achenheim and Bergheim massacres could have been the result of raid by locals against newcomers to the area, or a victory by locals against raiders from elsewhere. The victory was celebrated with torture and mutilation of enemy prisoners. Pottery discovered on the site indicates the residents were part of the Bruebach-Oberbergen culture, but that pottery is followed by ceramic shards in a style first made in Paris.

Archaeologists would like to do stable isotope analysis on the bones to find out where the individuals were born and raised. If they were from the Paris area, that would mean they were killed by the fierce local farmers defending their homes and supplies from raiders. If they were local boys, they were likely the victims of a successful raid. INRAP will need to raise money to fund the additional research, however, as they don’t have the budget for it now.

12 thoughts on “6,000-year-old massacre found in Neolithic silo

  1. The Lusitanian, for example, where known to cut off prisoners right arms after battle as a token for the gods.

  2. A hungry mob is an angry mob – Would ‘locals’ really slaughter ‘immigrants’ and store the remains in their ‘refrigerators’ ? To me, a raid seems more plausible: Foreigners killed the local gents, ate whatever there was to be found in the refrigerators, put the bodies plus severed limbs in those containers and abducted the ladies with extremities, in order to move on then to the next village.

    A pattern, by the way, not entirely unheard of over all the centuries. Pottery followed by ‘shards from Paris’ is one thing, but does that arrowhead possibly reveal anything, and were there no other structures found, i.e. in addition to the 300 ‘silos’ ?

  3. I think the locals winning over raiders is more likely. After all raiders raid and generally move on, but locals would need to do something with the bodies lying around after their win. As a raider you’ve come for the stuff, why waste time even tossing your victims in a pit and then presumably filling it in (no mention of post-mortem animal scavenging of the bones). Grab and go.
    Locals have an empty pit and a pile of bodies, problem solved.

  4. I was distracted immediately by the phrase “preventative archaeology”, and am relieved to find that it has a logical explanation.

    During my commute this morning, I was contemplating how bad people are at sharing — in my case, at sharing the road. Clearly, we’re making progress, though. I’ll take being cut off on the road over having my arm cut off.

  5. The arrow armature strongly suggests the unkindest cut of all. That settlement undeniably knew a very bad day.

  6. P.S. If you have a spare £15 ($25), an article in the journal Antiquity describes lopping limbs off for trophies. “A farewell to arms: A deposit of human limbs and bodies at Bergheim, France, c. 4000 BC”

  7. As livius stated in his introduction:
    “The silos were only used for food storage temporarily. Once they were emptied, they were used as garbage dumps or graves.”

    As livius then pointed out this was one of more than 300 pits found at the site. Perhaps one already emptied of goods and ready for other uses… such as garbage pit and/or grave? The site was fortified, so clearly raiders were expected.

    It’s way too easy to be an armchair adventurer a al 19th century, sans access to the particulars of a site. I am happy to wait while trained archaeologists analyze the multiple layers of evidence at the site.

    I wonder if the community graveyard will reveal the remains of people missing a forearm?

  8. “The compound dates to between 4400 and 4200 B.C., a turbulent time in Alsace”: have there been many unturbulent times in Alsace?

  9. Those overhead views of the skeletons have a grimly artistic appearance. Like images designed by H.R. Giger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.