Neolithic age men fought over women too, according to a study that provides the most ancient evidence of the lengths men will go to in the hunt for partners.
Many archaeologists have argued that women have long motivated cycles of violence and blood feuds throughout history but there has really been no solid archaeological evidence to support this view. Now a relatively new method has been used to work out the origins of the victims tossed into a mass grave of skeletons, and so distinguish one tribe from another, revealing that neighbouring tribes were prepared to kill their male rivals to secure their women some 7000 years ago.
The Durham University research, described in the academic journal Antiquity, focused on 34 skeletons found buried in the village of Talheim in the south-west of Germany.
Geographic “signatures”, chemically derived from the skeletons’ teeth, suggest they were of people killed in an attack between rival tribes around 5000 BC as previously dated through radiocarbon methods.
Before the study, it seemed several women were among this unfortunate group, a minority.
But once the new method was used to separate the victims by geographic origin, it was clear that the local group was special – local because it was the only group with any young children, and special because it was the only group without adult women, despite being the largest group.
The researchers conclude the absence of local females indicates that they were spared execution and captured instead which may have indeed been the primary motivation for the attack.
Lead author Dr Alex Bentley says the simplest explanation is that the women of one tribe were captured.”It seems this community was specifically targeted, as could happen in a cycle of revenge between rival groups. Although resources and population were undoubtedly factors in central Europe around that time, women appear to be the immediate reason for the attack.
“Our analysis points to the local women being regarded as somehow special and were therefore kept alive.”
The Durham University-led team, with researchers from University College London, University of Wisconsin and a German government body, came to their conclusions after analysing the strontium, carbon and oxygen isotopes signatures of the skeletons’ teeth. These give vital information about the skeletons’ geological origin and diet.
The skeletons from the mass grave in Talheim, which were excavated in the 1980s, were all buried in a single pit of three metres long. German experts determined that the majority had been killed by a blow to the left side of the head, suggesting the victims were bound and killed, probably with a stone axe. Others may have been killed from arrow-wounds from behind as if the victims had tried to flee.
Whereas the women from the local community were spared, what remains open for speculation is why women from the non-local groups wound up killed. How did they get caught up in the massacre? They might even have been from the attacking. group. “What we know,” Dr. Bentley says, “is that the local women were the target,” and what the role was of the others is part of the mystery.”