I’m currently editing my fiction work-in-progress. It’s taking up much of my blogging time, so here’s a non-fiction extract to (hopefully) make up for it. I’m eager to hear what you think!
ARCHAEOLOGISTS HAVE YET to find physical evidence for the wars of Abraham and Jacob, or the murder of Abel by his brother Cain. To find evidence for other Abels, victims of early inter-human violence, we must look at skeletal remains from prehistory. Here, we are brought up short by archaeology’s paradox. Genesis provides the story but not the evidence to support it (relying instead on the reader’s faith), while archaeology provides evidence and no story. To tell the story of a how a human became a skeleton, we have to follow a reverse chronology, reading the evidence backwards.
We will investigate an event which occurred near the town of Nördlingen in Bavaria, Germany. The town sits in a large circular depression in the landscape. This crater was formed when a meteor impacted the Earth over 14 million years ago. Today, the crater holds agricultural land divided into fields, which would have been forest or open grassland when our story took place 8,500 years ago. It is surrounded by low hills thrust up by the meteor’s impact and dense forest and transected by a small river. Red deer were abundant in the Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) plains and forest, while the river also had an abundance of at least three species of edible freshwater snail and one species of sea snail. The Mesolithic inhabitants of the area used red deer teeth and river-dwelling snail shells to make jewellery and may have taken shelter in the caves which formed on the outer side of the crater’s elevated rim. It is on one of these caves which we will be focusing.
It was investigated by archaeologists in the early 1900s and two pits were discovered. These pits had been dug out from the older Magdalenian (Upper Palaeolithic or late Old Stone Age in western Europe) layer of earth and filled in by contemporary Mesolithic material. Each pit contained a layer of human remains, carefully deposited so that they faced west towards the setting sun.
FROM THIS POINT, it is a question of working backwards to construct the most likely story from the evidence available. The people who buried these remains may have believed that the sun died when it fell below the western horizon, being reborn in the East the next day, and that their spirits would follow it when they died. Whoever placed the dead into those two burial pits at Ofnet Cave was pointing them in the direction their spirits should travel. This, along with the deer-tooth and snail-shell necklaces deposited along with the deceased, shows that the people depositing them cared for them in some way. They were part of the same community. How we know the dead were not wearing these necklaces when they died will become apparent.
What happened in the stage before burial? We know the skulls were painted with red ochre, in a similar form of post-mortem adornment to the tooth and shell necklaces. Mesolithic inhabitants of the area might have worn red paint on their faces and bodies for spiritual, courtship or other rituals. That the ochre was applied directly to the skulls tells us the flesh was removed from the bone before burial.
But we know nothing of the state of these individuals’ bodies either before or after death. Only their skulls have been found as they were decapitated post-mortem by severing the cervical vertebrae with a sharp implement. Decapitation stands in sharp contrast with ornamentation. Mutilation of a person or their corpse in this way has many causes, none of them positive. It serves to disfigure them, making them unrecognisable as human. It was an expression of dominance, as their killer could hold up their head as a trophy of their fighting prowess. There is also another, yet more sinister possible explanation. The head is the least edible part of the human body. Cannibalism could be a ritual expression of dominance, consuming part of an enemy’s spirit along with their flesh and gaining strength from it.
How likely is it that the community to which the dead belonged were responsible for the decapitation, as part of a mourning ritual? One reality stands in the way of such a theory. An individual within the community would have struck the blow which severed the vertebrae. There were no outside undertakers to perform such tasks in the Mesolithic. Whoever performed the act would have likely been a blood relative of the deceased and would have known them for much, if not all, of their life. For the reasons mentioned above associated with dehumanisation and disfiguration, this task would have been impossible for any but the most emotionally detached community. Such a detachment does fit with the traditional view of prehistoric humans, but we have already seen that this community had a great amount of respect and care for their dead. Decapitation was performed by an outside and unwelcome force. The violent implications of this are clear. They died, were decapitated and their bodies either abandoned or carried away. Their heads were left for their community to discover and mourn over.
OUR INVESTIGATION BACKWARDS in time into the pits at Ofnet Cave does not end with the skulls’ separation from their now-lost bodies. As has been mentioned, they were already dead when the mutilation occurred. How then did they die? 6 of those buried were killed by a combined total of 14 head injuries. The injuries to their skulls are consistent with polished stone axes being used to deal a combination of blunt and sharp trauma. An axe’s weight will break bone, while its edge cuts through soft tissue.
For 28 of the 34 individuals buried in the two pits, we cannot say for certain. Only evidence of head injuries is carried on the skull and any other evidence for cause of death, natural or unnatural, has been lost with the rest of their remains. Decapitation suggests they met a violent end, so for those 28 not bearing head injuries we can assume they suffered deadly sharp trauma to their bodies. This could have been inflicted by arrows, spears or knives. In fact, the polished stone axes which caused the above 6 deaths were primitive weapons by Mesolithic standards. By then, humans had developed a technique for manufacturing fine points from flint or bone and attaching them to wooden shafts. These were lighter and could be brought to bear faster than stone axes. They would have dealt puncture or cutting wounds to the soft tissue of the torso. Arrows and spears had the added benefit of allowing the user to strike from a distance.
This is supported by 64% of axe-inflicted head injuries from Ofnet Cave being on the rear of the skull, one blow causing death in most of these. Here the axe held an advantage over spears or arrows. Either of the latter could miss its mark. By requiring the wielder to strike from a reduced distance, an axe was better suited to killing in one surprise blow. When a Mesolithic human could gain proximity to their victim, they chose the axe. In any other circumstance, a sharper and longer-ranged weapon was preferable.
CRUCIALLY, THE SKULLS were not all deposited in the pit at the same time. They were not the victims of a massacre, buried and then forgotten. Skulls of victims of violent death were collected, adorned with red ochre and jewellery and placed in a pit within a cave. This cave was then returned to when a new head was discovered, to be placed among the rest. It was an ongoing process of mourning and the community likely also returned to visit their dead relatives to pay their respects or ask for spiritual assistance in taking revenge.
A staggered deposition process ties in with our understanding of hunter-gatherer conflicts. They often begin with a Cain and Abel, Abraham or Jacob scenario, to borrow categories from Genesis. A member of one social group is murdered, abducted, raped or harmed in some other way by a member or members of another group. Retribution is then sought by the relatives of the wronged community. The violence escalates until a battle or massacre takes place, the size of which depends on the size of the groups involved in the feud.
One young adult and one mature adult from Ofnet Cave bore head injuries which had healed by the time they died. These patterns of injury and deposition are indicative of feuding between two societies. There were no full-time warriors during the Mesolithic as each member of a community was tied to the labours of food production. If one person did not hunt or gather, another person would go hungry. So the two individuals with healed fractures from Ofnet Cave had been involved in a previous conflict between their tribe and another, whether as opportunistic aggressors or victims of an unprovoked attack. There is much debate over how widespread conflict was in the Mesolithic, but it is unlikely that one community would be involved in two concurrent violent feuds. So this conflict had endured for some time, long enough for bone to heal without the assistance of modern medicine.
Five of the six skulls bearing fatal head wounds were deposited together. This represents a single event of deposition and therefore a preceding event in which five people died violent deaths within short time of each other. It could have been the final culmination of the escalating conflict, a battle in which five members of the group were killed at once. This would have had a dramatic impact on the group’s capacity to survive. They may have fled the area shortly after burying these last victims. Alternatively, these five may have been one of the first steps in the feud’s development. The skulls eventually stopped being deposited because the community to which they belonged was wiped out, fled, overcame their opponents or (and this is the least likely result) reached a peaceful solution to their dispute.