Stone Age Britons Often Died From Brutal Blows, Skull Survey Says
for National Geographic News
|May 18, 2006|
Stone Age skulls from ancient mortuaries show that Britain was once a dangerous place to live.
Between 4000 and 3200 B.C., Britons had a 1-in-14 chance of being smashed over the head and those injured had a 1-in-50 chance of dying, a recent study reveals.
Rick Schulting, from Queens University Belfast, and Michael Wysocki, from the University of Central Lancashire, analyzed the remains of 350 Stone Age British skulls.
Most of the skulls came from ancient mortuary monuments, dubbed long barrows, in southern England (map of the United Kingdom).
Studying the shape and appearance of fractures on the skulls revealed that around 2 percent of these people had died from a lethal head wound.
A further 4 to 5 percent had received a blow to the head, but had recovered from their injuries, as indicated by fractures that appear to have knitted back together.
The findings suggest that the Neolithic, or new Stone Age, period in Britain was much more violent than previously thought.
"We only studied the skulls. If other kinds of injury are taken into account, then the death rate was probably even higher," Schulting said.
Results from the skull survey were presented at the annual meeting of the Society for American Archaeology late last month.
Out for Revenge
Most archaeologists have long considered Neolithic Britain to be a peaceful place, where people were largely occupied with farming and small-scale trading.
The new findings paint a more bloodthirsty picture. The majority of the injuries appear to have been caused by blunt instruments, such as antlers and clubs.
"We know there were a lot of deer at the time, and deer antlers were used as picks, but it is also possible that they were used as a weapon," Schulting said.
Projectiles such as slingshots and arrows may also have been used, and some of the skulls even had injuries with an axe-shaped outline.
Most fractures were on the left side of the head, suggesting a face-to-face confrontation.
"It is the classic situation of two people, both right-handed, having a fight," Schulting said.
The researchers think that most of the conflicts would have been local scraps and regional clashes rather than countrywide battles.
Fabian Kanz, of the Austrian Archaeological Institute in Vienna, agrees with this interpretation.
"When people started to farm and make settlements, there must have been lots of conflict between settlers and local tribes," he said.
Women were just as vulnerable as men to receiving blows to the head, suggesting that many of the attacks occurred during raids on neighboring villages or as revenge attacks.
"The first victim you find, you kill to satisfy the group's urge for revenge," Schulting said.
Few of the skulls in the sample belonged to children, but Schulting and Wysocki don't think that this means that kids were spared from the brutality.
"One of the adolescents in our sample had a horrific injury, with half of his head caved in," Schulting said.
All of this violence would have made for a jittery society, Schulting says.
"It would have put fear into people, affecting how they perceive their neighbors."
What's more, he says, the finding sheds a different light on the extensive trading that occurred at the time, making travel appear a more dangerous activity than previously thought.
But not everyone is convinced that Neolithic Britain was such a barbarous place.
Tim Sutherland is an expert on conflict archaeology from the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire.
He said, "The sample size is too small and may not be representative of the population in general.
"It is possible that only special people were buried in these long barrows."
Schulting agrees that his survey is only a start, but he believes that the mortuaries give a reasonable cross-section of Stone Age society.
"Because they contain men, women, and children, we think that this is more or less what people were like," he said.
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