A Medieval Mass Grave at Sandbjerg
near Næstved in Denmark
Ever since the first fossil remains of australopithecines were discovered, we humans have speculated whether certain lesions on bones are evidence of aggression between individuals throughout the stages of our evolution. A few holes in the skull of an Australopithecus africanus from South Africa were initially interpreted as evidence of violence committed by other australopithecines. Some of our oldest ancestors were therefore seen as ‘killer-apes’. Later on however, Bob Brain, a distinguished South African professor of anatomy, suggested that the holes matched puncture-holes made by the canines of a leopard. Our ancestors were therefore no longer considered to be aggressive killers, but vulnerable victims of the many roaming wild carnivores (Brain 1972).
Similarly, our view of aggression among the Neanderthals has gone through several stages of interpretation which mostly reflect the changing political and philosophical ways of thinking. At times, especially during periods of unrest and battle, the Neanderthals were seen and illustrated as aggressive creatures, whereas in other periods, i.e., the 1960s, they were mainly seen as peaceful, harmless ‘hippie-like’ individuals (Trinkaus and Shipman 1992). Our own perception of our ‘natural instincts’ changes: in war they are used as an excuse for man’s cruelty to man. These fluctuations in perception run parallel to the endless discussions on how nature and culture influence human behaviour and their levels of aggression. There are many ways of studying patterns of human aggression and violence and wars of the past. One way is to study the remains of bones; but once again the interpretation of lesions on bones is crucial when drawing decisive conclusions.
Mass graves or individual graves situated outside a cemetery may indicate an unusual preceding event. If the remaining skeletal material is well preserved lesions, fractures and abnormalities of the bones may reveal the nature of the event. However, the discovery of a mass grave does not necessarily mean that a war was waged in the vicinity. It is well known that victims of various epidemics, such as plague, cholera etc. were buried in mass graves as well. Such graves contain a majority of the remains of children and old people, whereas young individuals, who supposedly have the strongest immune systems, had a better chance of recovery. The demographic pattern in a mass grave may therefore reflect that part of a population succumbed to a disease which does not necessarily leave any visible traces on the bones of a skeleton.