Mass Cannibalism in the Linear Pottery Culture at Herxheim (Palatinate, Germany)
Boulestin, Bruno, Zeeb-Lanz, Andrea, Jeunesse, Christian, Haack, Fabian, Arbogast, Rose-Marie, Denaire, Anthony, Antiquity
Since the early 1990s, archaeological and anthropological research into violence and war has become increasingly dynamic. The number of recent publications on the subject confirms this growing interest, for instance in the theoretical basis for the understanding of violence and war, and their relationships with social structures (Haas 1990; Reyna & Downs 1994; Keeley 1996; Martin & Frayer 1997; Carman & Harding 1999; Kelly 2000; Guilaine & Zammit 2001; Leblanc & Register 2003; Arkush & Allen 2006).
The Neolithic of the Old World plays a particularly important part in this debate. While the problem of Neolithic violence was already tackled in early archaeological papers, it has recently been re-activated (Keeley 1996; Carman & Harding 1999; Guilaine & Zammit 2001; Beyneix 2001, 2007; Thorpe 2003; Christensen 2004; Pearson & Thorpe 2005; Schulting & Fibiger 2008), and debates about the importance of violence during the Neolithic, and how it should be qualified (should we speak of war?) remain heated. In particular, several discoveries made in Germany and Austria in the past 30 years raise the question of the reality of a climate of collective violence as early as the beginning of the Neolithic, that is at the end of the Linear Pottery Culture (end of the sixth millennium cal BC). Due to the exceptional nature of the cases, all from a limited chronological period, even if they are still few in number, some researchers have evoked a malfunctioning and/or a generally warlike climate among these first agricultural communities (Farrugia 2002; Wild et al. 2004), whereas others have rejected this suggestion (Orschiedt & Haidle 2007, 2008; Zeeb-Lanz 2009). The discoveries usually mentioned in this context are the mass grave at Talheim (Wahl & Konig 1987; Wahl & Strien 2007), some of the human remains from the ditched site at Vaihingen (Krause 1998), both in Baden-Wurttemberg, those from the ditches in the settlement at Asparn-Schletz, Lower Austria (Teschler-Nicola et al. 1997; Windl 1998), and Herxheim (Palatinate). The latter is of particular relevance: although regularly quoted, above all because of the striking presence of hundreds of human skullcaps found in the ditches, the human remains have never been studied in detail. They have been tackled in the main publications only from a general point of view, with no precise quantitative analyses or exhaustive studies of bone modifications (Orschiedt & Haidle 2007; Zeeb-Lanz et al. 2007). Lacking this detailed study, these publications (including the most recent ones: Orschiedt & Haidle 2008; Zeeb-Lanz & Haack 2008) conclude in favour of specific funerary practices in several stages, and against the theory of slaughter and war.
In 2008, one of us (B.B.) began a detailed study of the human bone assemblage found in recent excavations (2005-2008), which is here amplified into the analysis of just one deposit (deposit no. 9), in order to define clearly the processes involved in the treatment of the remains found on the site. We present in this paper the results of this analysis, which lead to conclusions far removed from those presented in earlier studies, and give rise to some new perspectives.
The site of Herxheim
The site of Herxheim is situated in the south of the German Federal State of Rhineland-Palatinate (Figure 1a), on a small spur above a loess plateau containing many prehistoric sites and at the confluence of two small rivers. It was discovered in the 1980s by surface prospection. The GDKE Rheinland-Pfalz, Direktion Landesarchaologie-Speyer (Rhineland-Palatinate State Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments) then carried out two excavation campaigns (1996-1999 and 2005-2008). The first, directed by Annemarie Hausser, was a rescue excavation necessitated by the construction of an industrial and commercial estate. The second was conceived as a planned excavation intended to complement the earlier data and provide more detail. …