Dozens of savagely murdered individuals found buried in a Copper Age mass grave is shedding new light onto the lives of these early farmers—and the unspeakable violence they occasionally had to endure.
New research published on Wednesday in PLOS One is the largest genetic study done to date of a prehistoric massacre. This killing of at least 41 individuals happened around 6,200 years ago in what is now Potočani, Croatia. The study, led by Mario Novak from the Institute for Anthropological Research in Croatia, shows that violence on such a large scale was present during this early time period, and as farming communities were becoming increasingly established across Europe.
Massacres are, sadly, a part of the human archaeological record, and apparently an inescapable part of the human condition. In 2019, scientists detailed a gruesome 5,000-year-old mass grave found in southern Poland that contained the remains of 15 murdered individuals, virtually all of them related. Similar massacres have been documented elsewhere in Germany and Austria, containing scenes similar to one documented in Potočani, in which “members of both sexes and all age groups are found indiscriminately killed and their remains unceremoniously disposed of in a pit or a trench,” Novak said in an email. In these cases, “different types of weapons and tools were used to kill a larger number of people, not in a face to face combat, but in a classic execution,” he added.
The new study, co-authored by Ron Pinhasi from the University of Vienna and David Reich from Harvard University, is unique in that it’s the first genetic study of a large-scale massacre not focused on a specific target, such as a certain family or community, or a mass killing based on age or sex. That’s in addition to being the largest genetic study done of a prehistoric massacre, regardless of the circumstances.
For the study, the scientists managed to study the physical remains of 41 individuals, 38 of which yielded DNA. This wasn’t easy given that the skeletons were “completely commingled” and “highly fragmented” after being buried for roughly 6,200 years, said Novak, to which he added: “So, it took us a lot of time to overcome this obstacle.”
Another problem had to do with the total absence of weapons and tools in the grave, forcing the archaeologists to infer possible murder weapons based on the position and physical appearance of the wounds, said Novak.
Analysis of the remains showed that the mass grave could be tied to a single event, and not to the long term accumulation of bodies. What’s more, the “mass burial from Potočani is a result of indiscriminate killing of an unrelated subset of a population with no sex and age bias, rather than a battle between two armed forces,” wrote the authors in the study.
An indiscriminate killing, this certainly appears to be. Of the 41 skeletons studied, 21 were male and 20 were female. Virtually all age groups were represented, with 21 individuals dying between the ages of 2 and 17 years old, and 19 individuals aged 18 and older (the age of one individual could not be reliably determined). Some individuals were biologically related, such as a young man buried with his two daughters and nephew. But the majority of cases—upwards of 70% of these individuals—were biologically unrelated.
That this was a massacre is also clear. The bodies, and especially the skulls, showed signs of blunt force trauma, stabbing, piercing, and cutting. No patterns related to the age or sex of individuals could be determined.
The people killed at Potočani were part of the Lasinja culture of the Middle Eneolithic, or Copper Age. They lived throughout present-day Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Bosnia, and Slovenia, and the little information we have about them suggests they were among the first Europeans to use metal and raise cattle as livestock.
Most of these individuals weren’t biologically related to each other, but as this genetic study shows, they were ethnically homogeneous, mostly Anatolian Neolithic with a dash of Western European hunter-gatherer ancestry. The evidence also shows that they were members of a surprisingly large pastoral community. As Anatolian farmers entered into Europe from what is now Turkey, they “basically wiped out the genetic legacy of the original inhabitants of Europe,” namely Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. Today, every native European has a “large part of their genetic ancestry linked to these Anatolian “immigrants,’” said Novak.
The scientists don’t know the exact reasons for the mass murder at Potočani, but they’ve got some ideas.
“Some proposed climatic changes that led to droughts accompanied with a substantial population increase at the time that caused a fight over the resources resulting in these massacres,” said Novak. “But, at this point we cannot tell with certainty.”
In addition to revealing a larger-than-expected population size, along with new genetic data showing a predominantly Neolithic Anatolian ancestry, the paper shows us that “violence on a massive scale was present during this time as well,” said Novak.
Indeed, whether it be today or 6,200 years ago, or even further back in time, humans have been awful towards each other. And damn is that ever a sad thought.