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May 15, 2019

Anatomy of a prehistoric atrocity

Filed under: Archaeology,History,War — Razib Khan @ 2:12 am
A Neolithic grave pit in France

We don’t necessarily see the world of Europe before written history as uniform darkness, despite the lack of texts. Rather, we see some elements of prehistory with crystal clarity, while others remain entirely opaque to us. Prehistory does not speak in names. It is not a world of the word. But it is a world of material, from the tools of the Paleolithic to the more diverse and complex assemblances of the people of the Holocene, after the Ice Age.

What we call civilization emerged organically, but foggily, out of earlier societies which were complex, but pre-literate. The first agriculturalists of Europe and Asia did not leave histories behind, but rather artifacts and remains. Much of what we know about these people is traced by shards of pottery.

Prehistoric archaeology after the Ice Age, but before the rise of written societies, is often a matter of interpretation and cataloging of these copious material remains. Unlike small-scale hunter-gatherers settled agriculturalists began to produce more goods, as specialization took root. Pottery was one of the primary inventions of the past 10,000 years which transformed human life, and to a great extent defined village society as we understand it until recently. And because of its abundance and robustness to total destruction, it serves as a critical window upon the material culture of most ancient societies, literate or not.

Ancient Roman pottery is a clue as to fashions and economic vitality over the centuries.

But today it is not the only window upon the past. With powerful genetic technologies, one can reconstruct families and even narratives of particular parts of life, tragic as they might be. A new paper, Unraveling ancestry, kinship, and violence in a Late Neolithic mass grave, illustrates the power of fine-grained genetic technologies operating in concert with classical forensic archaeology to flesh out the past in vivid detail.

The authors obtained DNA from many of the individuals in a Neolithic mass grave. The people were members of the Globular Amphora Culture (GAC), which was one of the last Neolithic societies in Northern Europe before the arrival of the steppe people. They were killed by blows to the head, and “the nature of the injuries…suggest that the individuals were captured and executed, rather than killed in hand-to-hand combat.”

This horrific scenario gains even greater pathos when the authors established genetic relationships between the individuals. From the paper:

Overall, we identified four nuclear families in the grave, which are for the most part represented by mothers and their children…Closely related kin were buried next to each other: a mother was buried cradling her child, and siblings were placed side by side. Evidently, these individuals were buried by people who knew them well and who carefully placed them in the grave according to familial relationships.
Interestingly, the older males/fathers are mostly missing from the grave, suggesting that it might have been them who buried their kin….

Obviously, it is not surprising that these are relatives. And the scenario that many members of the community, in particular, older males, were away from the village during the killings comports when what we know from ethnography in terms of the nature of these raids. But the relatedness inferred from genetics brings the narrative to life.

Prehistory will always be about pots. But more and more they will be about the relationships of people.


Anatomy of a prehistoric atrocity was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

July 12, 2018

The Insight show notes: episode 28, Violence & Warfare

Filed under: History,violence,War — Razib Khan @ 12:28 am
Scottish cavalry charging during the Battle of Waterloo

This week Razib and Spencer discussed violence and warfare on The Insight (iTunes, Stitcher and Google Play).

Spencer’s book, Pandora’s Seed, was mentioned. As was John Horgan’s The End of War and Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Thomas Hobbes were presented as giving opposite views of human nature and its relationship to conflict: the peaceful noble savage and the brute engaged in a war of all-against-all. Spencer expressed a sympathy with Rousseau’s views due to his earlier research as well as field work with indigenous people.

Transitions between various cultural stages were extensively discussed. From the Paleolithic to the Neolithic, to the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. Karl Jaspers’ idea of an Axial Age was introduced in the context for the transition from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age, and the fall of Mycenaean Greece and the rise of the Classical World.

The difference between the brutal warlike Bronze Age, defined by a charioteer, and the more genteel Iron Age, with the rise of ethical and religious prophets, was presented in the context of cultural evolution. The theorist Peter Turchin argues that rising violence due to more effective weapons may have resulted in the emergence of countervailing ideologies. In short, ideologies which favored peace evolved as social stabilizers in the face of war and inequality, which had been ramping up since the adoption of farming.

Spencer and Razib also talk about the biological corollaries and causes of war. Men are much more violent and warlike than women, especially young men. Some aspect of this is likely “hard-wired.”

But classical Malthusian theory familiar to anyone who has studied ecological carrying capacity was suggested to be the primary driver of war, as opposed to reflexive instinct or ideology. In Pandora’s Seed Spencer presented the thesis that increased conflict during the Neolithic was a consequence of Malthusian sedentarism, and the rapid rise of extremely of non-egalitarian societies (which today may include sex-biased societies with “bare branches”).

Finally, in the modern era was presented as one which has been defined by the decline of violence, mortality, and the development of a more peaceful lifestyle, and what that tells us about the potentialities of human nature.

Interested in learning where your ancestors came from? Check out Regional Ancestry by Insitome to discover various regional migration stories and more!


The Insight show notes: episode 28, Violence & Warfare was originally published in Insitome on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

May 17, 2012

Violence in Science

Filed under: War — Razib Khan @ 11:27 pm

The special “Human Conflict” issue of Science seems free if you register. No time to read it now, but there’s a lot of interesting looking articles. (via Dienekes)

July 25, 2011

War in Pre-Columbian Sumeria

Filed under: Anthroplogy,anthropology,History,War — Razib Khan @ 11:05 pm

For most of my life I have had an implicit directional view of Holocene human culture. And that direction was toward more social complexity and cultural proteanism. Ancient Egypt traversed ~2,000 years between the Old Kingdom and the fall of the New Kingdom. But it s rather clear that the cultural distance which separated the Egypt of Ramesses and that of Khufu was smaller than the cultural distance which separates that of the Italy of Berlusconi and the Italy of Augustus. Not only is the pace of change more rapid, but the change seems to tend toward complexity and scale. For most of history most humans were primary producers (or consumers as hunter-gatherers). Today primary producers are only a proportion of the labor force (less than 2% in the USA), and there are whole specialized sectors of secondary producers, service workers, as well as professionals whose duty is to “intermediate” between other sectors and smooth the functioning of society. The machine is more complex than it was, and it has gotten more complex faster and faster.

This is a accurate model as far as it goes, but of late I have ...

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