Researchers Reveal New Insight Into Reasons for Prehistoric Massacre

The remains of a 6,200-year-old massacre in what is now Croatia tell a story of indiscriminate killing.

The Potočani mass burial, with the upper layers of the pit showing numerous commingled skeletons. (Novak et al, 2021, PLOS ONE [CC-BY 4.0, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/])

(CN) — More than 6,000 years ago, 41 men and women were massacred in what is now Potočani, Croatia, with the victims ranging from as young as 2 years old to as old as 35. Although still researchers don’t understand why these people were murdered, research published in the journal PLOS ONE on Wednesday reveals new information about them.

“This mass burial definitely cannot be defined as ‘normal’ or ‘usual’ for the time period we’re talking about,” said Mario Novak, a senior researcher at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb, Croatia.

During Neolithic and Eneolithic periods, people in the region ritualistically buried their dead crouched on their side with ceramic vessels. Reaching 3 feet deep and 6 feet wide, the Potočani site contained the remains of at least 41 individuals, indiscriminately scarred by fatal wounds to the head and extremities.

Though other massacre sites been found in what is now know as Germany and Austria, these sites are considered rare.

“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,” the international team of researchers said in the paper. “This hypothesis is based on the demographic composition of the Potočani assemblage that includes both sexes and various age groups.”

In addition to age and gender, researchers identified the relationships of several families and found that all of the victims were of homogenous heredity. This led them to theorize the killing may have been due to the arrival of new people.

“Our analysis of 93% of the individuals shows that the ancestry of the people there was homogeneous,” the researchers wrote. “The analyzed individuals are slightly shifted from the Anatolia Neolithic cluster in the direction of Western European hunter-gatherers, similar to other Middle to Late Neolithic European farmers before the arrival of steppe ancestry, but especially to those from Eastern Europe.”

Researchers additionally found signs that the dead were consuming more meat than was typical of others recovered from the time period and surrounding location.

“The importance of cattle for the Lasinja people is confirmed by zooarchaeological records suggesting that cattle husbandry played a significant, even dominant, role in peoples’ lives,” researchers explain.

Novak is continuing to look for evidence that could link the massacre to fights over resources, population changes or even climate change.

“It is quite important to study ancient massacres as we need to see what was the main reason behind these massacres,” Novak said. “If we can understand what was the main motivator for prehistoric massacres maybe we can learn something from this and try not to repeat similar mistakes today.”

In search of answers, Novak and the team will continue to study the site. The skeletal remains will stay at the Institute for Anthropological Research in Zagreb in hopes that they can resolve other mysteries.

Funding for the project included grants from the Croatian Science Fund as well as the National Institutes of Health.

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