Trauma, defined as any injury done to the human body, was most frequently caused by interpersonal violence or conflict in ancient societies. Written documents and archaeological evidence are often used to attest to a high rate of violence, especially in the Southern Levant. However, documents are known to exaggerate and artifacts may not always correlate with actual use. The skeleton on the other hand is a more reliable indicator of violence since the bones will maintain evidence of trauma that was caused to them. While trauma will be underestimated due to a lack of evidence from soft tissue, it can still be more reliably calculated from actual physical evidence than from mere inference from documents and artifacts (although in the best case scenario one would have the bones, documents and artifacts from which to draw conclusions).
By using the skeleton and burial as evidence, we can look at patterns of trauma by age, sex and status. Looking at the patterns of trauma over time is also important, as it may reveal changes in types of violence or the groups for which violence was most prevalent. In a new study by Cohen et al. (2012), the patterns of cranial trauma in the southern Levant are investigated for a 6,000 year period. They argue that while “the southern Levant is commonly perceived as having been a region of violence throughout most of its history, few studies have explored the pattern and intensity of skull trauma through time in the general population”. They test four hypotheses: 1) the prevalence of trauma will be higher in the southern Levant than neighboring areas based on textual evidence, 2) incidence of trauma will increase over time due to rising social complexity and increasing population density, 3) there will be changes in injury patterns over time due to changes in weaponry and combat strategies, and 4) trauma will be highest in young adult and adult males.
The sample includes 783 skulls from the southern Levant, which date from 4800 BCE to 1917 CE, and come from 47 different archaeological sites. The sample consists only of skulls that are more than 75% complete. The sample included 387 males, 223 females, 145 sub-adults and 28 adults whose sex was undetermined. The majority were adult aging 19-40 (49%), with only 18% between 1 and 18, and 27% over 41. None of the skulls were used that came from massacre or military sites, since these would bias the trauma study. The skulls were sub-divided into eras: Chalcolithic–Bronze–Iron from 4300–520 BCE with 105 skulls, Hellenistic–Roman–Byzantine Period from 332 BCE–640 CE with 340 skulls and Early and Late Arab Period from 640–1917 CE with 338 skulls. All skulls were aged and sexed. Trauma was classified as blunt, sharp or projectile force, whether the injury was ante-, peri- or post-mortem, and cause is posited based on classification and interpretation.
The results of the study found that the frontal or parietal bone was the most common location for trauma, with no preference for right or left side. Frequencies in location do change over time. In the early period damage to the parietal is twice as frequent to the frontal bone, however the reverse is true for the middle and late periods. Damage to the facial bones is limited in the early period, but increases over time. The majority of skulls sustained only one injury. In regards to the hypotheses, 1) trauma prevalence was on average 25% for the southern Levant which is much higher than neighboring regions 2) trauma did not increase over time as was expected but rather stayed at a constant rate of 25% for the population, 3) trauma patterns did change over time, being consistent with changes in weaponry from blunt to sharp force trauma and projectile only apparent in historic populations with access to guns, and 4) males were twice as likely to sustain trauma to the skull as females in the early period, with the disparity increasing through time.
Based on these results, Cohen et al. (2012) argue that there was indeed a relatively high rate of inter and intra-group violence. The consistency of these rates of trauma also suggest that there was no change in frequency of violence despite major socio-economic changes such as the transition to agriculture and increased urbanism. Nor did the frequency change as control over the area varied from independent, to Egyptian, to Assyrian to Babylonian rule. Based on the locations and patterns of the trauma, as well as weapons and manner of the force, they argue that personal violence rather than warfare was the primary cause.
What is great about this study is that not only are they taking an approach which challenges historical texts, but they are doing it over a large region and time period. True- this does cause problems with interpretation and given the large area and time frame, the sample is limited. However, it is important that we carry out these broad studies in order to understand the broader picture of human behavior and cultural change. While I personally would have appreciated a larger sample, the actual inclusion of the texts, and archaeological evidence- this study is a great start and a good example of taking a historical perspective with a single line of evidence.
H. COHEN, I. SARIE, B. MEDLEJ, F. BOCQUENTIN, T. TOLEDANO, I. HERSHKOVITZ, & V. SLON (2012). Trauma to the Skull: A Historical
Perspective from the Southern Levant International Journal of Osteoarchaeology DOI: 10.1002/oa.2258