Violence in Neolithic Denmark and Sweden

Understanding trends of violence in the past is important for interpretations of the character of past cultures, origins of warfare and relationships between (or within) groups. By looking at the total deceased population of a site during the same time period we can see patterns of violence associated with specific age, sex or social groups. Only recently have studies begun to reexamine evidence from the Neolithic for violence- since it was previously thought it was a relatively peaceful period. It is posited that the changes in the Neolithic, introduction of farming, decreased mobility and rise of animal husbandry, may have lead to changes in interpersonal behavior. However, evidence for violence is low and often can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Fibiger et al. (2013) discuss the evidence for violence during the Neolithic period in Denmark and Sweden. They begin by exploring the archaeological evidence for violence including protective enclosures, weapons and iconographic images. They point out however that enclosures are not always defensive, especially in a period and area where animal husbandry is so important, the enclosure could be more meant to keep animals in rather than keep people out. Weapons and iconographic images of warfare or violence may not have practical uses but instead may have symbolic, religious, ceremonial or political functions. Although skeletal evidence is also subject to interpretive difficulties (determining which trauma are accidental versus violence), it is more reliable and the only direct evidence. They posit that “The appearance, cause and distribution of skeletal trauma within a population offer information on the nature and frequency of violent interaction and may answer questions of behaviors relating to interpersonal violence. They also give indications of the demographic consequences of violence and provide the basis for further discussions of its wider social, cultural and economic significance”.

Healed Nasal Fracture on male from Denmark, via Fibiger et al. (2013)

Healed Nasal Fracture on male from Denmark, via Fibiger et al. (2013)

Many studies of this period in Europe focus on specific case studies of single individuals or single sites, however Fibiger et al. (2013) propose the use of a population based sample to provide a broader view of what was occurring specifically in Denmark and Sweden during this period. They focus on cranial trauma for their analysis as this area has the most experimental and archaeological research of trauma patterns. However, the focus is also due to a commingled nature of the collections- bones were primarily from sites where individual skeletons were not maintained but mixed together in collective burial passage tombs. Their sample includes 378 individuals from 87 sites. 90% of the individuals were adults, and the remaining 10% were aub-adults. No infants were recovered. Age and sex were determined for all individuals, which is more difficult and problematic given that only the crania were available.

Cranial Trauma from one of the Denmark Skulls, via Fibiger et al. (2013)

Cranial Trauma from one of the Denmark Skulls, via Fibiger et al. (2013)

Injuries to the skull were assessed as either antemortem (before death) or perimortem (after death), by presence of trauma on specific bones of the crania (left parietal, right parietal, frontal, etc), comparing locations and type by sex and age, and finally comparison of healed or unhealed. 55 out of the total sample of 378 individuals showed some type of skull injury, only two of which were sub-adults. Of these, 41 were healed and 15 were unhealed. Males had 37 of the cranial trauma whereas only 15 females did. Injuries wer primarily on the frontal or parietal bones (forehead or bones at the side of the head).

Based on the results, they argue that the higher prevalence of violence in males was due to the role they played in this period. When there was conflict it was more likely for males to engage due to the important role females play in having and raising children. The location of the injuries in males suggests face to face conflict since injuries were mostly located on the left side (a pattern found when there is face to face violence and combatants are right handed). Female injuries were more found on the right side of the skull, which is not suggestive of hand to hand combat but rather surprise violence coming from behind them.

Fibiger et al. (2013) conclude that during this period there was increased interpersonal conflict due to problems between societies. Increased sedentism (settling in one location rather than being mobile) means that there is competition over prime space and resources. The evidence shows not all out warfare between groups, but potentially small raiding parties or interpersonal conflict based on the high prevalence of healed injuries. The goal of this violence appears to be to stun or injure, not to kill the opponent, suggesting that they wanted resources or specific items, not to remove the group completely. The difference in male and female violence suggests that males were primarily injured when fighting and females were only injured during raid situations.

What is interesting about this analysis is that it pulls everything back to cultural behavior of groups and suggests raiding instead of warfare as the cause of violence. If we are to understanding the relationships between groups in this period, it is important to know not just that violence existed, but what type of violence.

Works Cited

ResearchBlogging.orgFibiger L, Ahlström T, Bennike P, & Schulting RJ (2013). Patterns of violence-related skull trauma in neolithic southern scandinavia. American journal of physical anthropology, 150 (2), 190-202 PMID: 23184653

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One response to “Violence in Neolithic Denmark and Sweden

  1. What is known about determinants of violence during the Neolithic Transition? There does seem to be an inverse relationship between violence and trading if one compares the Middle to Late Woodland periods. But does a global overview of the Neolithic transition point at any ‘patterns’ of violence that may provide insights into possible determinants.

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