The German city of Speyer, in Rheinland-Palatinate, well known for its Romanesque cathedral, also boasts some much more macabre relics. A collection of skulls, shin bones and vertebrae might not seem unusual in an archaeology museum, but these particular remains are special. They all show signs of having been cut, scraped or broken, indicating that their owners were cannibalised.
“Look at these grooves, running from the base of the nose to the back of the neck, or here on the temples,” says Andrea Zeeb-Lanz, the regional head of archaeology, holding up a skull. “The grooves show, beyond all possible doubt, that the flesh was torn off.” It takes good eyesight to catch the fine parallel incisions made by the cutting edge of the flint stone. She then shows me a piece of thigh-bone the end of which has been crushed. Judging by the state of the bone tissue, it was smashed shortly after the victim was killed.
All these human remains were found at the stone-age site at Herxheim, near Speyer. About 7,000 years ago farmers, who grew wheat and barley, raised pigs, sheep and cattle, settled here, building a village of four to 12 houses, the post holes of which have survived. At the time the first farmer-stockherders were moving into Europe, supplanting their hunter-gatherer predecessors. The Herxheim settlers came from the north (between 5,400 and 4,950BC) and belonged to the Linear Pottery culture.
Two lines of ditches were dug around the settlement. They can’t have been defensive because they weren’t continuous. Nor were they intended for use as an ossuary, as the Linear Pottery people generally buried or burned their dead. However, during a rescue dig just before the area was developed as an industrial estate, in some of the ditches archaeologists uncovered tens of thousands of human bones.
During the first series of excavations, at the end of the 1990s, the numerous injuries visible on the skeletons were taken as evidence that the victims had been massacred. But in 2008 Bruno Boulestin, an anthropologist at Bordeaux University, examined the fragments recovered from one of the trenches, pointing out that nearly 2,000 samples belonged to fewer than 10 individuals.
“It is impossible to establish direct proof of cannibalism. But here we have systematic, repetitive gestures, which suggest that the bodies were eaten,” says Boulestin. The marks of breaking, cutting, scraping and crushing indicate that the bodies were dismembered, the tendons and ligaments severed, the flesh torn off, the bones smashed. The vertebra were cut up to remove the ribs, just as butchers do today with loin chops. The tops of skulls were opened to extract the brains. Another telling clue is that there are proportionately fewer bones containing marrow, particularly vertebrae and short bones, suggesting they were set aside.
A quick investigation of the bones in neighbouring ditches showed that they had suffered the same fate. Extrapolating to the whole site, only half of which was excavated, about 1,000 people must have been butchered. There is no other example in prehistory of a mass grave of this size. “We are dealing with an exceptional event,” says Zeeb-Lanz. Other cases of neolithic cannibalism have certainly been identified, in particular in France, at the caves at Fontbrégoua and Adaouste, near the south coast, or at Les Perrats, further west, but never on this scale.
What can this bloodbath mean? The potsherds found among the human remains suggest it must have occurred over a period of no longer than 50 years. There is nothing to imply the victims were killed for food. Only under extreme conditions would 100 or so farmers have been able to overcome about 10 times their number. The archaeologists have therefore concluded that this was some form of ritual killing. In some cases the tops of skulls were arranged to form a nest, scattered with pottery fragments, broken adzes, jewellery made of shells, the paws and jawbones of dogs.
There are two main types of ritual cannibalism, as the historian Jean Guilaine and palaeopathologist Jean Zammit explain in The Origins of War: Violence in Prehistory. Exocannibalism targets people outside the community: by eating a conquered enemy the aim was not so much to feed on their body as to make them disappear for ever, appropriating their strength, energy and valour.
Endocannibalism, within a community, was a token of affection, the recognition of a bond that needed to be maintained. The scientists have also excluded this possibility, given the small size of the village. But wartime exocannibalism also seems unlikely, as it would have involved raids on remote communities to bring back hordes of prisoners and their pottery.
The team that discovered the site have come up with another hypothesis. Members of the Linear Pottery culture deliberately gathered here, with their prisoners and pottery, to take part in sacrificial ceremonies.
“At this time, the Linear Pottery culture was undergoing a crisis, which led to its disappearance,” says Zeeb-Lanz. “Perhaps they hoped to prevent the end of their world through some ceremony, of which cannibalism was just a part.”