The remains of Neolithic immigrants uncovered in modern-day Spain reveal they were brutally executed in a ‘xenophobic murderous frenzy’ over 7,000 years ago.
An international team of archaeologists excavated a cave in the modern day Spanish Pyrenees and found the mutilated remains of five adults and four children.
The children were aged between three and seven and all nine of the people in the cage had not just been shot with arrows but beaten, even after they had died.
Lead researcher, Kurt W Alt from the University of Basel in Switzerland says the violence was without parallel in Spain or the rest of Europe at that time.
He said it was likely triggered after a series of escalating incidents such as the theft of cattle, land disputes or even the theft of women with one group being part of the first wave of immigrants from what is now the Middle East.
The gruesome discovery was found in the Els Trocs cave which is in the mountain landscape of the Huesca region.
It required painstaking excavation to avoid damaging the fragile ancient remains in what would have been both hunting and farming land.
The remains have been dated to about 5,300 BC, which is when hunter-gatherers were being replaced by farmers.
Kurt Alt said the adults displayed consistent arrow-shot injuries to the skull but not to the skeleton and the children and adults showed traces of blunt violence to the skull and entire skeleton.
This suggests that the bones they discovered, which were broken and shattered, were first shot then bludgeoned, sometimes after the death of the victim.
The massacre could have been caused by territorial disputes, the theft of cattle or even the theft of women that escalated until they led to slaughter.
Genetic data from the victims found they were in the first wave of immigrants from the Middle East, who spread throughout Europe about 10,000 years ago.
The discovery in the cave documents an early escalation of violence between people of ‘conceivably different origins and worldviews’, according to the paper.
This could have been between natives and migrants or between economic or social rivals, battling for domination, or settling differences.
‘The conflict conveys the impression of a xenophobic action; the type of aggression suggests a clash between enemy groups.’
The researchers studied the genome of the victims of the attack and found that two of them were father and son – a male of about 30 and a boy of about six.
The other three children had different mothers and the genomes haven’t been studied to the same detail.
It is likely they were all part of the same cultural group though, possibility farming immigrants coming in to an area dominated by hunter gatherers.
At the time the victims lived agricultural and agrarian societies were starting to develop and researchers think the victims were immigrants that started farming.
The researchers suggest that the attackers could have been local hunter-gatherers or another group of migrant farmers.
If they were migrants then the attack may have been sparked by a land dispute over farming space.
However, if they were locals then the researchers suggest that they may have viewed the migrants as invaders in their foraging grounds.
The team say that the extraordinary significance of this violent conflict is early evidence of intentional violence in the Neolithic period.
It dates the first events of collective violence against a group to the final phase of the first farming cultures in central Europe at the end of the 5th millennium BC.
‘This was a phase of upheaval and change’, the authors say.
An unusual feature of this violence is the remote geographical location of the site, away from the early Neolithic migration routes on the Iberian Peninsula, which are located inshore or along the Ebro valley.
Another author on the paper, Joe Ignacio Royo, a local expert, said he wouldn’t go as far as to call it a ritual killing.
‘It seems that they were wounded with arrows in the vicinity of the cave, and that they were later taken into it,’ he told The Olive Press.
Inside the cave the victims where subjected to ‘vicious beatings, even after death.’
The attacks were so violent he described them as a kind of ‘second execution, a murderous frenzy’.
The research has been published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports.