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An Introduction to the Neolithic Linearbandkeramik Culture

6 Dec

A recent post of mine discussed the fickle nature of constructing and using databases when conducting archaeological research, however in that post I didn’t much expand upon the culture that I had studied in my dissertation for the MSc in Human Osteology and Funerary Archaeology at the University of Sheffield.  So here is a brief introductory post, taken and edited from my own research, of the Linearbandkeramik culture of Central Europe, one of the first major agricultural practicing cultures in the European Neolithic period.  The Linearbandkeramik were named, somewhat imaginatively, after the linear bands found on their pottery and are hereby after referred to as the LBK.

Origins and Expansion of the Linearbandkeramik Culture

The LBK are an early Neolithic Central European culture dating from 5500 BC to 4900 BC, although there are sites dating to just before and after this period (Whittle 1996: 146).  The origin of the LBK culture and the exodus point is thought to be from the Starčevo–Kőrös–Criş cultures from the Hungarian Plain dating to around 5600 BC, which has been primarily identified due to similar incised pottery and similar radiocarbon dates for the location of the earliest LBK sites (Price et al. 2001: 593).  Largely known for their homogeneity in their architectural and material culture, the LBK distribution across the seemingly favoured loess plains was fairly rapid in archaeological terms.  Arching across from the Hungarian Plain in its origin to reaching the Paris Basin and Ukrainian plains at its zenith, two distinct geographic areas having been established for early and late LBK periods (Figure 1 below, Whittle 1996: 146).

The early phase originated from western Hungary and followed the Danube and other river corridors, rapidly reaching the Rhine and Neckar valleys within a few centuries (Jochim 2000: 186).  The second phase often mapped in studies includes the rapid extension into the Paris basin in eastern France, the Netherlands, and Belgium in western Europe, towards the loess boundaries of the northern European plain in Germany and Poland, with extension as far as western Ukraine (Bogucki 2000: 198).  There are slight differences in regional chronologies, with evidence of LBK settlements as late as the middle of the 5th millennium BC in north eastern Europe (Vanmontfort 2008: 157), and evidence of the fragmentation of late LBK sites into different cultural entities in the northern and central European LBK sites (Hofmann & Bickle 2011).

LBKSPREADD

Figure 1. The distribution and spread of LBK in Central Europe, where A is earliest LBK (5500 BC) and B is late LBK expansion (4800 BC) (Bogucki 2000: 198).

In general LBK settlements are found on loess soils, near water in valleys and in low lying situations, typically in woodland at its climax phase of post-glacial growth, although the archaeological evidence suggests that little or limited inroads were made into the surrounding woodlands (Whittle 1996: 149).  It is noted however that a few sites and exceptions lie outside the loess boundaries, particularly in Poland, near Kujavia, although no distinguishing features have been noted at these sites (Whittle 1996: 146).  It has also been pointed out by some that the inland environments the LBK favoured were naturally devoid of hunter-gatherer populations (Price 2000i: 4), although this has been argued against by some, especially in the earlier and middle period of the LBK cultural expansion where it is to be expected that some hunter-gatherer/LBK interaction would have probably occurred (Vanmontfort 2008: 151).

Throughout the distribution and period time frame of the LBK culture the climate was somewhat warmer than it is today, with the temperature sitting a few degrees higher which resulted in a relatively dryer central and eastern European plain (Bogucki 2000: 198).  It is thought that this relative rise in temperature could have a positive effect on agricultural and farming practices, providing an advantageous environment for the growth of plant material (Bogucki 2000).  One of the main points of discussion between researchers of the LBK culture concerns their expansion during the early Neolithic period is the nature of the mode of transmission of both their culture and their expansion into the Central European Plain (Bellwood 2005).  This echoes the expansion of the early Neolithic in Europe and, as the LBK are one of the first major and well documented farming cultures, there has been an increasing amount of research in the relationship between LBK centres, pre-existing hunter-gatherer cultures, and the rate of LBK expansion (Shennan 2011, Tresset & Vigne 2011, Vanmontfort 2008, Vencl 1986).  As such it is important to consider the individual LBK sites within their surrounding context and within the culture as a whole.  By making broad sweeping generalizations, nuances in the archaeological record are generally missed.

Linearbandkeramik Society

Gimbutas (1991) was one of the many early prehistorians who have argued that the Neolithic represented the continuation of the matriarchal society from the Upper Palaeolithic, as represented by one idea of the Venus figurines as symbols of matriarchy throughout European prehistory (Scarre 2005: 395).  Recent archaeological and genetic investigations have displaced this theory, particularly those regarding early Neolithic communities (Bentley et. al. 2012).  Evidence from the varying disciplines of linguistics (Fortunato 2011: 108), spatial models (Rasteiro et al. 2012) and biomolecular evidence (Lacan et al. 2011: 18255), amongst others, have highlighted the general trend of patrilocal kinship based societies amongst the Neolithic societies in Europe.  The continued use of isotopes in archaeological studies, including strontium as a marker of migration (Bentley et al. 2012), and carbon and nitrogen as dietary markers (Durrwachter et al. 2006, Oelze 2012), in the understanding of kinship and community differentiation in the LBK culture, in particular, is having a sustained impact on the perceptions of the society in the Neolithic period (Bentley et al. 2012: 1).

In Bentley et al.’s (2012: 4) study of over 300 individuals from 7 well known LBK sites (Vedrovice, Aiterhofen, Schwetzingen, Nitra, Kleinhadersdorf, Souffelweyersheim and Ensisheim) across the LBK distribution compelling evidence was uncovered that suggests that the LBK society, as whole, was patrilocal in nature.  Evidence gathered from the strontium isotope program highlighted significantly less variance in the geographic signature amongst males than amongst the females tested, and with less variance amongst burials with ground stone shoe last adzes than those without (Bentley et al. 2012: 1).  Durwachter et al. (2006: 41) and Oelze et al. (2011: 276) studies indicate no substantial difference between male and female diets at LBK sites or any preferential access to differing foodstuffs.  Bentley et al. (2012: 4) however do suggest that males, particularly those with an adze present in their grave, represent individuals who have preferential access to preferred loess soils.  Bentley et al. (2012: 4) go on to state that, generally speaking, the results indicate that ‘male inheritance of land means that males tend to live where they were born, while females marry and moved elsewhere’.  Bentley et al (2012: 4) conclude that ‘unequal and inherited land access developed over time among the early farmers of central Europe’, with evidence of differential access to goods being able to be traced back to the early Neolithic.

Linearbandkeramik Material and Mortuary Culture

The architectural and material culture of the LBK was fairly standardised and remarkably consistent throughout their cultural lifespan although regional variations did exist, especially towards the end of the LBK chronology (Bogucki 2000: 205).  Often clustered into villages, the LBK people practised agriculture in a subsistence economy, cultivating cereals and legumes such as barley, emmer, einkorn, pea, lentil and flax, using intensely cultivated garden sized plots to grow the produce.  Animals, such as cattle and pigs, were also kept, as well as hunting animals which were locally available (Bogaard 2004).  Many LBK settlements were open, without any defined or bounded perimeter, and consisted of 8-10m long timber built longhouses spaced apart by 2-3m from each other, which were often orientated in the same way (Bradley 2001).  The size and numbers of longhouse dwellings at LBK sites varied from just a few to a more than 40 (Hofmann & Bickle 2011).  No LBK longhouses have been found with the floor intact, limiting exact evidence and, with the de-calcification of the loess soils since LBK times, much organic material and evidence has been further lost from the archaeological record (Whittle 1996: 160).  In the late LBK period (5000 BC onwards) there was a proliferation of ditched enclosures, varied in shape and form, though most occupying a space no more than 2 ha. in size, throughout the geographic spread of the LBK (Whittle 1996: 174).

Typical artefacts such as shoe last adzes, stone axes, flints, stone hammers, polished adzes, incised pottery decorations, spondylus shells shaped into beads and necklaces, are found at sites throughout the distribution of the culture (John 2011: 41, Whittle 1996: 171).  Material culture is also the social inward and outward expression of a culture, with goods often in daily use and in circulation between families, friends and communities throughout the LBK settlements.  Pottery throughout the LBK period was incised with linear bands, which may have been imbued with some meaning or statement as regional styles proliferated throughout (Whittle 1996: 173).  Whittle (1996: 173) further suggests that although adzes are and have been seen as status indicators (Bentley et al. 2012), the key question is the ownership of such objects.  That a male or female may be buried with an adze, does not necessarily mean that they owned the artefact during life (John 2011).    It seems increasingly likely, however, that during their working lifetime adzes were worth acquiring, even by forager communities associated around the LBK periphery, such ‘as seen at (the) Skateholm II’ site in Scania, southern Sweden (Whittle 1996: 174).  The spondylus shells are also indicators of trade and circulation of goods with areas such as the Adriatic and north Aegean (Bentley et al. 2012: 1), which are often taken as indicators of status and community differentiation, which is often correlated with reproductive advantages (Bocquet-Appel et al. 2012: 335).

The mortuary culture of the LBK has been evidenced by the excavation and evaluation of several large cemeteries, such as the early LBK Vedrovice site and late LBK sit of Aiterhofen (as discussed in my dissertation thesis), and by the less well investigated cremations at various other sites (Hofmann & Bickle et al. 2011: 185).  Inhumations are typically single crouched burials, with the individual placed on their left side (Figure 2 below, Bickle et al. 2011).  Inhumation and cremation are not mutually exclusive as both have been found at several sites together, obstinately having been practiced at the same time as each other (Whittle 1996: 168).

AiterhofenburialLBK

Figure 2. A ‘typical’ LBK crouched inhumation burial from the mid period LBK site of Aiterhofen, Germany.  Notice the stone tool behind the skull of the individual and the spondylus shells draped around the head (Bickle et al. 2011: 1247).

Whilst the majority of burials from the LBK period have come from cemetery sites, inhumations are also sometimes found under settlement structures with the majority of these belonging to female or juvenile individuals.  Added to this are other inhumations which have been found inside settlements, pits, or in ditches outside settlements (Bentley et al. 2012).  Polished shoe last adzes, incised pottery, lithics, spondylus shells and beads, are just some of the artefacts found at LBK sites and in inhumations throughout the LBK cultural lifespan.  Both Bentley (2012ii) and Bentley et al. (2012: 4) studies have shown a positive correlation between the presence of shoe last adzes and male burials, whilst their 87Sr/86Sr studies have shown a pattern of a patrilocality society amongst the populations considered in the studies.  Empty burial plots (of either body or funerary goods) have also been discovered at numerous LBK cemeteries, with the possibility that the grave sites were meant to remain empty as a symbolic act (Lenneis 2010i: 164).

Late period LBK ‘death pits’, such as at Talheim and Herxheim in southern Germany and Asparn Schletz in Austria, represent something altogether more different, possibly massacre sites although this is heavily debated (Bentley et al. 2008, Bishop & Knusel 2005, Wahl & Konig 1986: 150).  Evidence of violence is not uncommon in the preceding Mesolithic and Neolithic periods in Europe (Duday 2006, Lillie 2004, Schulting 2006), however Whittle (1996: 171) states that at Talheim in particular the ‘scale of violence (here) is unexpected’.  The above three sites have been explained as possibly symptomatic of the LBK world towards its end.  Whittle states that the most general inference to be drawn is that it is consistent with the rest of the LBK evidence, that the massacre sites size and their victims represent the strong norms of ‘communally sanctioned behaviour’ (1996: 171).

  • The abstract for my dissertation, focusing on patrilocality and the use of isotopes, can be found here.
  • Previous posts discussing the Linearbandkeramik culture can be found here.
  • If you would like a copy of the dissertation thesis please email me (address is in the about me tab).

Bibliography:

Bellwood, P. 2005. First Farmers: The Origins of Agricultural Societies. London: Wily-Blackwell.

Bentley, R. A., Wahl, J., Price, T. D. & Atkinson, T. C. 2008. Isotopic Signatures and Hereditary Traits: Snapshot of a Neolithic Community in Germany. Antiquity. 82 (316): 290-304.

Bentley, R. A., Bickle, P., Fibiger, L., Nowell, G. M., Dale C. W., Hedges, R. E. M., Hamiliton,. J., Wahl, J., Francken, M., Grupe, G., Lenneis, E., Teschler-Nicola, M., Arbogast, R-M., Hofmann, D. & Whittle, A. 2012. Community Differentiation and Kinship Among Europe’s First Farmers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Early Edition. doi:10.1073/pnas.1113710109. 1-5.

Bentley, R. A. 2012i. Social Identity in the Early Linearbandkeramik: Evidence from Isotopes, Skeletons and Burial Contexts. Early Farmers: The View from Archaeology and Science Conference Booklet. University of Cardiff, Wales. May 2012. pp. 23.

Bentley, R. A. 2012ii. Mobility and the Diversity of Early Neolithic Lives: Isotopic Evidence from the Skeletons. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. Accessed at Http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jaa.2012.01.009 on the 13/06/12.

Bickle, P., Hofmann, D., Bentley, R. A., Hedges, R., Hamilton, J., Laiginhas, F., Nowell, G., Pearson, D. G., Grupe, G. & Whittle, A. 2011. Roots of Diversity in a Linearbandkeramik community: Isotope Evidence at Aiterhofen (Bavaria, Germany). Antiquity. 85 (330): 1243-1258.

Bishop, N. A. & Knusel, C. J. 2005. A Palaeodemographic Investigation of Warfare in Prehistory. In:  M. P. Pearson & I. J. N. Thorpe (eds.) Warfare, Violence and Slavery in Prehistory. BAR International Series. 1374. Oxford: Archaeopress. 201-216.

Bocquet-Appel, J., Naji, S., Linden, M. V., & Kozlowski, J. 2012. Understanding the Rates of Expansion of the Farming System in Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science.  39 (2): 531-546.

Bogaard, A. 2004. Neolithic Farming in Central Europe. London: Routledge.

Bogucki, P. 2000. ‘How Agriculture Came to North-Central Europe’. In: T. D. Price (ed.) Europe’s First Farmers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 197-218.

Bradley, R. 2001. Orientations and Origins: A Symbolic Dimension to the Long House in Neolithic Europe. Antiquity. 75 (287): 50-56.

Duday, H. 2006. L’archaeothanatologie ou L’archaeologie de la Mort (Archaeothantology or the Archaeology of Death). In: R. Gowland and C. Knüsel (eds.), The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Oxford: Oxbow. pp. 30-52.

Durrwachter, C., Craig, O. E., Collins, M. J., Burger, J. & Alt, K. W. 2006. Beyond the Grave: Variability in Neolithic Diets in Southern Germany? Journal of Archaeological Science. 33 (2006): 39-48.

Fortunato, L. 2011. Reconstructing the History of Residence Strategies in Indo-European-Speaking Societies: Neo-, Uxori, and Virilocality. Human Biology. 83 (1): 107-128.

Gimbutas, G. 1991. The Civilization of the Goddess: The World of Old Europe. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Hofmann, D. & Bickle, P. 2011. Culture, Tradition and the Settlement Burials of the Linearbandkeramik. In: B. W. Roberts & M. V. Linden (eds.) Investigating Archaeological Cultures: Material Culture, Variability and Transmission. New York: Springer. pp. 183-200.

Jochim, M. 2000. ‘The Origins of Agriculture in South Central Europe’. In: T. D. Price (ed.) Europe’s First Farmers. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 183-196.

John, J. 2011. Status of Spondylus Artefacts within the LBK Grave Goods. In: F. Ifantidis & M. Nikolaidou (Eds.) Spondlyus In Prehistory: New Data & Approaches- Contributions to the Archaeology of Shell Technologies. BAR International Series 2216. Oxford: Archaeopress. pp. 39-45.

Lacan, M., Keyser, C., Ricaut, F., Brucato, N., Duranthon, F., Guilaine, J., Crubézy, E. & Ludes, B. 2011. Ancient DNA Suggests The Leading Role Played by Men During the Neolithic Dissemination. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  108 (45): 18255-18259.

Lenneis, E. 2010i. Empty Graves in LBK Cemeteries: Indications of Special burial Practises. Documenta Praehistorica. XXXVII: 161-166.

Lillie, M. C. 2004. Fighting For Your Life? Violence at the Late-Glacial to Holocene Transition in Ukraine. In: M. Roksandic (ed.) Violent Interactions in the Mesolithic: Evidence and Meaning. BAR International Series. 1237. Oxford: Archaeopress. pp. 89-96.

Oelze, V. M., Siebert, A., Nicklish, N., Meller, H., Dresely, V. & Alt, K. W. 2011. Early Neolithic Diet and Animal Husbandry: Stable Isotope Evidence from Three Linearbandkeramik (LBK) Sites in Central Germany. Journal of Archaeological Science. 38 (2): 270-279.

Price, T. D. 2000i. ‘Europe’s First Farmers: An Introduction’. In: T. D. Price (ed.) Europe’s First Farmers. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press. pp. 1-19.

Price, T. D., Bentley. A. R., Luning, J., Gronenborn, D. & Wahl, J. 2001. Prehistoric Human Migration in the Linearbandkeramik of Central Europe. Antiquity. 75: 593-603.

Rasteiro, R., Bouttier, P., Sousa, C. C & Chikhi. 2012. Investigating Sex-biased Migration During the Neolithic Transition in Europe, Using an Explicit Spatial Simulation Framework. Proceedings of the Royal Society B Biological Sciences. Doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.2323 accessed on the 20th of May 2012.

Scarre, C. 2005. Holocene Europe. In Scarre, C. (ed.) The Human Past: World Prehistory & the Development of Human Societies. London: Thames and Hudson. pp. 392-431.

Shennan, S. J. 2011. Property and Wealth Inequality as Cultural Niche Construction. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. 366: 918-926.

Schulting, R. J. 2006. Skeletal Evidence and Contexts of Violence in the European Mesolithic and Neolithic. In: R. Gowland and C. Knüsel (eds.), The Social Archaeology of Funerary Remains. Oxford: Oxbow. pp. 224-237.

Tresset, A. & Vigne, J. 2011. Last Hunter-Gatherers and First Farmers of Europe. Comptes Rendus Biologies. 334 (3): 182-189.

Vanmontfort, B. 2008. Forager-Farmer Connections in an ‘Unoccupied’ Land: First Contact on the Western Edge of LBKTerritory. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology. 27 (2): 149-160.

Vencl, S. 1986. The Role of Hunter-Gathering Populations in the Transition to Farming: A Central-European Perspective. In: M. Zvelebil (ed.) Hunters In Transition: Mesolithic Societies and their Transition to Farming. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press. pp. 43-51.

Wahl, J. & Konig, H. G. 1987. Anthropologish-Traumatologishe Untersuchung der Menschlichen Skelettreste aus dem Bandkeramischen Massengrab bei Talheim, Kreis Heilbronn. Fundberichte aus Baden-Wurttemberg. 12: 65-193.

Whittle, A. 1996. Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press. pp. 144-211.

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Gough’s Cave Skull Cups

9 Apr

The surgery went very well, and I’m glad to be out of hospital so soon.  As I entered the house again, my eyes fell greedily upon the latest edition of the British Archaeology magazine.  An article that caught my eye in particular was the latest developments concerning the various excavations, and new modern scientific investigations analysis at the Upper Palaeolithic site of Gough’s Cave located in the Mendip Hills, Somerset, southern England.

It has turned out that the cave has the earliest directly dated human skull cups.  This was reported in the media a few months ago, but now an in-depth article has come out on the online PLoS ONE journal.  The 2011 article, written by Silvia M. Bello, Simon A. Parfitt and Chris Stringer, can be found here and it is open access.

Palaeogeography At The Time of use of Goughs Cave (Figure 1, Bello et al. 2011).

The Upper Palaeolithic Site of Gough’s Cave

Now, this is big news.  The site of the butchered animal and human remains is dated to the Magdalenian period of the Upper Palaeolithic, around 14,700 BP (BP simply stands for Before Present) during the end last of the glacial period (Last Glacial Maximum).  The artefacts that have been found in this particular period at Gough’s Cave include flint tools, carved reindeer antler and mammoth ivory; a particular key find is the reindeer antler baton, a fine example of the craftmanship of the humans that used to live and roam this area.

Now the finds we are most concerned with are the evidence of the defleshing of the human remains, and the very probably use of human skulls as drinking vessels.  According to the articles stated above, the human remains were found with fauna including (in descending commonest order) wild horse, red deer, wolf, brown bear, lynx, saiga antelope, arctic fox and arctic hare (Stringer Et al, in BA magazine 2011:16).  The animal remains showed evidence of butchery, in accordance with using the flesh for food.  The co-mingled human remains, mostly cranial elements with post cranial elements also showed butchery marks, and do not seem to be deliberately buried.

A selection of the human cranial elements found, highlighting the breaking and fracturing of the cranial elements during reshaping (Source: Natural History Museum).

Human Cranial Remains and Modifications

The remains subjected to new scientific analysis included 41 elements, 37 from skulls and the rest from mandibles (lower jaw).  From the study of remains it has been suggested that they represent at least 5 individuals, including a young child, two adolescents, a young adult and an older adult (Stringer et al 2011: 19).  There were three complete mandibles alongside three skulls caps present (see above).

Although it had been suggested from earlier excavations, it is now thought that the bones did not suffer much from post-depositional effects (ie weathering or trampling).  Many of the elements have evidence of stone cut marks; most were done by slicing, some chopping but signs of scraping were seen as rare.  The skulls had less evidence of percussion marks whilst cut marks were particularly evident.  Importantly they showed no sign of fire damage (such as colour changes or flaking) and all cuts are ectocranial (Bello et al 2011).

Highlighting the main points of reshaping of the human crania (Figure 8 in Bello et al. 2011).

Carefully placed ectocranial percussion marks on the vault of the crania (Source: Natural History Museum).

The processing of the head can be clearly discerned:

A) The head was detached from the body, probably whilst the body was either frozen or in the grip of rigor mortis.  Cuts at the base of the skulls and on the cervical vertebrae indicate this took place shortly after death.

B) The mandible was removed next, evidence is seen by post-mortem scratches on teeth of both mandible and maxilla alongside percussion fractures (Bello et al 2011).

C) The major muscles of the skull were removed next (Temporalis & Masseter muscles in anatomical position) alongside the removal of the lips, ears, tongue, and the possible extraction of eyes and cheeks.

D) Cut marks along the parietal and occipital elements indicate scalping as well.

E) Finally, ‘the face and base of the skull was struck off with minimum damage to the vault, and the broken edges were chipped away to make the more regular’ (Stringer et al 2011).

Key Points

Evidence for cut marks on human bones in the Magdalenian period have also been found in the Rhine Valley in Germany, Dordogne area in France.  Sites such as Le Placard in Charente & Isturitz in Oyrenees-Atlantiques (see above location map), both in France have evidence for similar skull modification and processing.  Strikingly at Isturitz, one example even has carvings of animals in the skull elements.

However, as pointed out in an earlier article on cannibalism, post cranial elements found (including metatarsals with evidence of being chewed by humans) are thought to be an example of ‘nutritional cannibalism’, even with the large amount of faunal remains co-mingled with the human remains.  The slicing marks present on these post cranial elements are consistent with the striking of ‘green’ (fresh) bone.  An interesting experimental archaeological test involved two researchers having their students chew fresh sheep and  pig bones.

This was carried out in order to test if the bite marks found were similar to bite marks on human metatarsal and radius elements found, amongst other bones (Fernandez-Javlo & Andrews 2011).  The results helped to provide evidence that the chewing marks on the human bones (including a distal rib fragment) were probably caused by human teeth themselves.

Rib chewing-archaeology style.  In experimental tests archaeologists found that volunteers chewing ribs replicated the marks made on archaeological material human rib samples at Upper Palaeolithic sites (Fernandez- Jalvo & Peters 2011).

As stated above, the skull elements was treated remarkably different with careful processes present.  There was a distinctly high number of cut marks on the cranial elements present.  Alongside this, a lack of trauma indicates that this is not for mutilation purposes, as seen at some American sites (Stringer et al 2011: 20/Larsen 1997).  At sites where nutritional cannibalism has been documented, the skull is often fractured and broken in aiding access to the brain tissues within.  At Gough’s cave, the skulls have been carefully prepared with flints and carefully processed.

This hints at possible uses of the skull-caps as containers for liquids or holders for other objects.  Ethnographic and historical sources have pointed to various cultures preparing and using human skulls as containers, war trophies or as libation instruments.  Classically, Herodotus portrayed the Scythians as people who drank from the skulls of their enemies, whilst in ‘Buddhism human skull bowls have been used as libation vessels.  In India, the use of skull cups seems to be still practiced by the Agori sub-sect’ (Stringer et all 2011: 20).  Very interestingly, the article by Bello et al (2011) remarks that there are few archaeological finds for skull-caps, in consideration of the wide temporal and geographical spread of ethnographic and historical evidence.  One example is the Neolithic site at Herxheim in Germany, previously discussed in a blog post by Kate Brown.

In conclusion, the Gough’s Cave skulls-cups have been securely dated, and are the only ones found so far in the British Isles.  The mystery still remains why they took part in this painstaking process.

Bibliography

Bello, S. M. Parfitt, S. A. & Stringer, C. B. 2011. ‘Earliest Directly Dated Skull-Cups‘. PLoS ONE. (Open Access Article).

Bones Don’t Lie. 2011. Cheddar’s Cranial Cups.  Blog Site.

Fernandez-Jalvo, Y. & Andrews, P. 2011. When Humans Chew Bones. Journal of Human Evolution. 60 (1): 117-123.

Larsen, C. 1997. Bioarchaeology: Interpreting Behaviour From The Human Skeleton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stringer, C. B. et al. 2011. Gough’s Cave, SomersetBritish Archaeology. May-June.

Guest Blog: ‘Cannibalism In Archaeology Part 2: Mancos Canyon And Herxheim Case Studies’ by Kate Brown.

3 Apr

Kate Brown is a current archaeological undergraduate student at the University of Sheffield.  Her research interests include Osteology, Zooarchaeology, Mesoamerican archaeology, and Scandinavian archaeology alongside the general study of funerary rituals in human culture.

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Following my previous post on cannibalism in archaeology, I would like to discuss a few archaeological case studies in more detail.

Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 (White 1992)

The Mancos site, of the Anasazi or Ancient Peublo Peoples culture,  is located is located on Ute Mountain in Montezuma County, Colorado. The bone assemblage consisting of 2106 bone fragments was excavated in 1973 by Larry Nordby. Although the site is based on high ground, it is only 75m North East of the Mancos river, giving it access to both security and a reliable water source. Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 is held as a site of significant importance when referring to cannibalism, due to its excellent levels of preservation, owing to the lack of evidence for either pre or post depositional disturbance of the assemblage. This is imperative to reach such conclusions as it reduces the possibility of confusion in interpretations.

Location of the Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 site (White 1992).

In the 1973 excavations, a multi-room habitation was found, which had been built over the remains of an earlier dwelling. Primary interments (burials 1, 2, 4 and 12) were fairly typical, and were mostly contained within the rooms of the earliest structure. The rest of the skeletal remains were found in the room fill as well as on the floor surface, and because of this they were originally interpreted as either secondary or disturbed burials. The fragments in these ‘bone beds’ at the site could not be found to have any association or articulation, and individuals appear to be mixed together indiscriminately across the assemblage.

There are many indications of possible cannibalistic consumption happening at the site.

Thin long bones, most notably fibula, were found mainly intact, however, larger more robust bones, such as tibias and femurs were found highly fragmented; this points to impact being inflicted on the bones in order to reach the bone marrow, known as percussion. Percussion marks can be seen on many of the skeletal remains recovered.

Breaks and fracture with subsequent polishing marks on the humerii (White 1992).

Scratches on some skull fragments are likely indicative of scalping rather than attempts to crack open the skull as in other cases, due to the thickness of the skull in this case as a result of osteoporosis.

The bones themselves were bleached quite light, and this is seen frequently in cases of cannibalism, as a result of being interred without any flesh adhering to the bones. Evidence of burning is evident on a large amount of remains, and because the pattern of burning on the bones is so varied it is possible to assume that they were heated whilst some flesh was still attached. Pattern fracturing and fragmentation of long bone shafts in the assemblage are strongly evident of marrow extraction, which is common across cannibalism sites.

Crushing evident on anterior alveolar region of the mandible (White 1992).

The evidence for cannibalism at the site of Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 is extensive, and includes high frequencies of most of the standardised factors for recognising such activity- the polishing of the ends of long bones as a result of cooking in coarse pottery, splintering and shaft breakage of long bones to facilitate marrow extraction; clear percussion scars, hammerstone abrasion, fracturing and crushing of bones; cutmarks indicating skin peeling and butchery; crushed skulls, chopmarks and peeling on lumbar vertebrae as well as a high frequency of rib breakage.

Peeling marks on thoracic vertebrae (White 1992).

In terms of the pathology of the Mancos Canyon assemblages, it is quite typical of an Anasazi population. At Mancos MTUMR-2346 there are at least seven individuals with cranial deformation, and this is found to be present in all skeletal assemblages from Mancos Canyon. Cases of caries and abscessing are identifiable on two mandibles, and dental enamel hypoplasiawould appear to be quite prevalent throughout the population. This is also typical of Anasazi populations, who often suffered significant nutritional stress.

Overall, the high number of young adult individuals far outweighs the instances of older individuals, which is unusual for a cemetery population.

Nordby (1974) interpreted that the site of Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 was either attacked, with its inhabitants being killed, dismembered and consumed at the kill site, or that the inhabitants of Mancos 5MTUMR-2346 attacked a larger site elsewhere and brought dismembered bodies back to their own site for consumption.

Herxheim (Boulestin et al. 2009)

Located in the South of the German Federal State of Rhineland-Palinate, above a loess soil plateau, Herxheim is an early Neolithic Linearbandkeramic (LBK) site with compelling evidence for cannibalistic activity. Excavations have found evidence of a village that was inhabited between 5300 and 4950 BC. At the site there is a non-continuous (pseudo) ditch, which is rare in the Neolithic period, and is thought to have served as a symbolic boundary rather than as a physical defence. This is evidence of the sites importance, and demonstrative of a central position at a regional level. This could also serve as an explanation of the sites importance through to the final linear pottery period despite the change in function it underwent at this time.

Location of Herxheim site (Boulestin et al. 2009).

During the final linear pottery period, no new pits were dug, instead previously existing ones were re used to allow for the deposition of human remains, along with some fauna, ceramics, and tools made of both stone and bone. Scatters of bone fragments, some numbering up to 2000 fragments, have been recovered from these pits, and are representative of a minimum number of 500 individuals. However, with only half of the enclosure having being excavated at this point, it is hypothesised that there could be up to 1000 individuals within the entire area. In the assemblage, there is a notably high proportion of both skull fragments and leg bones compared to fragments from elsewhere in the skeletal system. Deposition occurred over a maximum of 50 years, but was probably a lot less than this.

Deposit 9 at Herxheim (Boulestin et al. 2009).

Deposit 9 was excavated in 2007, and contained a much higher density of human remains than anywhere else on site. In the assemblage recovered from deposit 9, breakage was common, especially that of long limb bones. Short shallow cut marks are typically indicative of defleshing, which is common in cases of cannibalism. There is also evidence of butchery and skinning on fragments, shown by deeper varied cutmarks. Across the skull fragments found in the deposit, cracks and fracturing occurred often. Spongy bones were also often found to have been crushed, and peeling marks were frequently seen on both vertebrae and ribs, showing a butchery technique similar to that used in the butchery of animals to separate the ribs from the vertebral column.

Rib breakage and peeling marks on vertebrae (Boulestin et al. 2009).

As I have previously discussed in my last post, this is one of the standard indicators of cannibalism. Defleshing of long bones and marrow extraction are visible through scrape marks on the bones, and marrow cavities, and is another common manifestation of cannibalistic activity. Differential breakage of long bones can be observed, with bones housing larger volumes of marrow being far more likely to have been broken or fractured. This could be a result of the relative nutritional value to be gained from the differing bones. Finger bones were also preferentially broken, although foot bones seem to have been left more often intact.

Example of differential breakage (Boulestin et al. 2009).

Green bone breakage is another requisite for proof of cannibalism, and there is strong evidence of this taking place at Herxheim from the form of fragments as well as fracture outlines on bones.

Skulls seem to have been the subject of particular attention, with many showing evidence of skinning following a repetitive method. In many cases, the tongue was removed, which is evident by cut and scrape marks on the lingual surface of the mandible. In some instances, the mandible was also removed from the skull following this.

A distinct distribution of chew marks support the interpretation of cannibalism occurring at Herxheim; if the result of carnivore activity it would tend to have a much more random distribution across the remains than what is evident. However, because the cause of death is, at this point, undetermined, it is difficult to say whether this instance of cannibalism was a result of war, ritual activity, or a response to nutritional stress or starvation. Current interpretations view it to most likely be either a result of sacrificial ritual or revenge related to warfare, perhaps as an element of possible crisis at the end of the LBK period. This would also be supported by the evidence of increased violence at this time.

Instances of cannibalism in the Neolithic is often underestimated, largely because of the difficulties in recognising it following the current set of criteria, and in defending such interpretations, which are the subject of high amounts of controversy. However, these two sites, along with many more, have provided at least the possibility of cannibalism happening within past societies for varying reasons, and hopefully with more research, more stable interpretations can be reached and agreed upon.

Bibliography

Boulestin, B., Zeeb-Lanz, A., Jeunesse, C., Haack, F., Arbogast, R., Denaire, A. 2009. Mass Cannibalism in the Linear Pottery Culture at Herxheim. Antiquity 83 (German language).

Nordby, L.V. 1974. The excavation of sites 5MTUMR-2343, -2345 AND -2346, Mancos Canyon, Ute Mountain, Ute Homelands, Colorado. Bereau Indian Affairs, Contract MOOC14201337 Report.

White, T.D. 1992. Prehistoric Cannibalism at Mancos 5MTUMR-2346. Princeton: University Press.