By Stephen Beech

Large-scale warfare was happening in mainland Europe 1,000 years earlier than previously thought, according to a new study.

An analysis of more than 300 sets of 5,000-year-old skeletal remains excavated from a site in Spain suggests that many of the individuals may have been casualties of the earliest battle in Europe 5,000 years ago.

The research, published in the journal Scientific Reports, indicates that both the number of casualties and the “disproportionately high” percentage of men affected suggest that the injuries resulted from a period of conflict, potentially lasting months.

Top left, Location of SJAPL in north-central Iberia. Top right, Surface view of the eastern corner of the burial deposit before being excavated. Bottom, Plan where the best-preserved skeletons are reconstructed. An analysis of more than 300 sets of 5,000-year-old skeletal remains excavated from a site in Spain suggests that many of the individuals may have been casualties of the earliest battle in Europe 5,000 years ago. PHOTO BY DR.TERESA FERNANDZ/SWNS  

Study author Doctor Teresa Fernández‑Crespo said: “Conflict during the European Neolithic period, approximately 9,000 to 4,000 years ago, remains poorly understood.

“Previous research has suggested that conflicts consisted of short raids lasting no more than a few days and involving small groups of up to 20 to 30 individuals, and it was therefore assumed that early societies lacked the logistical capabilities to support longer larger-scale conflicts.

“The earliest such conflict in Europe was previously thought to have occurred during the Bronze Age, approximately 4,000 to 2,800 years ago.”

Dr Fernández‑Crespo, of the University of Valladolid in Spain, and her colleagues re-examined the skeletal remains of 338 individuals for evidence of healed and unhealed injuries.

All the remains were from a single mass burial site in a shallow cave in the Rioja Alavesa region of northern Spain, radiocarbon dated to between 5,400 and 5,000 years ago.

A total of 52 flint arrowheads had also been discovered at the same site, with previous research finding that 36 of these had minor damage associated with hitting a target.

The research team found that almost a quarter of the individuals (23.1 percent) had skeletal injuries, with 10.1 percent having unhealed injuries, substantially higher than estimated injury rates for the time.

They also found that 74.1 percent of the unhealed injuries and 70 percent of the healed injuries had occurred in adolescent or adult males, a “significantly higher” rate than in females, and a difference not seen in other European Neolithic mass-fatality sites.

Dr. Fernández‑Crespo said: “The overall injury rate, the higher injury rate for males, and the previously observed damage to the arrowheads suggest that many of the individuals at the burial site were exposed to violence and may have been casualties of conflict.”

She added: “The relatively high rate of healed injuries suggests that the conflict continued over several months.”

The research team say that the reasons for the conflict are unclear – but they believe there are several possible causes, including tension between different cultural groups in the region during the Late Neolithic period.

Produced in association with SWNS Talker