Battered skulls of ancient farmers reveal violent conflicts

Three thousand years ago, in one of the driest deserts in the world, farmers came to blows and fought to the death, often smashing each other’s skulls in, according to a new discovery in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Three mummified faces that have been smashed in
High-impact shocks to the face and skull. (Standen et al., JAA, 2021)

Graves reveal grave violence

Researchers, led by Vivien Standen of the University of Tarapacá, Chile, found scores of skeletons with grotesque head wounds buried in cemeteries in the Azapa Valley. This suggests that ancient horticulturalists lived during a time of great social tension and engaged in violent conflict.

Backof a skull with two holes in it
Fractures to the skull, including possible sling stone impacts. (Standen et al., JAA, 2021)

“The emergence of elites and social inequality fostered interpersonal and inter- and intra-group violence associated with the defence of resources, socio-economic investments, and other cultural concerns,” the authors say in their paper, published in Journal of Anthropological Archaeology.

Read more: Getting a drink in the Atacama Desert

Found: 194 skeletons

The 194 skeletons found dated back to the Neolithic transition between 1000 BCE and 600 CE, and around 21% of them showed signs of violent conflict from weapons like maces, sticks or arrows. This included skull holes and fractures that would have caused extreme pain.

Half of the head traumas appeared to be fatal.

Three skeleton x rays
Individuals with trauma in a mass grave, in atypical body positions. (Standen et al., JAA, 2021)

“Some individuals exhibited severe high-impact fractures of the cranium that caused massive destruction of the face – and outflow of brain mass,” the authors say.

The violence was local

Interestingly, the farmers’ conflicts were internal, as strontium isotopes showed that foreign people didn’t increase the levels of violence, suggesting that the conflicts were kept local. These may have been fights over water, land or other resources that were shared locally.

The ancient skeletons were extremely well preserved – some even still had hair – because of the dry conditions of the area, where there are less microbes to decompose soft tissue.

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