Neolithic Men from Talheim, Germany fought for Women

A new paper in the journal Antiquity interprets the remains of 34 found buried in the village of Talheim, in south-west of Germany as evidence that Neolithic men fought to secure women. The paper is titled, “Isotopic signatures and hereditary traits: snapshot of a Neolithic community in Germany.”

The remains were excavated in the 1980s and dated by carbon-14 to be 7,000 years old. The majority had been killed by a blow to the left side of the head. This suggests most of the victims were bound and executed, probably with a stone axe. The other remains that show signs of arrow-wounds from behind, as if the victims had tried to flee.

Using isotopic analysis, the authors were able to determine the different origins of the people. The three isotopic (strontium, oxygen and carbon) signatures indicated there are distinct groups of people in the burial. The isotope signatures also correlate with the hereditary dental traits of each group.

One group, with isotope signatures derived from upland areas, includes two men, which as I understand it are two of the attackers that died. Another group, the local group, includes many local children among the adult male remains. But there were no adult women, suggesting they had been selectively taken alive at the time of the massacre. The researchers conclude the absence of local females indicates that they were spared execution and captured instead which may have indeed been the primary motivation for the attack.

The basis of this paper supports a common concept in sexual selection, where the limited reproductive capacity of females compared to males drives male–male competition. Males, the less limited sex, compete aggressively among themselves for access to the limiting sex. Lead author, Alex Bentley summarizes,

“Our analysis points to the local women being regarded as somehow special and were therefore kept alive.”

What do you think about the conclusions?

7 thoughts on “Neolithic Men from Talheim, Germany fought for Women

  1. It will be difficult for me to judge before I can read about the exact ethnocultural affiliations of the people involved. The dates posited are those of the arrival of Danubian (Western Linear Pottery) culture to the upper Rhin and the Rhin facies is known as the only one of this group to bury people with weapons.

    It was a frontier area anyhow and the conflict may had been triggered by other reasons than just “capturing women”. Though certainly this phenomenon is not unknown in antiquity (Hebrews did the same in Jerico, Magyar raiders were infamous for the same reason in the Middle Ages) it’s certainly the first case that can be attributed to such an early age.

    Apart of the ethnocultural affiliations, another issue is how many children were among the remains. If there are many, then certainly the women robbery explanation would seem justified but if there are few then maybe it’s a matter of mercy that not only affected women but also children. Or maybe was a battlefield where women and children were not present except for low numbers.

    Have you read the whole paper? Maybe you can clarify my doubts.

  2. 16 of the 34 individuals are children, Luis.

    I can’t say for sure if it is a battlefield. Given that almost 1/2 of the remains are of children, I think it is safe to say it isn’t. Furthermore, the individuals show signs of being bound and systematically executed, either by blunt force trauma or being shot in the head with arrows, which indicates to me they were prisoners that were killed after a battle.

    This image, from, “Europe in the Neolithic: The Creation of New Worlds,” depicts the grave. The adult males are grayed out.


  3. I would agree that the high proportion of children makes it unlikely to be a battlefield. It sounds more like a systematic massacre for some reason.

  4. I have very limited knowledge of this time period, and thus I would find it interesting if anyone knows whether it is true that women were of the rarer sex.

    Not that it matters, as the female to male ratio of today’s world is far from equal, and women still compete over males through adorning themselves as if they were of the commoner sex – which they aren’t.

    But in regards to the information posted above, and disregarding from my previous thought, it does indeed not look like a battlefield, given the adult-child ratio. Though, has any analysis been done upon the age of the children? For if they were very young it supports the non-battlefield line of thought, and if not, it doesn’t. At least not to a very great extent.

  5. 16 of the 34 individuals are children, Luis.

    Children like under 12, not under 18, right? Then the issue seems quite clear.

    Now my question is how do they know who were the attackers. The news release and the corresponding BBC article I read mention three groups: “locals” (guess that farmers), pastoralists and a three member family. How do they know there are three groups in that grave and who were the attackers among them.

    I mean, if all the corpses are from the same “victim” group (what would seem logical considering the ammount of children) , then how do they know who were the attackers. IMO there’s no archaeological reason I know (there may be a reason I don’t know, sure) that would divide recently arrived Danubians of the Rhin in two groups so early. In fact I’m not even sure that the Rhin facies was yet defined at all.

    So I wonder if the farmers may have been victims not of a “pastoralist” attack but one from hunter-gatherers defending their ancestral lands. The area may have been sort of a Wild West, mutatis mutandi and certainly there must have been angry natives too.

    if anyone knows whether it is true that women were of the rarer sex

    No reason at all to think they were less common than men. All things equal, statistically, by early adulthood men and women should be in equal numbers more or less. But enslavers or polygamists may not care about that. It might also have been a band of outlier men who had no women like the Romans of the legend of the Rape of the Sabine Woman. We just don’t know enough but this kind of behaviour was something that many, including myself, believed more proper of later ages, not of Neolithic. So it’s kind of shocking.

  6. i disagree with you. i think men is not the weaker sex, everything is equal so there for there is no weak or strong sex,

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