The osteology of conflict: What does it all mean?

Authors: Knüsel, C. and Smith, M.J.

Pages: 656-694

ISBN: 9780415842198

DOI: 10.4324/9781315883366-48


This book extends the coverage of studies of skeletal trauma related to violence and warfare – with much of it attributed to the latter circumstance through historical records and/or archaeological context. The context, the scale of involvement based on the number of individuals with traumatic weapon injuries and the recurrent pattern of those injuries seem to be the most pertinent diagnostic features to distinguish intermittent violence from warfare. The geographic coverage of the volume is less good than its temporal coverage, whereevent-based, mainly mass graves, can be pinned down to the day in some cases. This means that there are two types of study that contribute to this volume that differ in context and interpretive scope, one relating to events and another relating to longer-term accumulations of those bearing evidence for violent confrontation. Event-based contexts contain considerable peri-mortem trauma, while the trauma is more often of an ante-mortem (healed) form in diachronic study samples from attritional cemeteries that develop over a variable number of generations. While event-based samples tend to be linked to episodic conflict between groups, longer-term studies offer insight into intragroup conflict that may be of longer duration but is more commonly non-lethal, with individuals bearing healed scars of violence who did not die in such encounters. Those who did perish in violent circumstances may not be found in such burial grounds, but were buried close to where they were killed (or were not buried at all), as demonstrated in the historical examples from documented conflicts from medieval Europe, the early modern period, and recent examples included in this volume. If this study were based only on those sites with high prevalence of conflict-related traumatic injuries, one would have a picture very much like that proposed by Steven Pinker (2011; see also Introduction). Violence would appear to be more common in the recent past, and this would be due to better documentation, which clearly influences Pinker’s view, by his own admission. This trajectory of increasing detail and clarity with which human aggression has become widely reported and highly visible has gained impetus over the last century and a half or so, among the earliest being Alexander Gardner’s (an associate of celebratednineteenth-century photographer Mathew Brady) photographs of wartime scenes and casualties during the American Civil War (1861-5 AD), those from the Battle of Antietam (September 1861), near Sharpsburg, Maryland, USA, being the first graphic battlefield images – with bodies – ever printed, appearing in Harper’s Weekly on 18 October 1862 (Panzer 2007: xx, 107-8, figs 7.6-7.9). This volume, then, taps a source that Pinker acknowledges to be beyond the grasp of manyresearchers, particularly those whose work is reliant on documentary sources. The geographic extent of the current volume’s contents reflects the intensity of work on contexts demonstrated to contain signs of violence in Europe and is also reflective of the intensity of archaeological research elsewhere, especially in Peru (see Figure 1.1 in the Introduction). The inclusion of Ferllini’s Rwandan contribution to this volume (Chapter 33) redresses the imbalance in the distribution of samples to some extent, but there remains comparatively poor coverage of Africa. This, the largest of continents and the longest inhabited by our species, played host to the emergence of close ancestral species, our own genus Homo, and of anatomically modern Homo sapiens sapiens. It is thus especially important for the basal behavioural record of our species but would also provide time-depth and context for an area beset by conflict in recent history. Epipalaeolithic Jebel Sahaba (Sudan), a comparatively recent 11,000 years ago, holds pride of place for the entire continent in many discussions of the evidence for violent confrontation prior to historically recorded periods (see Guilaine and Zammit 2001). This population sample is without local context or parallel for its size, number of casualties and early date, and this may indicate the absence of violent confrontation in earlier African hominins and earlier modern human populations, although there is very early evidence for peri-mortem injuries from carnivore predation (Brain 1981), if not conspecific violence. The greater part of Eurasia remains a blank, probably due to linguistic transmission problemsand differences in research and curation traditions, rather than to an absence of evidence. Eastern North America and the Antipodes also remain largely uncharted in this volume, but others have documented considerable evidence for conflict in these areas, despite restrictions on the analysis of human remains in recent years (see Webb (1995) for a discussion of indigenous Australia and Milner et al. (1991) and contributions in Chacón and Mendoza (2007), with its concentration on especially Eastern North American evidence for violence). Much of South America, like Africa, possesses depositional contexts in tropical forest, where human remains are rare, and this no doubt influences what could be included here. Although the population samples that are the focus of this volume are not randomlyselected – leaving aside the comparatively long hiatus, on the order of at least 100,000 years, between Virginia Hutton Estabrook and David Frayer’s chapter on the Krapina Neanderthals (Chapter 4), the earliest sample, and the remainder of the material included – there is a gap of only 117 years without evidence of conflict-related trauma, and that largely due to imprecisely dated instances rather than solely due to absence. This distribution provides ample evidence that conflict seems to have been a constant part of human social interaction in the past. There are also hotspots in time that highlight the episodic nature of conflict. Across both hemispheres there appears to be an increase in violence between AD 1000 and 1500. It is likely, though, that the less well-dated events would begin to look more like those more recent events that are better constrained in time if dated more precisely. There is also another hotspot around the year AD 1, again in both hemispheres, while casualty rates and the severity of injuries mount as one approaches the more recent periods in the samples presented here. Even with the proviso that these represent conservative estimates, it is worth discussing, first, what factors contribute to an inability to discern evidence for conflict and, second, when evidence permits what social aspects can be discerned from it, especially with regard to the social identity of those involvedin and affected by conflict. Before embarking on this endeavour, it is worth considering the limitations imposed by the nature of skeletal remains.

Source: Scopus