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Bloody Neolithic

Human remains from Chilean desert reveals upsurge in fighting among first farmers.

The Atacama Desert, which lies between the Andes and the Pacific in northern Chile, is one of the driest locations on earth. The arid environment means that human remains spanning nearly 9,000 years of intense periods of violence and relative calm are astonishingly well preserved, down to skin, hair, and other usually vanished human anatomy.

This provides a unique opportunity for biological anthropologists like Vivien Standen to examine the lethal violence that descended on desert communities, especially after farming led to competition for fertile land and water. About a quarter of the adults were casualties of broken bones or stabbings. About half the injuries were fatal. Some victims suffered broken ribs, fractured collarbones, and puncture wounds in the lungs, groin, and spine. Others displayed facial mutilations.

This archive of violence documents occasional brawling and violence between hunter-gatherer groups. But when farming began and fishing became less dependable due to climate change, violence among Atacama farming communities escalated sharply, with many fatalities. Chemical analysis of the teeth from mass graves showed that everyone was local, although some ate more fish than others. It seems that the violence was between people who may often have known one another, some fishers, others turning to farming. The excavated graves contained weaponry – knives, spear throwers, and bolases. Almost certainly much fighting in this dry landscape revolved around water, farming land, and food.

Image: Cranium of adult male, aged around 25-30 years old, with a healed trauma to upper jaw, likely caused by a punch during a fight. Photo: Vivien Standen

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