Close-up of a broken skull. (Michel Christen/Inrap)

The French archaeologists call it the Massacre at Achenheim, a brutal act carried out 6,000 years ago by a Neolithic war party.

“We found six bodies in a pit, a silo for grain,” archaeologist Philippe Lefranc said in a phone interview with The Washington Post. The researcher had just returned from the dig site in northeastern France, although it was earlier than he had planned. Like much of the country, the ancient compound — despite the remains of a fortification around it — is currently flooded.

Although six bodies might seem sparse for a massacre, for its time it is, proportionally, a lot of death; 6,000 years ago the human population likely numbered in the low millions. Lefranc considers this to be more evidence that war — or, at least, conflict between different groups — has existed just as long as human society. “There was no lost paradise,” he said.


Face-down skeleton with multiple fractures of the shin. (Michel Christen/Inrap)

In the area where Lefranc and another archaeologist, Fanny Chenal — both of the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research, or Inrap — are examining the bones, the ground is pockmarked with 300 circles, each carved about eight feet wide. In one circle, the archaeologists recently discovered the bodies heaped together in a pile. Next to the mutilated skeletons are four lopped-off left arms, one limb from an individual not yet full-grown.

This is not the first time ancient bodies have been found in 6,000-year-old circles in France. Lefranc believes the circles are the remains of silos that once held grain or other foodstuffs, only ritualistically used to house the bodies from enemy warring factions. But other archaeologists speculate the pits were meant to be graves for important individuals and their relatives, as Science News noted in late 2015, or perhaps as sites for sacrificial offerings to their gods.

It is unlikely these men were residents of the village where they died, Lefranc says, because the six skeletons are all male. In other Neolithic mass graves, like the 7,000-year-old group of 26 victims recently described by bioarchaeologists in Germany, remains consisted of adults as well as very young children. The mixed demographics, the bioarchaeologists say, is evidence the villages had been raided.


(Philippe Lefranc/Inrap)

Based on the single sex and the arrangement of the remains, Lefranc hypothesizes these ancient Frenchmen had been captured, ritualistically killed and their bodies dumped. (It is impossible to tell someone’s sex from just an arm, but Lefranc believes those once belonged to men, too.)

Given the long history of turning body parts into trophies — a practice that refuses, unfortunately, to die — Lefranc believes the lone left arms were taken as mementos. Achenheim is not the first location in France to show the strange practice. Chenal is the lead author of a paper titled, charmingly, “A farewell to arms: a deposit of human limbs and bodies at Bergheim, France,” published in the journal Antiquity in 2015. Chenal and her colleagues also speculate that the arms had some trophy-like significance, but they could also be signs of torture or post-mortem mutilation.


(Philippe Lefranc/Inrap)

At Achenheim, the men’s shins show the marks of ancient blows. Some of their skulls and hands, too, are crushed. This could have been torture, Lefranc said. (As other archaeologists have noted, however, many forms of torture aim for areas where nerve endings are concentrated — the soles of feet, for instance, as opposed to shins.) Or perhaps it was done to the bodies after the men had died. If so, Lefranc describes it as “a kind of humiliation to the enemy,” a way to stymie any would-be avenging spirits.

The Inrap scientists think the bodies date to 4400 or 4200 B.C., based on the styles of pottery shards and arrowheads found nearby. Radiocarbon tests are underway to estimate the skeletons’ age.

When asked whether he thinks the men were killed by stone axes, Lefranc replied, “well, probably.”

He added: “When we have studied the bones longer, I will be able to tell you a beautiful story.” First, however, he will have to wait for the floodwaters to subside.