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10 December 2015
6,000-year-old amputated arms in France suggest trophy-taking

About 6,000 years ago in France some hostiles in an apparent act of warfare and trophy-taking killed a group of adults and children, amputated their arms and buried the limbs in a circular pit underneath some other bodies. It was a common practice to bury people in circular pits at the time in a large area of Europe, but this gruesome case stands out from the rest as the only one with violence done to those buried.
     According to French researchers Fanny Chenal, Bertrand Perrin, Hélène Barrand-Emam and Bruno Boulestin, the people who attacked the victims fractured their arms and chopped them off, then apparently buried those limbs in a layer in the pit underneath some other skeletons, all of which had their arms except one. The upper layer also contained a fragment of an infant's cranium.
     Pit 157 has a layer of six adult arms and one child or adolescent arm with scattered hand bones buried at the bottom. Above it is a layer of burials with complete skeletons (except for the missing arm) of two women, a man and four children ranging from about 2 to 4 to about 10 to 13 years old, and the skullcap of an infant. The pit is 2 meters (6.56 feet) deep, 1.5 meters (4.92 feet) in diameter at the bottom and 1.9 meters (6.23 feet) in diameter at the ground surface. An eighth body, of a woman, was deposited in the pit sometime later, after the surface dirt had been packed down.
     Dr. Chenal said that she does not know why the severed arms were buried underneath the other people's remains, but her team assumed they were all of the same social group but were treated differently. "Pit 157 represents clear evidence of what was probably an act of inter-group armed violence, that is to say 'war', although the true nature of these practices remains difficult to understand," they wrote. "Interpreting this unique case is not easy, as, to our knowledge, no other example of amputation, or even of isolated articulated limbs, has ever been recorded for the Late Neolithic."
     The researchers ruled out funerary practices common among other societies around the world, including human sacrifice, killing of slaves to accompany persons to the afterlife, or the destruction of prestige goods in the form of human arms. They conclude: "The amputated arms, most probably trophies, are suggestive of an act of war. The presence of women and children in the pit does not go against this hypothesis: they may have been victims of raids, killed on the scene of the confrontation or captured and executed afterwards."
     They speculated that the victims were either tortured, amputated after death to offend the dead or intimidate living people, or had their limbs taken as trophies. Dr. Chenal said that trophy-taking has been known in almost all cultures around the world and still occurs even today.

Edited from Ancient Origins (10 December 2015)

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