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Warrior Elites: Assessing their Presence and Organisational identity in Neolithic Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - WEAPON (Warrior Elites: Assessing their Presence and Organisational identity in Neolithic Europe)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-08-31

The role, extent and main actors of Neolithic warfare remain poorly understood. The Action WEAPON (“Warrior Elites: Assessing their Presence and Organisational identity in Neolithic Europe”) aimed to explore the identity and life-histories of those involved in the violence observed in this pivotal period through a multi-isotope approach, including micro-sequential carbon, nitrogen and sulphur stable isotope analysis of bone collagen and tooth dentine, and strontium, carbon and oxygen analysis of tooth enamel. Such topic is important for society because the emergence of the first ‘specialised warriors’ is likely to be related to the consolidation of lasting inequalities and/or large population movements across Europe, being both issues still difficult to handle in present times. A better understanding of their Neolithic roots may help policies to move through different decision-making scenarios and also provide society with new knowledge to deal with social asymmetries and promote solidarity.

Objectives of this Marie Skłodowska Curie Action (MSCA-IF) have been to reconstruct the isotopic biographies of those involved in violence in order to (a) assess the presence of “specialized warriors” in the Mid-Upper Rhine valley of northeastern France, particularly in the relevant late Middle Neolithic sites of Achenheim and Bergheim, b) detect dietary and/or residence shifts that help identify the factors behind violent conflict, and (c) investigate further socio-cultural implications of late prehistoric lethal confrontations in western Europe. This project has permitted the development of new ground-breaking microsequential analytical protocols for sequential palaeodietary and mobility studies in archaeology, providing unique ways to reconstruct past human life histories in detail.
Work was conducted via 8 work packages (WPs).

WP1 comprised the ethics and the design of a sampling protocol in order to 1) meet all regulations requested by the institutions that held the archaeological remains, 2) prepare an optimized sampling strategy, 3) promote a less destructive technique, and 4) engage with other stakeholders and respect their perspectives. A guide for an anatomically sensitive dentine microsampling and age-alignment approach for human teeth isotopic sequences describing these improvements was published in 2020 with colleagues from the University of Oxford. The fellow has taught the principles of this methodology to junior and senior researchers from the Aix-Marseille Université (France), the University of Valladolid (Spain) and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (Belgium).

WP2 involved the sampling of 135 archaeological human and animal bone fragments and 31 human teeth from 12 late Middle Neolithic sites from present-day Alsace region of northeastern France to reconstruct dietary and mobility practices and explore the early life histories (in particular paleodiet and mobility) of those involved in violence. WP2 also involved the sampling of 40 modern tree samples of the region to establish local baselines of biologically available strontium.

WP3 was sought to carry out stable isotope analyses of bone and tooth dentine collagen, and has provided 263 bone collagen carbon, nitrogen and sulphur, 565 micro-sequential dentine collagen carbon and nitrogen, and 99 macro-sequential dentine collagen sulphur isotope measurements. Sample preparation and collagen extraction was carried out at the LAMPEA (UMR 7269 AMU – CNRS – MC), France. Carbon and nitrogen isotope measurements were performed at the RLAHA of the University of Oxford (secondment, the partner organization), whereas sulphur isotope measurements were obtained at Iso-Analytical Ltd, United Kingdom.

WP4 was sought to carry out a multi-isotope analysis of tooth enamel and modern plants, and has provided a total of 93 strontium, oxygen and carbon isotope measurements from archaeological molars and 40 from modern trees. Cleaning, drilling and enamel powder collection were carried out at the LAMPEA, France. The chemical preparation and the obtention of measurements were carried out at the Bioarchaeology Lab of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (secondment, the partner organization), Belgium.

WP5 included the organization of an international online workshop entitled “Children of Cain: Identity and violence in late prehistory” on 5-6 October 2021 as closure of the Action, with the aim of bringing together experts who are using different approaches to address the extent of prehistoric violence and the identity of those involved in it. The first day (5th October) was devoted to a private meeting for the core team and other stakeholders of the WEAPON action. The second day (6th October) an open workshop was celebrated to congregate top experts in Neolithic violence, who led an enlightening debate.

WP6 focused on writing and dissemination. A guide for an anatomically sensitive dentine microsampling and age-alignment approach for human teeth isotopic sequences was published in 2020 in the Am J Phys Anthropol. A major synthesis of the WEAPON action will be submitted to the PNAS during the third trimester of 2022. Moreover, another two papers on more specific aspects will be submitted to specialized journals. Unfortunately, restrictions due to COVID-19 pandemic have delayed the obtention of some results and their publication. Ultimately, a paper on La Hoya massacre site in present-day northern Spain, related to the extent of protohistoric violence, has already been published in Antiquity. The datasets collected during this MSCA-IF action will be accessible and enhance dozens of publications in the following years. Moreover, some preliminary results have been presented at major conferences, where the fellow also participated as organiser.

WP7 focused on researcher’s training and transfer-of-knowledge. The fellow has done two research stays in the partner organisations (University of Oxford and Vrije Universiteit Brussel), where she consolidated her isotope skills and built-up new contacts for ongoing and future projects. She also provided mentoring for early career researchers. The WEAPON action has also contributed to disseminate cutting-edge science to the broader audience through press releases and interviews for cultural webpages and magazines, major newspapers and social events. During the Action, the fellow secured €22,000 (as PI) in competitive research calls, became team member of three Spanish Government funded national research projects and was awarded the Research Prize 2020 from the Gobierno de La Rioja (Spain).

The project was managed under WP8.
The WEAPON action has offered a ground-breaking, detailed examination of the life-histories of Neolithic individuals found in a series of violence-related sites across western Europe. The results obtained have had and will certainly have a great impact in the archeological and anthropological literature, as well as in the public interest. Multi-isotope datasets carried out during the WEAPON project will contribute to debates about the emergence of permanent inequalities and the role of migration, resource scarcity and climate change in violence in prehistoric times and beyond. This MSCA-IF action has also allowed the Fellow to consolidate her leadership, interdisciplinarity and critical thinking skills as well as her expertise on new methodologies, and helped build up a solid collaborative network with different European leading research institutions.
Figure 1. Aerial view of tomb 124 from Achenheim, France (Photo: Ph. Lefranc, INRAP, 2016).
Figure 2. Biochemistry Unit at the LAMPEA, CNRS, France (Photo: G. André, 2016).