But at the end of its history, for a period of no more than 50 years and possibly much less, Herxheim was transformed into something else. After about 4950 BCE the ditches were no longer cleaned out, but were intentionally filled in. And not with dirt -- they were filled with a mixture of human bones and artifacts, obviously the remains of great rituals. The pottery did not all come from Herxheim; there are several varieties, some apparently from sites 400 kilometers away. Herxheim must have been some kind of regional center, drawing people and offerings from a wide area. Both the bones and the artifacts had been ritually "killed" before they went into the pit. The pots were smashed, and all sorts of strange things were done to the bones. Among other things, facial bones were smashed beyond recognition, “giving an impression of the destruction of individual identity, a kind of psychic violence against the person."
Bone modifications indicate that the human individuals were first butchered. For this stage, the analogy between the treatment of the bodies and typical butchery techniques is very well illustrated by the systematic destruction of the transverse processes on thoracic vertebrae on the one hand, and of the posterior parts of the ribs (head, neck and tubercle) on the other hand. This pattern is quite similar to the technique used to separate the ribs from the vertebral column observed in animal butchery. After this, heads were skinned following a recurrent pattern: a long incision was made from the root of the nose to the nape of the neck in order to cut the scalp and pull it aside. Then the temporalis muscles were removed from the cranial vaults and the skulls were broken, perhaps to extract the brain, but carefully so as to preserve the vault. Cut marks and scrape marks on the lingual surface of the mandible show that the tongue was also cut out, while separation of the skull from the mandible caused further marks on the anterior and posterior edges of the ramus. Regarding other parts of the bodies, the long bones of the limbs were intensively defleshed and their marrow cavity exposed, probably by a hammer-on-anvil technique. Processing for marrow is also documented by the presence of scrape marks in the marrow cavity on two fragments. All these observations are similar to those observed in animal butchery.Their verdict: all of these people were eaten. Whatever happened at Herxheim, it happened in a restricted period at the end of the occupation, perhaps only a few years. Boulestin and company think this is the remains of some single event, perhaps a great war. I find this argument compelling; a thousand bodies is a lot for these small-scale societies. They connect the war to a dramatic decline in the population of Europe, by a third or more, that seems to have taken place at the end of the early Neolithic. The general explanation for this fall-off is that the initial Neolithic settlement of Europe took place in an unsustainable way. The way early Neolithic people lived put too much stress on some key resource -- fertile soil, perhaps, or wild game -- so once the continent was full the human ecosystem teetered on the brink of catastrophe, and all it took was a few bad harvests to push the whole society over the edge.
Herxheim is not the only site of this period where such strange deposits of human bones have been found. Possible victims of human sacrifice and cannibalism have also been found at Talheim and Vaihingen in southwestern Germany and in the Virgins' Cave in Bavaria. At Asparn-Schletz in Austria the bones were found in a ditch, just as at Herxheim. The meaning of all this is disputed, and some archaeologists do not accept the theory of mass human sacrifice. But I believe it is the most likely explanation, and its coincidence with the population decline argues for a widespread, traumatic event.
A lot happened in the distant past. We may have trouble recollecting those distant days, but if we work hard enough at it we may be able to resurrect some of the events that dominated peoples' lives long ago.