Ancient Graves Suggest Revenge Killings Are Older Than We Thought

Strange grave sites suggest burial was a way to continue cycle of violence.
November 1, 2016, 11:00am
Bodies in graves. Image: University of Arizona

The University of Arizona researchers noticed something strange about the ancient grave they were examining in the Sonoran Desert. The deceased had died brutally—but that wasn't the weird part. The body had been thrown in the grave haphazardly, as if the man meant nothing to the gravediggers.

The prehistoric clues led them to one conclusion with a surprisingly modern theme: Blood feuds.

Blood feuds were cycles of violence where families were pitted against other families and eventually established cultural divisions—like mob families or the Montagues and Capulets in "Romeo and Juliet". And in a recent study published in Current Anthropology this month, researchers think they found evidence of them at burial sites in Southwest US and northern Mexico from civilizations that lives between 2100 B.C. to 50 A.D.

The archaeological evidence could be early examples of revenge as a way to exhibit dominance, creating a cycle where families and societies fought each other through generations—much like today's gang violence.

"With some of the issues that we're seeing today—like increased violence and murders in a lot of cities, police shootings, retaliation upon police—a lot of kids are growing up in a culture of violence in certain communities, and they're learning different values on how to interact with their environment because of the disadvantages that they have," said James Watson, a University of Arizona anthropology professor, in a statement.

"They gain status because they're good at being violent; that's how you gain respect, then along with that comes advantages—wealth, women and offspring, potentially. There is a biological imperative to signal that they are worthy of the status they're trying to earn."

The discovery of skeletons with broken skulls and punctured bones indicated they were killed violently, according to the study. And these bodies were discovered thrown head-first into graves or generally tossed into graves, which indicates no care was taken for a ritual burial.

This could suggest the denial of a traditional burial, which could indicate the person was hated by the individual burying them, the researchers said. That could signify a blood feud among families within a specific tribe since these cultures would typically bury their dead in a flexed, fetal position on their sides with special items. These graves didn't have any items alongside the bones.

"These people were buried very differently than the rest of the community, and we're trying to understand why that is," Watson said. "We're arguing that the way they were tossed into these pits is a form of continued desecration of the body. It's moving from violence on the living individual, through to the process of death, to violence on the corpse."

The Arizona researchers think that denying the families the ability to bury their loved ones was a way to send a message about the deceased person's status in the society and the increased status of the person who killed him. But at the same time, such ill treatment of these bodies invited revenge from their families.

"This was right when agriculture came into the area, and these were the earliest villages, so we think that some of this violence comes from growing pains, as villages are established and people are claiming territory and farming the desert river valleys," Watson said. "Social tensions develop between communities, or even within communities, and end up boiling over into violence."

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