March 25, 2016

Bronze Age war in northern Germany

Slaughter at the bridge: Uncovering a colossal Bronze Age battle
About 3200 years ago, two armies clashed at a river crossing near the Baltic Sea. The confrontation can’t be found in any history books—the written word didn’t become common in these parts for another 2000 years—but this was no skirmish between local clans. Thousands of warriors came together in a brutal struggle, perhaps fought on a single day, using weapons crafted from wood, flint, and bronze, a metal that was then the height of military technology.


In 1996, an amateur archaeologist found a single upper arm bone sticking out of the steep riverbank—the first clue that the Tollense Valley, about 120 kilometers north of Berlin, concealed a gruesome secret. A flint arrowhead was firmly embedded in one end of the bone, prompting archaeologists to dig a small test excavation that yielded more bones, a bashed-in skull, and a 73-centimeter club resembling a baseball bat. The artifacts all were radiocarbon-dated to about 1250 B.C.E., suggesting they stemmed from a single episode during Europe’s Bronze Age.


Northern Europe in the Bronze Age was long dismissed as a backwater, overshadowed by more sophisticated civilizations in the Near East and Greece. Bronze itself, created in the Near East around 3200 B.C.E., took 1000 years to arrive here. But Tollense’s scale suggests more organization—and more violence—than once thought. “We had considered scenarios of raids, with small groups of young men killing and stealing food, but to imagine such a big battle with thousands of people is very surprising,” says Svend Hansen, head of the German Archaeological Institute’s (DAI’s) Eurasia Department in Berlin. The well-preserved bones and artifacts add detail to this picture of Bronze Age sophistication, pointing to the existence of a trained warrior class and suggesting that people from across Europe joined the bloody fray.


There was reason for skepticism. Before Tollense, direct evidence of large-scale violence in the Bronze Age was scanty, especially in this region. Historical accounts from the Near East and Greece described epic battles, but few artifacts remained to corroborate these boastful accounts. “Even in Egypt, despite hearing many tales of war, we never find such substantial archaeological evidence of its participants and victims,” UCD’s Molloy says.


Ancient DNA could potentially reveal much more: When compared to other Bronze Age samples from around Europe at this time, it could point to the homelands of the warriors as well as such traits as eye and hair color. Genetic analysis is just beginning, but so far it supports the notion of far-flung origins. DNA from teeth suggests some warriors are related to modern southern Europeans and others to people living in modern-day Poland and Scandinavia. “This is not a bunch of local idiots,” says University of Mainz geneticist Joachim Burger. “It’s a highly diverse population.”


bellbeakerblogger said...

Totally upends the common working narrative of the Bronze Age Collapse.

This battle could literally precede all hell breaking loose throughout the Mediterranean world. It also could have been entirely political with no other variables.

eurologist said...

We have discussed this site in the past. For example, I have remarked that as expected, horses (this far north) apparently played little role in these movements and battles.

From some materials found, there was prior indication that the intruders came from the south (southeast). It is good to see that finally DNA analyses are applied to these rich finds.

Nirjhar007 said...

It was an era of Epic battles ( 1500-1000 BC) , India (Mahabharata), Greece (Troy) and now this!.

Unknown said...


Except that this was a real battle, and the other two are mythological.
I am never sure if you just make up things as you go along.

Olympus Mons said...

No. Not Southeast. He says Some were from East with genome like polish and russian (R1a kinda?) and some were from south like Italy (R1b Kinda?). By Italy I assume the same kind of genome that today cluster Portuguese, Spanish and north Italian?
So, We have Bell beaker descendants genome battling Corded ware Genome. It really must have been a full fledge long time grudge o bring all those people into battle.

eurologist said...

Olympus Mons,

I was referring to an earlier nitrogen isotope study, which concluded that one of apparently two groups of men had most likely had a diet of millet, which does not grow in this region, but was prevalent in the South and Southeast (e.g, just north of the Alps or east of that). Some of the bronze needles found also support such an origin.

The region roughly corresponds to part of the larger area in which most researchers assume the Proto-Germanic language coalesced during roughly that time (northern edge of Urnfield culture), culminating with the advent of the Germanic Jastorf culture, there. There are also longstanding, continuous cultural interactions with Scandinavia, but also trade relations with what is now southern Germany and Czech lands, and from there into the Mediterranean region.

We know from ancient and modern DNA that the ratio of male haplogroups R1b, I, and R1a in this region, and their general gradient from the Rhine River to the Vistula, has not changed dramatically over at least the past 3,500 years. This battle was around 1,250 BCE and apparently a conflict between a "standing army" made up of professional soldiers of widely mixed origins, and people from the south or southeast (as compared to northern Germany - we will know more precisely after the DNA analysis has been completed) - but in any case 1,000 - 2,000 years past the Bell Beaker and Corded Ware phenomena.

As I alluded to before, the ratio of remains from horses to men is small (~1 : 25*) and indicates that, as I have always argued, horses were rare and expensive to maintain, this far north, and as such at most an expression of elite status or used to carry dignitaries or to enable them easier command.

* Perhaps much less, given how easy it is to kill horses; also, horses would have been useless in battle in the swampy river valley.

D. B. Light said...

There are some really nice photos of the artifacts and remains in this blog post.

Fanty said...

" and some were from south like Italy (R1b Kinda?)."

Did they actually say the southern people had R1b? Did they mention Y-DNA at all?

I thought the labeling was done because of autosomal DNA. That there had been some whos autosomal DNA matches modern Scandinavians. Some, whos autosomal DNA matches modern Poles and some whos autosomal DNA matches modern "southern Europeans" and later it was mentioned as "possibly Italians".

What I read about Bell Beaker autosomal DNA from the Bronce Age was that Bronce Age GErman bellbeakers match modern Germans, Dutch, Danish and English people. (not Italians or Spanish) and Bronce Age Corded Ware from Germany match Russians, Balts, Finns and Prussian-Germans (the ones who matched these, apeared like recently admixed people) best.

Unknown said...

Discussions of the Tollense battle largely ignore the known demographic makeup of the region prior to 815 AD. Before Charlemagne, as well as long after his death, the region in question was populated exclusively by Slavs. Despite the systematic and genocidal suppression of the Slavic (Serbian/Lusatian) cultural identity, perpetrated by Frankish/German invaders who occupied the region in the centuries following Charlemagne's death, the Slavic character of the region is evident to this day from toponyms (Wiligrad - "Large City" or "White City", Schwerin, pommern, Gnevkow, Sarow, Burow, Neetzow, ...) and from the persistence of the autochthonous Serbian ethnic element in the province. Knowing those facts and interpreting the combatants' genomic similarity to modern-day Poles or Russians as "far-flung origins" violates the Occam's razor. There is nothing "far-flung" about Slavs in Mecklenburg. It is far more parsimonious to interpret the Slavic genomic component in the light of the well documented, continuous, and overwhelming historical Slavic presence in the area. One does not need to go all the way to Russia to find Slavs - many present-day locals directly descend from the Slavic Bodrici (Obotrites), whether they remember it or have been assimilated into the German cultural milieu. Parsimony thus dictates that the Slavic genomic signature represents the local defenders.

Furthermore, in the context of the events in question (rather than the current political delineations), placing the battlefield in "northern Germany" is as accurate as calling Priam's Troy "Turkish" or referring to the Serbian Gracanica monastery as "Kosovar." It makes far more sense to designate the battlefield as western Slavic.