Head-bashing hostilities haunted the Middle East long before the region's current conflicts arose. Skulls of people who occupied the lands of Israel and the West Bank over the last 6,000 years display a consistently high rate of serious injuries.
These head wounds typically were inflicted in small-scale brawls, not wars, say anthropologist Israel Hershkovitz of Tel Aviv University and his colleagues.
Skull injuries vary in frequency from about 1 percent to 25 percent at ancient sites around the world. Among human skulls previously excavated in Israel and the West Bank, 25 percent of individuals had suffered severe head wounds, whether they lived during the Copper Age or as recently as a century ago, the researchers report online July 11 in the International Journal of Osteoarcbaeology. That rate held for skulls from farming and urban populations and from societies that included Egyptians, Babylonians and Assyrians.
Hershkovitz's team, which includes Palestinian anthropologist Issa. Jubrael. Sarie of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, examined 783 skulls from old community cemeteries, excluding massacre sites and battle graves.
Some head injuries in the new study might have resulted from warfare. Instances of such damage would have been even greater had the researchers examined skulls from battle sites, comments archaeologist Augusta McMahon of the University of Cambridge in England. "Prehistory was not peaceful," says McMahon, who is directing excavations of a 5,800-year-old mass grave in Syria.
For ancient populations that were armed mainly with clubs, injuries caused by one-on-one fights or warfare are difficult to distinguish. "A mace blow received from a neighbor during an argument and a mace blow received from a foreign enemy in battle look the same on a skull," McMahon says.