Throughout human history, farmers have always been seen to be more peaceful than nomads and hunters. That stereotype took a big hit recently when archeologists digging in Chile’s Atacama Desert uncovered evidence that the first horticulturalists in the desert were of the violent type – 21% of the adult remains found suffered physical trauma and half of those died due to violent causes … primarily bashed-in skulls. What could have made farming in the Neolithic transition period between 1000 BCE and 600 CE so cutthroat?
"In this extreme desert, farming was dramatically restricted and confined to valley terraces, quebradas, and oases, with these pockets of land separated by extensive sterile interfluvial pampas that dominated the landscape."
The research paper published in the Journal of Anthropological Archaeology, explains the obvious – the Atacama Desert is one of the worst places in the world for farming – the narrow plateau on the Pacific coast west of the Andes Mountains is the driest nonpolar desert in the world, the only true desert to receive less precipitation than the polar deserts and the largest fog desert in the world. It’s so desolate, NASA has used it for Mars expedition simulations. First author and anthropologist Vivien Standen from the University of Tarapacá in Chile, draws the obvious conclusion for Science Alert:
"Away from the fertile coast, moving out from these productive oases meant facing barren landscapes without water and resources for subsistence .. This new socio-cultural framework and land use could have triggered social tensions, conflict, and violence among groups investing in a horticultural lifestyle."
OK, competition for scarce resources, made worse by hunger and thirst, often leads to conflict. However, the remains found at the site revealed signs of horrific violence – generally focused on the head.
“Some individuals exhibited severe high impact fractures of the cranium that caused massive destruction of the face and neurocranium, with cranio-facial disjunction and outflow of brain mass."
The archeologists uncovered the weapons used for head-bashing -- maces, wooden sticks, batons, and arrowed projectiles. (Grisly photos here.) While the remains in this ancient cemetery were over 2,000 years old, the extreme dryness kept them well preserved, with some still having hair and soft tissue. The area wasn’t always so dry -- the desert's Azapa Valley was once one of the most fertile valleys in northern Chile. However, climate change (you knew it was coming) due to the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) made water and good soil scarce. Adding to that, the study suggests local leaders tried to expand their territory, or just hold on to what they had, by warring with other leaders – although the strontium isotopes showed that the fighting was local. The end result is a lot of dead farmers with smashed-in skulls and a barren desert inhospitable to farming.
Climate change drove farmers to kill each other 2,000 years ago. As in every Frankenstein movie, when the farmers start gathering up their pitchforks and ax handles, it’s already too late.