THE rise of agriculture in northwest Europe may have spelled the beginning of warfare and violence in the neolithic era – a period previously thought to be “marked by peaceful co-operation”, an Edinburgh University study has found.

The research suggests that the rise of growing crops and herding animals as a way of life, replacing hunting and gathering, may have laid the foundations for formalised warfare.

The findings come after researchers used bioarchaeological techniques to study human skeletal remains from sites in Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Spain and Sweden.

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Of the skeletal remains of more than 2300 early farmers from 180 different sites – dating from around 6000BC to 2000BC – more than one in 10 displayed weapon injuries, potentially caused by frequent blows to the head by blunt instruments or stone axes.

Dr Linda Fibiger, senior lecturer in osteoarchaeology at Edinburgh University, said: “Human bones are the most direct and least biased form of evidence for past hostilities and our abilities to distinguish between fatal injuries as opposed to post-mortem breakage have improved drastically in recent years, in addition to differentiating accidental injuries from weapon-based assaults.”

The team – from the Universities of Edinburgh, Bournemouth and Lund in Sweden, and the OsteoArchaeological Research Centre in Germany – also found several examples of penetrative injuries, thought have been caused by arrows.

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Researchers believe the findings could even suggest larger-scale violence and the destruction of entire communities, as some of the injuries were “linked to mass burials”.

The peaceful nature of neolithic European society has been the subject of heated debate among pre-historians, as more evidence suggesting violence has slowly emerged since the 1980s, starting with the discovery of an early neolithic mass grave at Talheim, Germany in 1983.

Dr Martin Smith, of Bournemouth University’s department of archaeology and anthropology, said: “The study raises the question as to why violence seems to have been so prevalent during this period.

“The most plausible explanation may be that the economic base of society had changed.

"With farming came inequality and those who fared less successfully appear at times to have engaged in raiding and collective violence as an alternative strategy for success, with the results now increasingly being recognised archaeologically.”