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Human Skulls Mounted on Stakes Found at 8,000-Year-Old Burial Site in Sweden (gizmodo.com)
94 points by curtis 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 51 comments

Ancient people almost universally suffered from severe childhood trauma and abuse. A majority must have lived with deep psychological problems. They did all kinds of messed up stuff, including perpetuating the cycle of abuse all the way to today. Impaling a few skulls is (sadly) the least of it.

Children being born today are some of the first to have parents that even understand what child abuse is. Which means it's possible that there will be a drastic reduction over the next generations.

It's likely that this would result in a markedly different global society. Maybe even one that eliminates most forms of abuse and needless suffering.

Dan Carlin, as ever, is worth a listen on this subject[1]. People until very recently lived with a level of casual violence that would be unheard of to most of us today. I'm not sure the modern pampering and preciousness of children is exceptionally healthy, but it is certainly different than ancient, medieval or early modern conceptions of childhood.

[1] https://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-31-blitz-...

In addition, there is a new Hardcore History episode titled "Painfotainment". It's the only episode, to my knowledge, that comes with a "viewer discretion is advised" warning at the beginning.

Yes! Also James Burke, who inspired a lot of Carlin's thinking. They talked on his show at least once:


Another subject Burke talks about is the exciting idea the 99% can actually contribute to society now, because education and science is no longer the exclusive domain of the wealthy.

More of the 99%'s brainpower coming online could fully explain the cycle of accelerating technology development that we're observing.

That's rapidly sliding back in America as higher (grad) education is increasingly becoming a good idea for only the independently wealthy. (That, and people in search of citizenship.)

Suffering from "psychological problems" isn't a prerequisite for mounting human skulls on stakes. It would only be true in a society where it goes against the cultural norms - similar to how eating an animal would be a sign of mental distress in a hypothetical vegan culture of the year 3,000, but certainly not in most of today's world.

It's possible that those people indeed had "deep psychological problems" (though you have presented no evidence) - but the connection you are making isn't there.

Nothing new under the sun: post-traumatic stress disorders in the ancient world.


This paper provides evidence that ancient people also suffered from PTSD, disproving your argument that cultural norms are capable of overriding human biology and psychology.

This paper is about PTSD occurring from war. Unless you can provide sources indicating that PTSD and other psychological perturbations resulting from childhood trauma are widespread in ancient societies, your evidence is irrelevant to the discussion.

Also your argument that human biology and psychology override social norms is unfounded. That is context-dependent, and cultural norms are the case specifically to influence biology and psychology! For example, what we eat and how we eat is directly related to cultural norms, and what we eat directly influences our biology. Over the course of time, our bodies compensate and adapt to our eating patterns as a society, influencing both prevalence and development of disease, as well as how we respond psychologically to cultural changes in diet. The dynamic between culture, psychology, and biology is extremely complex, and it cannot be definitively stated that the body wins over the mind, in any case.

edit: a more specific example of the kind of dynamic I'm referring to would be restrictive eating disorders. Eating is both a psychological and biological response. We eat because we nourish our bodies, our bodies let us know when we need to eat by sending signals to our brain, which we interpret as a kind of discomfort or pain. The pain, psychologically, distresses us even apart from the physical sensation. However, due to cultural developments in the way we view bodies, many people completely override their biological pain response in order to achieve what they perceive to be a cultural norm. You may say this proves your deducted result, but I would argue that in many ways the cultural norm can be perceived to encourage eating disorders. Yet, somehow, those with restrictive eating disorders are still considered perturbed. The relationship is complex. Up until very recently it has been completely normal for models and entertainers to employ very restrictive and unhealthy regimens for their bodies. It is the culture in that aspect of society to do so. In this way, psychology and biology override social norms, but simultaneously social norms are overriding biology and psychology. How would you classify this case based upon your current argument?

I'm curious why you think this. Do you believe the same about other mammals? Do wolves almost universally suffer childhood trauma and abuse? How about apes? If you claim it's just us, what do you hypothesize is the reason?

Does your assertion apply to isolated hunter/gatherer tribes with almost no contact with the rest of the world?

I don't claim to know the answer to this. Certainly it seems like the lives of pre-agrarian people would have been challenging. But on its face it seems wrong to claim that our ancestors would have "universally suffered from severe childhood trauma and abuse".

Could it be your modern viewpoint leads you to label as "abuse" the normal challenges all animals face? I'm curious how you define "abuse".

This coming from a user named "solipsism".

What do you mean by "you"?

I have no doubt that better parenting is the secret, preventative solution to many of the problems in this world. I think there is a feedback loop, though -- the problems in this world may cause poor parenting, which in turn cause more problems.

> Children being born today are some of the first to have parents that even understand what child abuse is

I disagree. Even the most base animals have instincts to care for their young, no? I find it hard to believe that all parents, before a certain time, were unaware of abusive/non-abusive behaviors.

I find it more likely that there is a subconscious instinct to protect one's offspring, and this instinct may exist in people to different extents.

Evolution selects for child-rearing practices that ensure that offspring will live to reproduce -- not necessarily child practices that are optimal for the offsprings mental well being.

Furthermore, there may have been a time in the past where evolutionarily selected child-rearing practices that today we would consider abhorrent were actually necessarily to ensure survival. In a brutal world you need to be brutal to survive and one way to ensure that your offspring is brutal is to well... brutalize them.

Our western world is far less brutal a place than it was even fifty years ago and that may necessitate developing child-rearing methods that are counter to our evolutionary ingrained instincts.

What we consider to be “mental well being” is also a product of evolution, and there is certainly correlation between mental health and ability to survive. It’s unlikely that evolution ever favored practices that go strongly against mental health, though it is possible that the criteria for mental well being has also changed by evolution.

Whether today we consider ancient practices abhorrent or not is a different matter though. In general those can be explained by cultural differences, and there is no need to invoke mental health. Improvements in psychological well being isn’t universally correlated with increased pacifism, as some people here seem to think. Modern western civilization is a product of very specific historical events - not a progression toward our "evolutionary ingrained instincts". If anything, judging by the vast majority of human history - our "evolutionary ingrained instincts" are far more tuned toward violence than what is considered acceptable today in the western world.

A mentally healthy individual in modern US would act very differently from a mentally healthy individual in ancient Rome.

That's a good point, and I think there are definitely things we do today which we will look back on in disgust, too.

Minoans sacrificed children in at least one of the palaces and practiced ritual cannibalism, according to recent finds. Romans destroyed the site of Carthage with great care, but you have to wonder what the myth of child sacrifices in the brazen bull really means.

> you have to wonder what the myth of child sacrifices in the brazen bull really means.

The stories of sacrifice to Moloch are supported by archeological finds of child remains around Carthage.


  ritual cannibalism
This brings to mind one of my favorite reads:


It's no where near clear that a civilization practicing brutal rituals is evidence of "near universal" childhood abuse. Most children were not sacrificed. In fact, most children likely never saw a sacrifice. But even if they did, that doesn't rise to the level of traumatic abuse (except perhaps in modern sensibilities).

You can add the Kingdom of Judah to that list (look up Topheth).

What an oddly specific viewpoint to look at people 8000 years ago purely through the lens of child abuse.

When a lion kills his rival's children is that 'child abuse'?

We have evolved culturally that we now have a notion such as child abuse. To look backwards (emotionally) through modern ideas like 'human rights', 'child abuse', is not a useful model (imo)

Well said. My grandmother died at 95 in 1995. Around 1910, when she was orphaned (both parents died of tuberculosis) and had to take care of her two younger sisters, she was shuttled from relative to relative. When I tried, several times, to talk to her about her early life, she would just cry and say not a word. No one in the family knew what she and her sisters went through (they were already dead at the time I tried to get this info). She lived through the depression and that wasn't even a blip on her emotional radar. She'd talk about that all day long. Her youngest sister was mentally ill later in life, and I now wonder if it wasn't due to some horrible abuse the three of them suffered as children.

See http://www.geocities.ws/kidhistory/modesw.htm

Incidentally, I always remember Richard Kulisz when I think of childrearing modes.

That child abuse thing wasn't that common at all and don't act like today's people care about their kids more. You can see serious child abuse in the poorer parts of the society every day.

Not only was it common then, it's still common now [0].


I realize it's attractive to characterize backward, dysfunctional societies as primitive and our own practices as evolved, but it's not nearly as simple as that. Child rape being common in one fucked up society does not point to it being common in the hunter/gatherer tribes of our ancestors.

You think the systematic abuse of children is limited to other parts of the world or that we've "evolved"? You might be surprised how "fucked up" can be found just about everywhere you look. [0]


> Children being born today

If they even make it that far. We're not so civilized after all...

A higher proportion of conceived children are born today than ever in the past. It’s even starker if you look at the proportion of children surviving to age 5. Pregnancy, delivery, and early childhood are dramatically safer now than they used to be.

The best way to push that proportion higher still is via education of girls and women (and career prospects for them), universal high-quality sex education, high quality women’s healthcare, easy access to birth control, generous parental leave policies, and state-subsidized childcare and other public assistance programs for the poor. Empirically, illegalizing and restricting access to abortions has very slight impact on the number of abortions, but serves to make them dramatically less safe and more expensive.

In places where there has been a regression in women’s health and teenager’s sex education (e.g. Texas), we have seen a rise in unwanted pregnancies an increase in infant and mother mortality, and worsening conditions for small children.

There are 50 million abortions worldwide every year, and many of those are selective killing of baby girls for their gender. We're living in an ongoing holocaust that's been normalized.

> Ancient people almost universally suffered from severe childhood trauma and abuse.

I certainly think it was exactly opposite. In todays world we don't even know our neighbors names, not to mention what's happening in their children's bedrooms. And if anyone gets in trouble, its after long court battles with Child Protection Services, etc.

I have a hard time believing that back in the ancient times of tribes, clans and communities gathering together forming micro-societies, I doubt you would go on for too long without punishment of some sort, had other tribe members knew you are abusing your child(ren).

The problem with your reasoning is that "abuse" was either defined very loosely or not at all. It wouldn't have been uncommon to beat your children. It wouldn't have been uncommon to rape children.

What happens when everyone in your society thinks rape and wife beating and alcoholism is just a normal evening?

Can you give example of any ancient culture or tribe that we know such behavior was normal, obvious, or greatly tolerated?

The Greeks and Makedonians were renowned for their membership in NAMBLA.

Women in the Middle East are "honor killed" after they are raped. The god of the Israelites explicitly permits the Israelites to kill their own children if they are disobedient.

i doubt there was a stigma against abusing your kids. plenty of people still think beating your kids is fine.

There were probably always stigmas against abusing your kids, but cultural standards of "abuse" varied. That still is, in fact, the case: there's considerable conflict in today's society -- not just globally but even within, say, the US -- over what constitutes child abuse, where what one subculture calls "abuse" another will say is not only not abuse, but that its absence is "abuse".

There is a lot of recent research showing hunter gatherers were not as passive as once thought. Quite a few discoveries of mass graves from attacks on rival tribes and things like this are new in our understanding of ancient peoples. This is a neat find.

6000BC might mark the invasion of proto-PIE groups via Anatolia? See Vinca culture.

No different than today.

I think it was a response to how often we have heard that peaceful hunter societies _were_ different from today

Put a killing tool into a human's hands and they will find a way to use it. Modern day equivalent: drone strikes.

I can appreciate how European Mesolithic cultures dealt with the corrupt CEOs of their big banks.

You're sort of implying that "free riders" were less of a problem earlier in our history because aggressive coalitions of lower ranked members were able to force the hierarchy more in favour of egalitarianism. But that is hardly supported by the facts. Kings are an obvious counter-example. The caste system in India is another good example of a structure that were very robust (for many many many years) against any kind of aggressive revolution from below.

> Displaying decapitated heads on wooden stakes is something you might expect from the Middle Ages …

I dunno, I tend to think of Amazonian headshrinking: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shrunken_head

> Historical examples include European colonists mounting the skulls of murdered indigenous peoples, or indigenous peoples using skulls in both burial rituals and as trophy displays.

Ah, so Europeans mount the skulls of murder victims, while indigenous peoples bury them, or keep them as trophies.

What a very interesting viewpoint on human history prevails amongst the editors at Gizmodo.

You can take the Gizmodo out of Gawker, but you can’t take the Gawker out of Gizmodo.

Probably just children's toys.

Blog spam. Go here instead: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/antiquity/article/ke...

It isn't a particularly long or difficult read.

I think calling it blog spam is a little bit unfair. The Gizmodo article is about 1/4 the size of the paper, but nevertheless reads like the writer actually read the original paper and tried to fairly summarize it.

But what can summarize the Gizmodo article in 1/4th of its size?

Parasitism all the way down!

I wonder how do such news get to line one of this website? An algo or actual human moderation?

Because people found it interesting.

Also it's against HN policy to moan / comment about why non-tech / VC news features on the front page.

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