History of War: Ancient Bones From German Battlefield Suggest Soldiers Traveled Far Distances to Fight

The Tollense Battlefield. Stefan Sauer for the Tollensetal project

An ancient battle north of Berlin has left many mysteries, but now we are closer to understanding one. Where did the soldiers come from? With no ancient dog tags to identify them and their homelands, archaeologists were baffled.

Now, chemical analysis of those remains suggests soldiers came from hundreds of miles away to partake in the conflict, LiveScience reported Monday.

In 1250 B.C., what could have been thousands of people fought on The Tollense Battlefield in present-day Germany. Archaeologists started exploring the site in 2007, and found the remains of horses, military equipment and people, mostly men between 20 and 40 years old. While excavators have only found the remains of 140 people to date, they suggest that this is only a fraction of the number of people who went to war, as the others either survived, were carried home to be buried, or were lost to time and scavengers.

In a study published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences, researchers examined the isotope makeup of the bones. They recorded different levels of strontium, lead, oxygen and carbon isotopes in different bones. These chemical compounds reveal the compounds in the food that the people they belonged to used to eat. Different compounds come from different soils, and different soils come from different places. That means that you can generally tell the region where someone lived by matching the isotopes in the bones to the soil. You can even tell if a person has moved throughout their life by examining the changes in the makeup of their teeth as they grew.

While differences in soil are not so distinct that you could find the exact latitude and longitude where someone came from, you could generally find the region where their food was grown. The study found that the non-local warriors came from the south, including southern Germany and central Europe. This makes sense as they also found central European-style arrowheads on the field, and even embedded in bones.

Interestingly, the chemical profiles closely resembled those from remains found at Wittstock in warriors who died during the more recent 30-Years War. Trained mercenary soldiers from all over Europe fought at Wittstock, and archaeologists say this suggests that this implies fighters at Tollense were trained, as well. All signs point to this dispute being of an important origin, as opposed to local farmers simply trying to defend their land.

Some important questions remain unanswered about the battle at Tollense river: What were people fighting over? Why would they come so far to engage in war? Archaeologists note that the river was part of an important north-south trade route, but other than that, the intent of the battle remains a mystery