Outline carving of a standing person, the head not depicted or worn away, on a rough piece of grey stone.

A warrior is depicted on a stone monument in the prehistoric town of La Hoya, which was sacked in the fourth or third century BC. Credit: T. Fernández-Crespo et al./Antiquity

Archaeology

A bustling town’s annihilation is frozen in time

Ruins and human bones in Spain capture a prosperous market town on the day when it was burnt and its inhabitants slaughtered.

A baby, a child only a few years old, a teenage girl adorned with bracelets: these are some of the people killed and left where they lay in a prehistoric town, testament to a massacre more than 2,300 years ago.

The settlement of La Hoya, in what is now Spain, was discovered in 1935, but has been little studied. Teresa Fernández-Crespo at the University of Oxford, UK, and her colleagues analysed human bones found at La Hoya, identifying the remains of 13 people, ranging from an infant to adults.

The bones bore cut marks suggesting that the attackers had amputated limbs and decapitated at least one person. Some of the dead were apparently attacked from behind. No weapons were found with the bodies to indicate that they had tried to defend themselves, and the bones showed evidence of burning. The authors think many more remains are undiscovered.

After the massacre, La Hoya was abandoned. The remains suggest that prehistoric peoples in the region were capable of extreme, organized violence — long before the arrival of the famously violent Romans.