A Humanistic Approach to Warfare

by Morgan Phillips

This paper looks at democratization and international conflict by applying a bioarchaeological approach and using a humanistic lens. The author explores the conflicts caused by democratization by looking at the intimately personal experiences of warfare that show up on skeletons who endured warfare as a result of democratization. Democratization often entangles multiple powers in war, and the differing tactics each uses to deal with war reveal the uniqueness of the wartime experience. Taking a humanistic approach allows for the personal stories of the skeletal remains to come alive and reveals each one’s individual experience of war. This paper puts the focus on the individual and attempts to show that even as war itself is a common facet of societies around the world, the experience of war cannot be standardized or homogenized. Here, the author discusses five bioarchaeological case studies using a humanistic lens in an attempt to highlight diverse wartime experiences. The wartime experiences of an Ancient Nemea man, a Gran Canaria citizen, the Cepin population, the Turkish akinji light cavalry, German soldiers from the Thirty Years War, and German soldiers from World War I are explored. From this analysis, a common theme emerges in which the experience of warfare is a truly personal one.

Conflict has pervaded human societies for thousands of years. History has shown there persists a unique relationship between democratization and warfare, which is characterized by the trend that with the onset of democratization, international conflict is often a consequence. For the purposes of this essay, democratization is defined as state or county that invades, attempts to colonize, or attempts to impose its beliefs onto another. Under the umbrella of democratization is invasion, desire for territorial gain, colonization, and use of force to impose onto another area. A bioarchaeological approach using a humanistic lens to focus on democratization provides evidence beyond that which a place experiencing any period of violence can. Generally, with democratization, there are two powers or nations at war with one another; a larger power imposing violence on a weaker power, which provides a picture of the differing war tactics, fighting methods, soldier training, battlefield experience, etc. Studying places without democratization tends to offer a one-sided view because wars are happening amongst the people of one nation (as in civil war within a nation). The act of democratization pits two different nations against one another, offering opposing viewpoints of the same war. From a bioarchaeology standpoint, war resulting from democratization expands the knowledge we are able to learn about a single war.

Although it has long been conceived that the “spread of democratization” acted as “a way to foster peace,” Clare (2007) finds that “democratizing states seem to have a higher level of conflict involvement” (Clare, 2007: p. 259). He also finds that in the transition to democracy, countries become more war prone and aggressive (Clare, 2007). This aggression stems from the rocky and unstable transition to a democracy, which often leads to nations going on the “warpath” as they enter “the era of mass politics” (Mansfield & Synder, 1995: p. 6). The volatile nature of democratization comes from a clash of politics and the encroachment of one country into territory of another. This volatile nature has been seen in the colonization and conquest of numerous territories throughout the centuries, world wars, takeover of governments, governmental collapse, and destruction of countries. With democratization, there seems to be multiple clashes: the clash between strong and weak nations, the clash between religions, the clash between ways of life, the clash between ideas, etc. Such friction leads to war, which is why democratization and warfare are inexplicably linked. These acts incite outrage within the overrun country, which leads to war.

The present study examines the bioarchaeological study of warfare using a humanistic approach. A bioarchaeological manner allows for studying “many facets…of human conflict and violence, including its proximate and ultimate cause, pattern, and distribution, relationship to other social phenomenon, and antiquity within the human species” (Stojanowski & Duncan, 2015: p. 54). The humanstic approach provides for the study and exploration of the “connections, differences, and shared experiences of human lives” as well as looking at “individuals’ and cultures’ experiences in the past, on an emotional and phenomenological level” (Stojanowski & Duncan, 2015: p. 57). Bioarchaeological studies of warfare that implement a humanistic approach ensure “the public face of warfare and conflict studies” is not left behind (Stojanowski & Duncan, 2015: p. 54).

Using this approach, bioarchaeologists obtain varied and diverse examples of human experiences in warfare. This is particularly true of countries associated with democratization. As democratization leads to a higher prevalence of warfare, such cases often provide numerous experiences of warfare societies had. Even though war was increasingly common in areas associated with democratization, the experiences of it was unique to each society or individual. We begin to see that though war is a universal constant, the experience of war is varied and different for those enduring it.

Thus, this paper focuses on unique, individual experiences of warfare that exist in relation to democratization. Examples are taken from bioarchaeological case studies of warfare that implement the humanistic approach to highlight the diversity of the experiences had during war. These case studies document wars that took place during or because of democratization, and each case study recounts the international conflict that occurred in consequence. From these case studies emerges the theme that experiences of warfare are unique to the individual creating different perspectives of warfare that cannot be generalized for an entire society. The research reveals a sharp distinction in the experiences of warfare among the individual demonstrating that no individual member of a society endured warfare in the same ways even though warfare was a constant they all shared. The human experience of war is truly unique in its ability to differ from person to person.

Background on the Archaeology of Warfare

An attempt to understand warfare is seen in the emergence of battlefield or conflict archaeology. In this division within archaeology, warfare was interpreted based on the battlefield or battleground. The conflict archaeologists focused on the military strategy, the tactics, or the maneuvers of warfare that was evidenced by artifacts and their deposition. Essentially, the focus was on the dynamics of war (Scott and McFeaters, 2011). The result of the focus on the battlefield led to the conflict archaeologists missing the humanistic aspect of the battle. The individuals were ignored within the discussion of military strategy, weapon use, tactics, and technology.

This is where bioarchaeology steps up and argues for a focus on the individual within the study of violence and conflict. Indeed, many bioarchaeologists would take a humanistic approach when looking at skeletal remains found from a site that had evidence of conflict. The idea was that “human remains provide the most direct evidence of violence” (Martin et al., 2014: p. 3). Reconstructing the individual experience would provide a “perspective that could help uncover the motivation and functions of the aspects of warfare” (Martin et al., 2014: p.7). While human skeletal remains do provide the most “direct evidence of the type and intensity of warfare,” understanding warfare from a humanistic perspective encompasses individual-level experience found in the bones as well as group level experience found in multiple samples of remains (Martin et al., 2014: p. 141). The goal in using a humanistic approach is to “identify the consequences warfare has for a region, for a community, or for individuals” (Martin et al., 2014: p. 141). Ultimately, understanding past warfare depends on identifying the experience of the people who lived it, which is, gained by using a humanistic approach to skeletal remains.

A humanistic approach starts with seeing skeletons as the “bony diaries of people’s lives” (Martin et al., 2014: p. 180). When bioarchaeologists reconstruct the lives of people who were affected by war, they use the evidence present on bones, which provide records of their physical condition before war. Examining bones can provide information about a person including nutritional status (malnourished or well fed), activity level, or any injuries present. They can discern the events leading up to war such as whether that individual was beaten by invaders or what military weapon or tactic killed them. All of this information is culminated in life-histories, osteobiographies, or biographies of those people. A humanistic methodology requires “seeing things through the eyes of the beholder” (Burstom, 2014: p. 79). The creation of biography-like articles represents that humanistic methodology in which life-history articles provide a detailed account of life experiences from past populations to eliminate the bird’s eye view of society. In studies of warfare, the life histories of the “battered and beaten individuals” are reconstructed and bioarchaeologists walk away with the side of war that is inexplicably human and that which cannot be described solely in terms of statistics or technological factors (Martin et al., 2014: p. 180).

Furthermore, bioarchaeologists use osteobiographies, which are biographies of individuals created from the patterns found on the skeletal remains. People’s lives are interpreted based on the skeletal material found at archaeological sites. An individual’s life is constructed in terms of what his or her diet was like, activity patterns, health or well-being, injuries, etc. They often involve “expanding the analytical and interpretive scale from the grave outward to understand a person’s context in life and in death” (Stodder and Palkovich, 2015: p. 1). Osteobiographies combine individual data with context and population data to create a detailed life history of the individual. A complete picture can never be obtained from fragments of a person’s life, but osteobiographies bind them to create a broader picture, which is vital for understanding the human experience. These techniques highlight the individual experience of life and death, which puts a face on the idea of warfare. It, also, gives bioarchaeologists the ability to see the individual that is surrounded by the violence and conflict.

Bioarchaeologists utilize several tactics to draw information from skeletal remains in order to reconstruct the experience of the individual or the group when studying war from a humanistic approach. Information gleaned from these tactics are pooled to get an in-depth look at the individual. Bioarchaeologists aim to study the “presence and pattern of injuries deriving from violence” (Larsen, 2002: p. 128). A skeleton provides information about an individual’s health status, diet, stress, demographics, and behavior. Bone chemistry and patterns of wear or isotope analyses of teeth can reconstruct diet. The health status of individuals can be determined from the pattern left on bone from diseases. Physiological stress is demonstrated from signs of disruption of growth, dental caries, enamel defects, etc. Lifestyle reconstruction can be performed based on skeletal remains when they show certain patterns of wear and degeneration. Furthermore, the demographics, such as age and sex, related to an individual or group can be determined from the bones (Larsen, 2002). From this information, a skeleton transforms from a conglomerate of bones to a person with a face, a life, and a story. From a number at a grave site emerges a person living through war with plenty of stories to tell. In this way, bioarchaeologists are able to reconstruct a humanistic perspective of an individual or a group of people that can be applied to understanding warfare experiences. To be able to answer the question of how warfare is experienced, we have to be able to let the person (or rather its skeleton) to do the talking, and this can only be achieved with the intermingling of bioarchaeology and a humanistic approach.

Examples of Case Studies of the Humanistic Approach to Warfare

Bioarchaeology captures a unique humanistic view of war and how people interact with warfare. In particular, bioarchaeology that uses a humanistic approach captures the unique war experiences of societies who were being confronted with democratization. Through this humanistic approach, data from skeletal remains are transformed into the individual experience of war, including the experiences of soldiers, witnesses to invasion, raiders enacting war orders, or witnesses to colonization. Through this humanistic lens, a common theme emerges. Though war is a universal constant endured by societies all over the globe, the personal experience of war varies through time and space. No two places nor two people experience the impact of war the same. Any two people from different areas could be soldiers, yet neither would have the same experience of war. Individuals from the home-front have a different perspective of war than the soldier on the battlefield, whereas those who attack have a different experience than someone whose role is target. These stories were reconstructed from skeletons that have witnessed warfare, and the variety of experiences recreated suggest that the experience of war is not universal but extremely personal. This is evidenced from examples of bioarchaeological case studies who implement humanistic approaches as discussed below. The examples of case studies below have been chosen because of their relation to democratization, with the specific focus on 1) international conflict including warfare that rose with the advent of democratization and 2) societies that all dealt with democratization and the consequence of warfare. Even with this commonality shared amongst them, each individual differed significantly in their reaction to it and experience of it.

I begin with an experience of warfare that occurred quite early in history. This perspective of war is seen from the eyes of a single individual who witnessed the Slavic invasion of Ancient Nemea during the 6th century. Around 580 to 55 CE, Greece was invaded by the Slav and Avar raiders. The skeletal remains of a single middle-aged male may have been a witness to this invasion and the consequent abandonment of the community (Garvie-lok, 2010). Here democratization comes in the form of the Slav’s cultural connection to the Byzantine Empire who was hungry for more territory (Kennedy, 1987). Using a humanistic approach, this case study represents a citizen’s experience of war as his skeleton bears witness to the impact of war. From his skeleton, researchers found that he had sustained sharp-edged trauma to the head, but his injuries had been cleaned suggesting he had been given some form of care. Other skeletal patterns indicate his life as a member of the Early Christian farming community because they account for hard physical labor. His remains were found at the end of a stadium tunnel and were linked to the Slavic invasion based on artifacts found near the area (Garvie-lok, 2010).

Garvie-lok remarks that “in some situations a single skeleton can offer a window into one life” and that the “reconstruction of the story told by a single set of remains can provide insights into individual lives and the social and physical conditions that helped to shape them” (Garvie-lok, 2010: p. 274). With this humanistic mindset, he recreated the life of this single set of remains as a hard-working farmer living in Ancient Nemea who witnessed the Slavic invasion of his community. In his reconstruction, Garvie-lok writes of this man’s experience of war. His experience involved witnessing “significant disruption in life” that had “occurred in Nemea at the time” (Garvie-lok, 2010: p. 281). Based on his skeleton, at some point, he endured conflict-related wounds during the time of the Slavic invasion.

Furthermore, because his body was not buried in typical Christian fashion for the times, it suggests he had been privy to severe disruption in the usual life of events (Garvie-lok, 2010). Oftentimes, warfare is the thing that causes disruptions in everyday life. For this one man, war entailed having his entire life disrupted by an invading force. He had endured conflict but someone was willing to take care of him. From his point of view, war ripped him away from normalcy and caused the crumbling of his world. He was a witness to the invasion, annihilation, and abandonment of his community. With the abandonment of the community, this man’s experience of war was one of loneliness. He experienced violence in time of war, and he witnessed invasion of a place by outsiders. His experience of war is unique in that the abandonment of his community due to war left him solitary and alone. Warfare often brings an undue amount of destruction. The target is killed before seeing it but this individual experienced first-hand the destruction that war leaves in its’ path. This man’s experience contrasts with that of another citizen whose country also came under the influence of democratization and the resultant conflict.

An additional perspective of warfare from the point of view of a citizen comes from a skeleton found in Gran Canaria which may be associated with the European invasion and conquest of the Canary Islands during the 15th century. In this instance, democratization by the Europeans is marked by invasion in order to achieve territorial gains and increased power. The skeletal remains of an indigenous individual were found in the Agaete Valley, and the radiocarbon dates of the individual suggest his death occurred during the European invasion and conquest of the Valley. Combining bioarchaeology with a humanistic approach, researchers were able to construct his life story. He sustained multiple injuries that were caused by swords likely to be the ones used by the Castilian troops who conquered Gran Canaria (Santana-Cabrera et al., 2015). Once describing the data from the skeletal remains, the researchers humanize this indigenous man who witnessed the invasion and colonization of his country. They write “the natives of Gran Canaria fought naked or with no protection apart from their visual garments made from skins and plant textile” (Santana-Cabrera et al., 2015: p. 773). Furthermore, the natives had only stones, sticks, and wooden spears to defend themselves from the heavy armory of the Europeans (Santana-Cabrera et al., 2015).

The researchers then recreate life for this single skeleton. He was the victim of a single violent event and was attacked with swords from behind and from the front. His wounds were inflicted from various positions and from various angles. He had little chance to defend himself during the attack nor did he have many resources available to defend himself (Santana-Cabrera et al., 2015). He was outnumbered by men with better technology, which left him in a helpless position. War for him meant not only a violent, brutal attack, but it also meant having to witness outsiders coming in, destroying, and overtaking everything in sight. He was surrounded, attacked from every conceivable angle, and slashed with swords with only sticks and stones to defend himself.

From his story, we get an indigenous perspective of warfare, which adds to the variety of ways people experience war. His experience is one that is very different from the individual in Ancient Nemea. The man in Ancient Nemea was not subjected to a violent death by invaders but was rather taken care of by someone after he was injured. This individual experienced war as a native enduring conquest from outsiders who took advantage of a society that had not focused on building a military complex. Similar to the witness to the Slavic invasion, this indigenous man also fell victim to colonization. It seems that he, unlike the witness to the Slavic invasion, experienced first-hand the violence of the invaders upon becoming one of their targets. Neither were soldiers but rather citizens enduring invasion by foreigners. Nevertheless, his experience of war is unique in its portrayal of how an indigenous native experienced warfare.

A contrasting experience of warfare derives from a case study which accounts a raid of citizens of Croatia which was planned by the Ottoman Empire to facilitate its desire to extend its power in 1441. The Ottomans put forth a plan of democratization that involved territorial expansion, which resulted in that society’s experience of war. A study of twelve males, seven females, and three subadults from a historic period cemetery in Cepin, Croatia provides another example of the personal experience of war as viewed through a humanistic lens. These individuals were found to be victims of a Turkish akinji raid on the city. The akinji were the Turkish light cavalry who had two main roles within the Ottoman army. These roles included supplying and terrorizing war captives as slaves, depopulating local populations before the regular Ottoman army advanced into those territories. This particular study set out to test this group of skeletal remains to see if the akinji, in this raid, were performing their role as terrorizers to depopulate the Cepin area (Slaus et al., 2010). In testing this hypothesis, the researchers reconstruct the lives of the victims as well as detail the experience of the akinji during this particular act of war. Indeed, the researchers write that “bioarchaeological analyses provide us with the opportunity to reconstruct and interpret past events, not from the viewpoint of the victors… but through the experience of the defeated” (Slaus et al., 2010: p. 370).

In order to reconstruct the experience of these groups, the researchers examined skeletal remains for perimortem injuries which entailed documenting the location of the injury, direction of the blow to the body, and whether the injury penetrated bone. They also calculated age at death and sexed each individual. All bones were analyzed for instances of sharp force trauma, blunt force trauma, and projectile injuries (Slaus et al., 2010). As the researchers pieced together these fragments of information, they were able to depict the raid from the point of view of the victims as well as from the point of view of the raiders.

Obviously, victims of this war reenactment had a violent and brutal experience. The akinji strategy was to target young adults while also administering differential attacks to males and females. In all instances, a sharp-edged weapon caused the injuries on the skeletons. The females were victims of gratuitous violence, which involved excessive and unnecessary violence that went beyond the point needed to kill the individual. Females were also tortured and mutilated (Slaus et al., 2010). The injuries to the male skeletons indicate they were trying to defend themselves in close combat situations or that they tried to run away but were “cut down from behind by the akinji raiders” (Slaus et al., 2010: p. 369). By describing every single injury sustained by the individual and putting it into the context of the raid, it culminates into a deeply personal tale of immense pain and torture for the Cepin population. In this way, the skeletons are showing the researchers the effects of warfare on an individual level. Women were beaten mercilessly and men fought. Injuries from this attack recreates these experiences the victims had. From a humanistic perspective, we begin to see the image of horror and sheer torture that they experienced during the raid.

All three citizens (the Ancient Nemea man, the man from Gran Canaria, and the Cepin citizens) endured a raid or invasion of some sort, and all witnessed some form of violence. The Gran Canaria citizen and Cepin citizens were put to death by their invaders while the Ancient Nemea citizen was alive but injured. Even with the sharp contrast of war experiences among citizens, there is also a contrast between citizen and soldiers’ experience as seen in the Cepin population who had a different experience of war than the Turkish akinji light cavalry.

The akinji experienced the war as soldiers. Based on the maneuvers and tactics used by the akinji on the Cepin population, it is possible to begin to understand how they experienced warfare as well. As the researchers combined historical resources with skeletal evidence from the cemetery, the picture of the akinji becomes clearer. They were a group of soldiers “organized in units of tens, hundreds, or thousands, and led by provincial leaders called sanjack-begs” (Slaus et al., 2010: p. 368). Their raids involved the torturing of women, violating of women, destroying houses, destroying towns, and bringing societies crashing down. Using historical documents, the akinji soldier is depicted as one who was heavily armed with an armament that included war hammers, mace, spears, bow and arrows, sabers, and war knives (Slaus et al, 2010: p. 358). The akinji experienced the war from a raider’s point of view who, under oath, had to carry out the attack. Their experience was typified by the violent acts they were told to perform, and the evidence of those acts lies in the bones of the Cepin population. The reader can begin to picture the akinji inflicting these wounds onto others which suggests that their experience of this war involved extreme violence, inflicting of harm, and murder. The akinji’s perspective on war was formed by being the attacker.

During the 15th century, the Ottoman Empire was extremely powerful and took multiple opportunities to expand its empire. The Turkish soldiers were quite adept in their role as attacker, because they had an organized military, superior weapons, and leaders who gave orders (Kennedy, 1987). Croatia had none of these resources, as evidenced by the Cepin skeletons, they were an easy opponent to defeat. In light of this historical context emerges a deeper understanding of the akinji as soldiers invading a country to dominate it, eliminating any thing or any person standing in their way. As the skeletons in Slaus et al.’s (2010) research creates a contrast between the experience of citizens as targets and of soldiers, this instance of democratization reveals just two of the numerous experiences of warfare that different individuals and societies would also have: One was brutally murdered while the other experienced having to murder others. In the end, the personal perspectives of warfare contrasted sharply between the soldier and the target. Even though both sides experienced the same war, they ended up with very different experiences of it.

Another example of a humanistic approach applied to warfare is seen in the analysis of a mass grave in Lutzen, Germany. This mass grave was dated to the Thirty Years War, where democratization entailed fighting to the death to ensure the prevail of a certain religion. The main players in this ideological conflict were the Swedes and Germans who clashed at the Battle of Lutzen. In this particular case study, all bodies in the grave were determined to be soldiers from the Battle of Lutzen, and it is believed that they were killed during a cavalry attack (Nicklisch et al., 2017). The study focuses on injuries sustained by the soldiers before and during the battle, and they used this information to reconstruct the lives of the soldiers as well as to reconstruct the battle. Drawing from historical sources, the authors recreate the living environment endured by these soldiers, which was one characterized by long, cold winters and cool, wet summers. There were food shortages and poverty. The “soldier’s life was hard” and they endured “significant physical and psychological stress” (Nicklisch et al., 2017: p. 2). Just based on their surrounding environment, these soldiers had an experience of war that was bleak and painful.

The researchers also turn to skeletal markers and the injuries sustained by the soldiers to further reconstruct the life of a 17th century soldier. The researchers write that “the skeletons showed traumatic and pathological modifications, some of which could be associated with violent encounters on the battlefield while others were linked to the living conditions that existed at the time” (Nichlisch et al., 2017: p. 10-11). The skeletons from the mass grave showed that these individuals were between 20 and 30 years old. Injuries resulting from interpersonal violence and those sustained while in military training indicate that life expectancy in the army was not high. The soldiers had stress-induced injuries which resulted from demanding physical activity such as long marches and having to dig trenches. Their skeletons also illustrate their experiences in battle, which involved violent encounters and death by gunfire (Nicklisch et al., 2017). These skeletal indicators indicate these soldiers’ experienced war as young men and were subjected to violence and pain, enduring uncomfortable situations, painful wounds, and extensive training. In this case study, a soldier’s experience of war was comprised of preparing for war, conducting war, and enduring the consequences of war. War for them meant long marches, trench digging, horrible weather, being shot, and being participants in combat.

It is interesting to compare these soldiers’ experience of war to how the Turkish akinji experienced war. Both were soldiers, yet both had entirely different experiences. The reason for fighting a war differed: the akinji were fighting for territorial expansions while the Battle of Lutzen soldiers were fighting in a religious struggle. Further, the Turkish akinji experienced war in terms of being the violent raider while these 17th century soldiers experienced war in terms of the demanding rigors of military life. From the perspective of the akinji, war was about inflicting harm to a community while for these German soliders, their perspective of warfare came from the harsh military training environment and the atmosphere that pervaded the battlefield. The akinji experienced war as the victor that came away having decimated a community and achieving their goal. The German soldiers at the Battle of Lutzen came away with the aftermath of tough training and the aftermath of enduring battle.

These contrasting experiences owe in part to the fact that these battles were fought centuries apart. Since the akinji raid, there had been technological innovations in weaponry. Strategies to conduct warfare had changed, and military training in general changed with the advent of drill. The military increasingly became more organized, standardized, and intellectual over the centuries (Kennedy, 1987). The akinji were not having to endure military training like the German soldiers. Furthermore, the akinji were up against an opponent who could hardly defend themselves. These factors played a role in creating vastly different experiences for the akinji compared to the German soldier. This would become a facet of democratization in which a great power’s technology and ideologies would spread to other countries. No matter how the experiences were shaped by outside factors, the fact remains that these two societies involved in democratization experienced warfare in unique ways: The German soldiers ended the battle with war wounds and battle scars while the akinji ended the raid with territorial gains and emerged as victors. In the end, even though both were soldiers and both went to war for reasons to do with democratization, each came out with varied experiences of warfare that showed up in their own bones or the bones of their enemy.

Another case study that looks at soldiers through a humanistic lens exemplifies this idea of the unique human experience in times of warfare, where 837 soldiers were excavated from a cemetery in Northern Lithuania. Among the remains, five females were found. These remains, excluding the female burials, were soldiers based on analyses of their age, sex, stature, dentition, trauma, and artifacts found with the bodies (military ID tags, ammunition, etc.). Interestingly, this site was determined to be a military hospital during World War I. In 1915, the Russian Army was pushing the German Army through Lithuania, and at this site, a gymnasium had been converted into a military hospital. It is possible that Russian soldiers were buried at this site, but the authors conclude that it was most likely predominantly German soldiers as they occupied this area at that time during the war (Jankauskas et al., 2011). The German soldiers either died while being transported to the hospital or were brought directly from the battlefield already deceased.

With World War I, democratization presented itself in the struggle among imperialist powers for dominance exploding as tensions rose higher and higher. As Serbia and Austria-Hungary entered the war, other powers entered the war like dominoes. Largely fought because of the political instabilities of the time, World War I was a picture of democratization as each alliance of powers fought to win in the struggle of who claimed the role of dominant power and who gained political leverage with which to exert that power’s ideals and policies onto the losers. The problem with Germany was that it had overextended itself by fighting two fronts at the same time and were simultaneously fighting France and Russia. Even though they had relatively advanced weaponry and decent military training, they had underestimated Russian forces. They were overwhelmed in numbers and were at the disadvantage of being distanced from their home front which meant they had a logistical problem. Conditions worsened as the Russian terrain proved destructive to their equipment which often broke down (Kennedy, 1987). The Germans were not performing well in battle and many stayed in a military hospital. The rough experience of World War I was evident in the skeletons of German soldiers.

In examining the skeletons of these soldiers, researchers found that they were up to 30 years old, around 155 to 188 centimeters tall, had high rates of tooth loss preceding death, and dental caries. Tooth wear was minimal and many had healed fractures. They also showed pathologies that were related to military activities, including “march foot” which occurs due to extensive physical training while carrying heavy packs. They also had spine problems that were due to high loads “related to military strains” (Jankauskas et al., 2011: p. 401). Furthermore, inflammatory lesions found on the bodies indicated their hospitalization. The soldiers were categorized in one of four categories which included 1) no surgery and no bone repair, 2) no surgery but signs of healing, 3) surgery but no sign of healing, and 4) sign of healing on the site of surgical operation (Jankauskas et al., 2011).

Upon documenting this data, the researchers reconstructed the lives of the German soldiers during World War I. Due to low dental attrition, it was surmised that these soldiers had access to processed foods. Injuries sustained from their military background suggests that these soldiers experienced burdensome and difficult training. Evidence of hospital stays indicate that these soldiers experienced the war from the confines of a military hospital. Their injuries also show that they endured violent combat during battle that resulted in their deaths while at the hospital. The researchers determined these soldiers had “differential hospitalization duration” based on the relationship between type of injury and time of death (Jankauskas et al., 2011: p.409). The inclusion of medical artifacts with the bodies (such as splints, metal plates, wires, etc.) depict the experience of medical practices some endured (Jankauskas et al., 2011). The aggregation of this data results in a picture of these German soldiers enduring pain to earn the title of soldier, enduring pain to survive combat, and succumbing to battle wounds that put them in the hospital. For most, the end of their lives was carried out confined in a military hospital with the cries of the wounded and the explosiveness of combat outside the walls. Reconstruction of the lived experiences of the German soldiers during World War I reveals that like the soldiers from the Battle of Lutzen, their bodies are evidence of the hard training they went through to become soldiers. Unlike the soldiers from the Battle of Lutzen or the akinji, they experienced war from a military hospital, which involved surgery, battlefield wounds, and hospital environments. From their perspective, war took on a medical atmosphere, which was an entirely different experience of war from the other case studies.

Interestingly enough, the soldiers from the Battle of Lutzen and the soldiers from World War I were both German soldiers. A multitude of factors separates their experiences of warfare. By World War I, military practice had been standardized. Most powers had learned from their past experiences in battle, which effected how they conducted war in World War I. The 20th century soldiers had deadlier weapons, organized logistical plans, detailed battlefield plans, and new innovations like military hospitals (Kennedy, 1987). Thus, the 17th century soldiers who lacked these innovations experienced war less technologically equipped. Nevertheless, after fighting two wars that involved democratization, both German soldiers endured warfare but walked away with contrasting experiences. So, with implementation of a humanistic approach to the skeletal indicators, we walk away with warfare as viewed from the German soldiers in a military hospital.

The warfare experiences of an Ancient Nemean man, a man from Gran Canaria, the Cepin population, the Turkish akinji light calvary, German soldiers from the Thirty Years War, and German soldiers from World War I, illustrate the theme that even as societies have in common democratization and warfare, citizens and soldiers from those societies have vastly different and unique experiences of warfare that contrast sharply with one another.


Bioarchaeology is in the unique position to provide a humanistic perspective on the individual experience people have during times of warfare. As evidenced above, each society endured some form of democratization and some form of warfare, but the experiences that the people had of war differed from person to person or from group to group. With the aid of a humanistic approach, bioarchaeology is able to provide an insight into that unique experience people have in warfare based on evidence from the skeletal remains found. That is the gift of the humanistic approach to understanding warfare and other forms of international conflict that often pervades with the onset of democratization.

Indeed, by applying bioarchaeological studies to democratization, we start to get a greater understanding not only of how the conflict that resulted from democratization affected individuals, but how factors such as power struggles, differing warfare traditions, methodology of warfare, has influenced their experience. It allows one to delve deeper into what the history books do not tell you because a picture can be created from the individual and group level experience. Additionally, it helps bioarchaeologists understand the depth and expanse of conflict throughout time. Getting the stories from the skeletons offer an account of warfare unmatched by statistics, tactics, and logistics. Such studies then allow us to compare and contrast how nations as well as how individual citizens dealt with and responded to alien forces imposing their will onto them. We are able to get a glimpse of how the great power and how the weak power experienced war.

Even so, it is interesting to speculate if we can take what we learn about how humans of the past dealt with warfare and use it to help people today who find themselves inexplicably intertwined in warfare. Warfare is always going to persist in society, but humans can evolve and modify the ways they deal with it. People continue and will continue to experience warfare in various ways, but bioarchaeology has the chance to take its knowledge of the past and use it to help people get through those horrific experience of warfare today. Furthermore, conducting bioarchaeological studies on skeletons that have witnessed war can add to our understanding of the evolution of warfare and the advancement of warfare technology and tactics. We can then begin to better understand how humans “do” warfare and how conducting warfare has modified over the years.

By doing these studies, we also can gain a better picture of how the defeated experienced war. It tends to be the case that the accounts of warfare and of battles are written from the point of views of the victors but hearing from the defeated side is also important. To understand warfare as a societal issue requires knowledge of both the victor and the defeated because war is not one-sided. It takes more than one army, one government, or one person to declare war and to carry out war, so to understand all aspects of war is going to require information from multiple perspectives. Warfare is a unique facet of human society, and bioarchaeological studies that take humanistic approach facilitates the understanding of this societal issue from all angles.


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Acknowledgments: I would like to thank my family for their unrelenting support and for their unwavering belief in me regardless of the times I failed to believe in myself.

Citation style: AJPA

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