Secrets of Neolithic mass grave where massacred families met a grizzly end revealed
New findings shed light on a mass grave in Poland from 5000 years ago and the mysterious circumstances in which the families in it were killed and buried.
The mass grave in Koszyce, in southern Poland, was discovered by archaeologists from Kraków in 2011. It contained the bones of 15 people; the youngest of them small children. DNA tests showed that the people were related. The group were associated with the Globular Amphora culture found in Central Europe around 3400-2800 BC.
The intriguing scene was studied by specialists from a range of disciplines, including criminology and anthropology, to better understand how the group lived – and the circumstances in which they died. Some Polish experts suggested that they were killed during a ceremony or even as part of ritual cannibalism.
New research published this week by a group of experts from Poland and abroad supports a different explanation. The academic article entitled “Unravelling ancestry, kinship, and violence in a Late Neolithic mass grave”, published Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, provides an overview of what archaeologists know so far.
“All individuals had been brutally killed by blows to the head, but buried with great care,” the authors highlight.
An artistic reconstruction of the mass grave featured in the article shows people – mostly women and children – lying close together, bodies and limbs overlapping.
Using genome-wide analysis, the scientists mapped out the family links between the people in the grave. They identified four nuclear families in it, with close relatives buried next to each other, rather than mixed haphazardly with strangers.
“Evidently, these individuals were buried by people who knew them well and who carefully placed them in the grave according to familial relationships,” they note.
Based on their research, the authors gained a startling glimpse into the families’ relationships. For example, they discovered that four of the individuals were brothers, but did not all share the same mother – though the similarities in the two women’s DNA suggest that their mothers may have been related.
One of the mysteries in the grave is the absence of older males in the grave, except for one father. This has led the authors to suggest that they were the ones who buried the people in the grave, who are mostly women and children.
Based on the nature of their injuries, the authors suggest that the people in the grave were captured and executed, rather than killed during fighting. This would fit the broader context of violence between competing groups at the time, in which women and children were often taken as captives.
In Koszyce, the men might simply have been away when their partners and children were captured and killed by a rival group, the authors speculate.
“Although alternative scenarios (e.g., ritualistic violence or familicide) cannot be ruled out, it seems most plausible that the massacre at Koszyce falls in the former category,” they add.