Archaeologists investigating an early Neolithic settlement in Slovakia have discovered the battered remains of about 35 people, many of them teenagers, who appear to have been decapitated and then dumped in a ditch nearly 7,000 years ago.
The location of the gruesome find this summer and the positions of the skeletons suggest the victims were dumped there on purpose, possibly as human sacrifices intended to magically bolster a defensive wall built over the moat, according to researchers.
“I think it has to do with magical ideas about how to define and fortify the settlement,” project co-leader Martin Furholt, a professor of prehistory and social archeology at the University of Kiel in Germany, told Live Science.
“We have a moat around a site where people live, and then you put people in the moat—whether they were killed on purpose or died of natural causes—because there were probably ideas about the magical or symbolic power that [dead] people had,” he said.
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Furholt and his colleagues at the University of Kiel – officially the Christian-Albrecht University of Kiel – have been working since 2012 at the site in Vráble in Slovakia, near that country’s borders with Austria and Hungary, together with scientists from Institute of Archeology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV).
The site is an ancient settlement attributed to the early Neolithic culture of the LBK, named after the German term “Linearbandkeramik”, meaning “linear ceramic band” and referring to the type of pottery they made.
Furholt said the ancestors of the people in Vráble appear to have crossed into present-day Greece from Anatolia (now Turkey) about 1,500 years earlier. The LBK culture spread from there to many parts of Europe and may have been the ancestors of the first Neolithic settlers in Western Europe who built megalithic structures such as Stonehenge in England and Carnac in France, he said.
The ancient mass grave is located near one of the entrances to the settlement in Vráble, and several aspects suggest that the people dumped there were deliberately killed, possibly by decapitation.
“In the field, we have not recorded any clear signs of trauma or distinct pathological changes,” Zuzana Hukeľová, an anthropologist at the SAV involved in the excavation, told Live Science. “However the bodies did not have skulls and we are still not sure how and when the heads were removed.”
“[The] Decapitation may have been one of the possible causes of death,” he said, adding that researchers hope to learn more from the results of anthropological tests now underway.
The bodies lay in various positions — on their backs, sides, stomachs, or with their arms and legs spread wide and bent at the elbows and knees, “like swimming frog“This is one of the positions that indicate the body was probably thrown into the pit.”
Most of the dead appear to have been young adults between 18 and 25 when they were killed, and some appear to have been between 25 and 35.
But there were no mature or old individuals, and there was only one infant, who was also the only person buried with his skull. “We will know better once the skeletons are analyzed,” he said.
Furholt said the Neolithic settlement at Vráble consisted of up to 80 “longhouses” at any one time, with each longhouse being home to one or more extended families.
The settlement was divided into three distinct neighbourhoods, and it appears that the defensive wall and moat were built around a single neighborhood in the later stages of its occupation, perhaps in an attempt to keep people away from the other neighbourhoods.
Related: 15 people were brutally murdered 5,000 years ago, but the bodies were buried with care
“Only one of these neighborhoods has this kind of fortification and it has six entrances, but none of them connect this neighborhood to the others,” he said. “This leads us to believe that it wasn’t to defend against someone from the outside, but it was a kind of internal division where they tried to block access to their neighbors.”
Christian Meyer, an archaeologist at the OsteoArchaeological Research Center (OsteoARC) in Goslar, Germany, is not involved in the excavations at Vráble, but has studied mass violence on other LBK sites (opens in new tab).
“Interpretations such as massacres, executions, torture, mutilations and various cult practices have been suggested,” he told Live Science in an email. “Given what is already known about this archaeological culture, the discovery of what appears to be yet another mass grave is not surprising in itself.”
An unusual feature of the mass grave at Vráble was that the heads of the people buried there were missing. This “seems to be the most striking and is likely to have deep significance,” Meyer said, adding that further explanation is needed.
“This site will advance our knowledge of social interactions and the treatment of the living and the dead in these times, many thousands of years into the past,” he said.