In­ves­ti­gat­ing nine deaths from 7,000 years ago

The Review - - OPINION - Jim Smart Of All Things Visit colum­nist Jim Smart’s web­site at jamess­mart­sphiladel­

Movies about Juras­sic dinosaurs are very pop­u­lar these days, with pic­turesque crit­ters from a cou­ple of mil­lion years ago galumph­ing around. Hol­ly­wood doesn’t seem in­clined to make a film such as “Ne­olithic Park,” which could be maybe a mere 7,000 years back.

In those old but more re­cent days, there would be no pre­his­toric mon­sters, but in­stead we would see the do­ings of pre­his­toric hu­mans.

I won­der how or­di­nary peo­ple like you and me, ex­cept that they were an­cient, got by in an era when they didn’t have to deal with ex­ces­sively bi­gasauruses but had only the be­gin­nings of mod­ern ne­ces­si­ties, such as crops and plows and an­i­mals and pot­tery and weapons?

What made me think about those late Ne­olithic days was a re­cent ar­ti­cle about an on­go­ing study of some hu­man bod­ies that were dug up dur­ing a con­struc­tion project in Hal­ber­stadt, Ger­many, a few years ago. They were about 7,000 years old.

Sci­en­tists who study such things have seen lots of skele­tons of peo­ple from that era, some who died nat­u­ral deaths and some due to vi­o­lence.

There are a few an­cient mass graves here and there in Ger­many that are in­di­ca­tions of war­fare be­tween agri­cul­tural com­mu­ni­ties.

But these nine per­sons were dif­fer­ent. They were eight men and one woman. There were no chil­dren, said to be un­usual in Ne­olithic mass graves. And each one had been killed by be­ing hit with blunt force to the back of the head.

The arche­o­log­i­cal Sher­lock Holme­ses have been busy ever since, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing clues. Af­ter 7,000 years, it isn’t easy.

The vic­tims were not lo­cal peo­ple but came from parts un­known and else­where. An anal­y­sis of iso­topes in their bones and teeth in­di­cated that their diets were dif­fer­ent from those of lo­cal peo­ple buried in the area.

Burial cus­toms in the area usu­ally in­volved one per­son, neatly ar­ranged, some­times with items in­cluded. Un­like most graves in the area with mul­ti­ple bod­ies, there were no chil­dren.

The bod­ies were dumped into the grave, not care­fully ar­ranged as were bod­ies of lo­cal peo­ple. Par­tic­u­larly strange was the me­thod­i­cal ap­pli­ca­tion of iden­ti­cal blows to each head.

The set­tle­ment where the grave was found was the first area in cen­tral Europe where the Ne­olith ci­ti­zens raised crops and an­i­mals.

The sci­en­tists haven’t learned who­dun­nit, but the pre­sumed ex­e­cu­tion was some­thing new in what one called pre­his­toric “in­ter­per­sonal vi­o­lence.”

Now, I am not an arche­ol­o­gist, as you prob­a­bly sus­pected. But I looked at a photo on­line of what’s left of the nine vic­tims of this mys­te­ri­ous event, and as you might ex­pect af­ter 7,000 years, there isn’t much left. You’ve got some arm­bones and some leg bones and some ribs and lots of other skele­tal parts and at­tach­ments, but it’s pretty messy.

Pho­tos of a few of the skulls show real da­m­age where the de­ceased were bopped on the nog­gin.

I have two the­o­ries about the case of the nine bod­ies in Hal­ber­stadt. One is that Hol­ly­wood will not likely stop mak­ing those films about roar­ing dinosaurs from the Juras­sic age, in fa­vor of films about 7,000 year old hu­mans who got slugged.

The other is that we still have peo­ple to­day who, when they en­counter nine peo­ple dif­fer­ent from them, would feel it nec­es­sary to wal­lop them on the head.

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