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 thrown into a ditch almost 7,000 years ago.
The location of the grisly find this summer and the positions of the skeletons suggest the victims were dumped there on purpose, possibly as human sacrifices intended to magically strengthen a defensive wall built above the ditch, according to the researchers.
“I think it has something to do with magical ideas about how to define and fortify the settlement,” co-leader of the project Martin Furholt, a professor of protohistoric and social archaeology at Kiel University in Germany, told Live Science.
“We have a ditch around a site where people are living, and then you put people in the ditch — whether they were killed deliberately, or died of natural causes — because probably there were ideas about the magical or symbolic power that these [dead] people had,” he said.
Furholt and his colleagues at Kiel University — formally, the Christian-Albrecht University of Kiel — have worked since 2012 at the site at Vráble in Slovakia, near that country’s borders with Austria and Hungary, alongside scientists from the Institute of Archaeology of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV).
The site is an ancient settlement attributed to the early Neolithic LBK culture, named after the German term “Linearbandkeramik,” which means “linear band ceramics” and refers to the type of pottery they made.
Furholt said the ancestors of the people at Vráble seem to have crossed into what’s now Greece from Anatolia (now Turkey) about 1,500 years earlier. The LBK culture spread from there to many parts of Europe, and they 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.
Excavation of the Neolithic Vráble Stone Age grave, which was full of headless skeletons in a jumble, recently unearthed at Vráble, Slovakia.
The ancient mass grave is near one of the entrances to the settlement at Vráble, and several aspects suggest 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 with the excavation, told Live Science in an email. “Yet the bodies did not have skulls and we are still unsure how and when the heads have been removed.”
“[The] decapitation might have been one of the possible causes of death,” she said, adding that the researchers hope to learn more from the results of anthropological tests being conducted now.
The settlement was divided into three distinct neighborhoods, and it seemed that the defensive wall and ditch were built around just one neighborhood in the later stages of its occupation, which might have been an attempt to keep out people from the other neighborhoods.