Technological advances, including DNA and tooth enamel analyses, allowed researchers to form new conclusions about capital punishment under Roman rule.
When archaeologists in the 1960s unearthed a 13,400-year-old cemetery at Jebel Sahaba in Sudan, it looked like they’d stumbled across the aftermath of a large-scale battle fought during the Pleistocene. At least half the people buried at the site, which straddles the banks of the Upper Nile, bore the marks of violence: broken skulls, arrow and spear tracks gouged in bones, and stone projectiles still embedded in their bodies.
The site now lies at the bottom of the human-made Lake Nasser, created by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. But the remains now reside in the British Museum’s collection (for better or worse), and anthropologists Isabelle Crevecoeur of the University of Bordeaux and Daniel Antoine of the British Museum recently re-examined the skeletons. With more modern microscope technology, the anthropologists noticed some skeletal trauma that the original archaeologists had missed. It turned out that about two thirds of the population of the ancient cemetery had bones damaged by either blunt-force trauma or—most often—by projectiles like spears and arrows. That included three out of four adults and roughly half the children.
Since the 1960s, archaeologists have thought of Jebel Sahaba as the earliest example of large-scale warfare between groups of people. But despite all the evidence of violence, the bones of the 13,000-year-old dead don’t actually seem to tell the story of a pitched battle with massive casualties. Instead, it looks like people along the Upper Nile Valley at the end of the Pleistocene lived with the constant threat of smaller-scale fighting, which affected men, women, and children alike. If you’re a gamer, think of it as living in a PvP zone in the midst of an environmental crisis.
When Mount Vesuvius destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii in 79 CE, the eruption also killed hundreds of people huddled on the shores of nearby Herculaneum. A recent study of the remains of one victim, who died on the beach not far from a small naval vessel, suggests that he might have been a senior naval officer. If so, archaeological director Francesco Sirano and his colleagues suggest, the man may have been a rescue mission leader who arrived just in time to die with the people he was trying to save.
An untimely rescue
Pliny the Elder was a Roman naturalist and author who also found time to command the imperial fleet in the port city of Misenum, across the Bay of Naples from Pompeii and Herculaneum. During the height of Mount Vesuvius’ eruption, Pliny the Elder sent boats to rescue survivors from the beach at Herculaneum, which lies northwest of Pompeii and almost due west of the volcano. At least 300 people had fled for the shore, only to find themselves trapped between the volcano’s wrath and the sea. Some sought shelter in nearby boat sheds while others gathered on the beach to wait for help.
They never made it off the beach. A towering plume of material that had blasted skyward from the volcano finally collapsed under its own weight and sent a deadly wave of hot gas and debris, called a pyroclastic flow, flooding down the mountain’s slopes at nearly 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour). Like the pyroclastic flows that struck Pompeii, this one brought instant, searing death.
The bones of a Maya ambassador suggest a life of privilege but not necessarily comfort and ease, even though he was a high-ranking official born into a powerful family. His skeleton also finishes the story started in the hieroglyphic inscriptions on his tomb, revealing his greatest achievement and his fall from power after political winds shifted.
Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair
In late 726 CE, diplomat Apoch’Waal’s fortunes were on the rise. He had inherited his father’s position as a lakam, or standard-bearer: a diplomatic emissary for the King of Calakmul. As a sign of his office, Apoch’Waal carried a banner on a pole while he walked hundreds of miles to broker alliances between the most powerful dynasties in the Maya world. When he spoke or smiled, the jade and pyrite inlays in his front teeth also revealed his high status.
That summer, Apoch’Waal took up his banner and set out on a 560-kilometer trek to Copán, in modern-day Honduras, to forge ties between the king of Copán and his own king. The successful alliance between kings was a high point in Apoch’Waal’s career, and he commemorated it a few months later by building a small ceremonial platform and temple for himself in his hometown of El Palmar, near Calakmul.
The oldest known fossils of the predatory snakes were found at a German site, changing the snake family tree.
The bones of British soldiers and colonial militia were disinterred during a reconstruction of Fort William Henry nearly 70 years ago.
Just about any other living thing would be liquefied at the forces this insect can withstand.
The Berkshire hilltop where metal detector hobbyists found a warrior’s grave was supposed to have been an unimportant patch of borderland between neighboring tribes 1,400 years ago. But the warrior, buried with a view of the Thames River valley and all the trappings of power and status, tells a different story. His presence suggests that this quiet bit of English countryside may have been in the thick of the power struggles that rippled across Britain in the decades after the Roman Empire receded.
Around 400 CE, Rome abandoned its far-flung colony in Britain and withdrew its troops back to the mainland of Europe. Not long after that, Germanic warriors from the continent swept onto the island: the forerunners of the Anglo-Saxons. Archaeologists don’t entirely agree on whether the Anglo-Saxons arrived as a huge wave of settlers who overwhelmed and replaced the native Britons, or whether only a smaller number of warriors came to Britain to seize power in the wake of Rome’s departure. Either way, they reshaped British culture and society over the next several centuries.
The Anglo-Saxon tribes banded together under strong military leaders. Over time, some of those groups would coalesce into the medieval Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex, Mercia, and Kent. Others faded from power, wiped out or absorbed by their rivals. And that brings us to the stretch of the Thames River between Oxford and London, and the man archaeologists have nicknamed the Marlow Warlord.
A cremation pit recently unearthed at Beisamoun, just north of the Sea of Galilee, contained the burned remains of a person who died sometime between 7013 and 6700 BCE (according to radiocarbon dating). The person’s name and story are lost to us, but their remains are evidence of a drastic change not only in how people lived but in what they believed about life and death.
A time of change
The cremation dates to a time of social and cultural change in the region around what is now northern Israel. Around 7000 BCE, people abandoned many of the larger settlements in the region; the archaeological record shows homes and villages falling into disuse and disrepair. Until that time, people in villages like Beisamoun had often buried their dead in the floors of their homes. People evidently wanted to keep their ancestors and relatives close to the center of family life. At Beisamoun, people stuck around, but they started building in a lighter construction style and stopped burying dead relatives under the floor. It marked the end of a period that archaeologists working in the Levant call the Late Pre-Pottery Neolithic B, which is precise but not terribly catchy.
It’s no coincidence that the oldest evidence of cremation in the Near East dates from this same time of cultural and social change. “The way you handle the dead is directly connected to beliefs,” Fanny Bocquentin, an archaeologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), told Ars.
If you died in Europe 35,000 to 25,000 years ago, you’d probably be buried with parts of your body painted with red ochre and bedecked with beads, carved figurines, and other items. Depending on your social standing, you might have just a little body art, or someone might have taken the time to paint your whole body red; you might be buried with just a few beads or with thousands.
But people in at least one part of southwestern France laid their dead to rest in abandoned bear nests in the deepest recesses of a cave—and then returned once the bodies had decomposed to carefully arrange the bones and take away the skulls.
Both a gallery and a tomb
Bears used to make their homes in Grotte de Cussac, a karst cave in southwestern France. They left behind tracks on the floor, claw marks on the walls, and bear-sized depressions in the cave floor where they’d made their hibernation nests. (Pro tip: if you rent to bears, get a very large deposit.) But the bears left “long before any human incursions,” wrote University of Bordeaux archaeologist Sacha Kacki and his colleagues. Traces of human activity in the cave—footprints, torch marks, artwork, and carefully arranged skeletons—lie on top of the bear traces, and not the other way around.
Archaeologists said the remains found near the site of a former lake could suggest the animals were hunted after they got stuck in mud.
Archaeologists found the bones of three young African men in a 500-year-old mass grave in what is now Mexico City. The chemical makeup of their bones sheds light on their earlier lives in Africa, and forensic analysis reveals hard, painful lives and young deaths.
How the dead speak
Archaeologists unearthed the mass grave in 1992 while digging a new subway line in Mexico City. Five hundred years earlier, the site had been the grounds of the Hospital Real de San José de los Naturales. The Spanish colonizers had built the hospital to treat indigenous people—that’s what “los Naturales” means in Spanish—but these three men were African, not North or Central American. Their bones radiocarbon-dated to the 1500s CE, which makes them part of an important but often anonymous group of people: the first African people abducted in their homelands and brought across the Atlantic Ocean to European colonies in the Americas.
Of the 10 to 20 million people transported to the Atlantic over the next 300 years, nearly 150,000 of them ended up, like these three men, in the colony of New Spain. Like countless other oppressed and otherwise overlooked people throughout human history, they left behind no written accounts, no artifacts to hint at their lives, and no names. Only their bones tell their stories.
The men might have been among the earliest to be stolen from their homeland and brought to the Americas.