What are the saddest things that have ever been discovered by archaeologists?

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

I think the findings of this recent genetic and archaeological study are particularly sad, particularly because they shed away all the myths of “noble savages” and the wishful thinking of “war as a result of the power struggles of unequal civilizations”, and thus they reinforce the ever stronger conclusion that human societies have been brutal and insanely competitive since a very long time ago. It gives us a terrifying glimpse of what the “demographic changes”, “genetic replacements” and “ethnic shifts” that we often hear about as we study the history of a given place really meant back then, in the raw reality (of course this is not the whole story, but it’s surely an awful part of it).

So what’s it about? Around 5,000 years ago, in Poland, 15 people were carefully buried together in a mass grave. Most of them belonged to the same extended family, part of a closely-knit patrilineal clan, and there were four nuclear families related to each other. All of them had died by heavy blows on their head, killed simultaneously in the same way.

The individuals who buried them certainly knew them pretty well, because they placed the bodies together with their closest relatives: women with their respective children, siblings close to each other, and wives with their husbands.

The slaughtered victims are mainly adult women (one of them was 50–60 years old) and their young children, including children, teenagers, and two babies, one aged 1.5 years, and the other 2.0–2.5 years (whose parents were not buried in the mass grave). They were certainly not a major “threat” to any neighboring tribe or clan.

Apart from those with familial relationships with each other, there was also one young woman who had no genetic relationship withanyone else in the extended family but was buried close to a young man with no children, so she might’ve been his girlfriend or just married wife.

Intriguingly, with the exception of one male adult interred alongside his wife and son, no older men were found in the tomb, which points to several possibilities, but one of them is particularly sad to me: perhaps most of the adult men were away in their herding activities, in a hunting expedition, or maybe in a war campaign, and some rival tribe took advantage of that moment to wipe all the inhabitants of a small family farm/village. As the scientists concluded, “the nature of the injuries and the near absence of parry fractures (i.e. injuries sustained to the upper limbs) suggest that the individuals were captured and executed, rather than killed in hand-to-hand combat”. In other words, they had no chance to defend themselves and counter-attack, so they were murdered gratuitously. How shameful and cowardly is that!?

That would explain why, after such a violent death, the villagers were buried with such care. Maybe the men came back only to find their entire family, all the cherished ones they had left behind murdered cowardly in their absence, including the youngest among them.

Cruel though as that was, other archaeological evidence found to date suggests that such things were far from unusual and shocking in ancient warfare, even well before the stakes became much more complex, like conflicts over big empires and vast riches.

That family wasn’t even taken captive, enslaved, or anything else. It was like they were “clearing the land” for their own people: nobody should be spared. The adult males probably survived just because they weren’t present when the slaughter took place, otherwise, we wouldn’t expect the burial to have been made by someone who clearly took the care to make sure the dead relatives would have their eternal rest together with their most loved ones. I wonder what those males did after they saw what their enemies had done to their families, but I’ll assume it wasn’t pretty.

Unfortunately much of human history, even very recently, even now, is made up of really sad and very often appalling events like that one. What’s particularly worrisome is that, as archaeologists do their work, they increasingly find out that the despicable things that humans make when they’re in the conflict were ubiquitous in all places, in all ages, and in all sorts of different social and economic organizations. To me what that might tell us about humankind is what’s saddest in this story.

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