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Evidence of violence in bones


To the grand surprise of the investigators, when they removed that apparently normal and unremarkable rock, they found the remains of some three hundred persons. It was a communal grave from the end of the Neolithic, some 5,000 years ago. The bones are in a very good state of conservation, because the rock covering them most probably having protected them from the outside elements.

In Europe there are few archaeological sites containing such a large quantity of bones. Thus, the remains found at San Juan ante Portam Latinam are a real treasure for the investigators. Hundreds of bones were uncovered: crania, vertebrae, hips bones, tibias and so on. There were so many bones, in fact, that it did not prove easy to distinguish which bones belonged to which individual. The bones had to be sketched one by one and closely observed over long periods to come to the realisation that the bodies had not been laid out longitudinally. They lay in strange postures. The bodies were completely doubled up, each with their arms circling their legs. According to the experts, these curious postures may be due to the fact that the bodies had been tied up in order to transfer or transport them to the burial ground.

The bones belong to people of all ages, the newly born, young people and the elderly. There could be no better sample of the populations of the period.

Special site

The site is also unusual for other reasons. Signs of violence have been found in and amongst the bones, not usual in archaeological sites so old. Up to now nobody has suggested that, in those periods, humans used violence against each other. It was famine and disease that caused the greatest number of deaths.

Or maybe violence as well? 12 arrowheads embedded in the bones were found at this site. One of the most remarkable cases is that of an elbow wherein one can see the arrowhead embedded in the bone. This weapon had injured a man but the arrowhead had remained embedded inside surrounded and trapped by the bone. This Neolithic person certainly would not have been able to move that arm.

Many more arrowheads, all made from flint, have been recovered at the site, A total of 60 found very close to but not directly embedded in the bones them. What does this phenomenon suggest? In the opinion of J. Ignacio Vegas, the site director, it points to the arrows having entered the internal organs or softer parts of the body and, on organic decaying having taken place, these arrowheads remained very near the bones. This is why so many have been found.

But, did these three hundred people die resulting from a frontal violent attack, then? This si what the site investigators tried to elucidate.

There was a change in the Neolithic

It has to be taken that the Neolithic was a period in which the way of life changed from a hunter-gatherer society to one based on production (animal husbandry and agriculture). This was a transcendental moment in the history of humanity.
In the opinion of Aranzadi Society researcher, Lourdes Herrasti, the Neolithic was the period when humans began to develop a certain sense of property, a sense of having. It may be that this awareness of property gave rise to confrontations between groups. Some observers even suggest that, as a result, violence arose during this period but the experts do not agree amongst themselves on this.

The research on the finds is going to be protracted. All these bones have been examined over the past twenty years both at the Aranzadi Society and at the University of the Basque Country. Gene sequencing has enabled the analysis of the genetic characteristics of the remains at the San Juan site.

This involved sequencing DNA fragments extracted from the ancient teeth and bones given that, as in the rest of the organs and body parts, teeth and bones contain DNA.

First the sex chromosomes were examined, i.e., the genes contained in chromosomes X and Y. By this means, the sex of the skeletons was determined, an important item of knowledge to have. Up to now, this data was extrapolated with morphology and measurement of size. In order to identify feminine or masculine remains, the cranium was measured, the morphology of the pelvis analysed and the size of the bones determined.

Moreover, it is generally difficult to find signs of illness in ancient remains. Given that only about 10% of infirmities leave traces of the illness in osseous matter. In this case the researchers have been lucky: the oldest case of cancer on the Iberian Peninsula has been identified at the San Juan site.

Thus, who knows what might turn up, or be turned up at the site near Laguardia (in the Basque province of Alava). There is little doubt that the remains found below that rock have provided important new information on the life and death of the human populations of the time; those who were witness to and part of those social sea-changes of the Neolithic period.

Aitziber Agirre | Basque research
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