A 7,000-year-old grave filled with headless skeletons has been discovered in Slovakia.
The remains of 38 people were discovered, all without heads, except for one child.
Heads may have been cut off during a brutal war or by priests to honor the dead.
Archaeologists have discovered a 7,000-year-old mass grave in Slovakia containing 38 skeletons, all but one of them decapitated.
The remains were found at the site of Vrá ble-Vèlke Lehemby in Slovakia, one of the largest settlements of the European Neolithic period.
Early research suggests the heads were deliberately removed after death, the study’s author told Insider. Only one skeleton belonging to a child under the age of 6 had an intact skull.
Archaeologists are now trying to understand why the heads were so methodically removed. Was it a warning, a funeral ritual, or a way to honor the dead?
These headless bodies are distinct from traditional burials in the same region, said Katharina Fuchs, an anthropologist at the University of Kiel in Germany who worked on the excavations.
Early observation of the remains suggests the decapitations were likely intentional, she told Insider in an interview. She said that on bodies preserved well enough that neck bones can still be seen, the first vertebra, directly below the skull, was intact.
This suggests that the heads were cut off with very sharp tools, not severed in combat.
“When there is a violent decapitation, as in the Middle Ages with a sword or an axe, you can see cut marks, as well as crushed vertebrae around the neck,” she said.
This is feasible because people in the area had access to obsidian, a rock that is razor sharp when broken.
It is unclear whether the head was removed before or after death, project manager Martin Furholt, a professor of prehistory and social archeology at the University of Kiel, told Insider in an email.
There have been several reports of Neolithic people decapitating bodies upon death and taking the head with them.
“People often kept these heads in their homes or deposited them elsewhere,” Furholt said.
Act of War or Human Sacrifice?
It’s entirely possible these heads were removed as part of a brutal act of war or deterrence, Fuchs said.
“There is a scenario for this killing, for example, taking the heads as trophies and placing them on the stockades,” she said.
“We can’t rule it out.”
After all, while these were sophisticated farming communities, evidence suggests they may have been brutal.
There are two other notable mass graves in the area, Talheim and Herxheim.
At the site of Talheim, found in Germany, the remains of 34 men, women and children tell of a brutal conflict. The victims are believed to have been massacred by a neighboring village and left to rot.
At the site in Herxheim, also in Germany, at least 450 individuals were found in a ditch, completely dismembered, with traces of cuts on the bones and skulls. This suggests that the flesh was cut from the bones before the bodies were placed in the pit. A 2009 study suggested this could be evidence of ritual cannibalism, although this hypothesis has been rejected by some others who view the site as a large necropolis.
Neolithic people may also have believed that bodies had magical powers and that their bodies helped bolster the strength of the stockades, Furholt said.
“In fact, many Neolithic ditches surrounding settlements across Europe show deposits of dead human bodies or parts of them,” he said, referring to settlements at the Herxheim site as an example.
Vráble-Vèlke Lehemby consisted of three settlements, inhabited between 5250 and 4950 BC.
The larger of these settlements, on the right in the above illustration, was heavily fortified.
Pallisades surrounded the settlement. The ditch where the mass grave was found ran around the village for about a mile.
An unexpected discovery
These weren’t the first headless bodies found in a ditch. Earlier excavations had unearthed several other headless skeletons, but they were much more sparsely distributed and interspersed with more normal burials.
Therefore, the discovery of such a huge mass of headless bodies was a complete surprise, said Fuchs.
There may be even more bodies in the grave. Fuchs said they had to stop digging because they were limited to just over five weeks of excavation. But bones found at the edge of the grave suggest it goes further than what they discovered.
“There are many opportunities and it’s important to stay open to new insights and ideas. But it is indisputable that this find is absolutely unique for the European Neolithic so far,” says Maria Wunderlich, an archaeologist at the University of Kiel who worked on the excavations. he said.
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