A detailed analysis of a mass grave dating back to the Stone Age has provided a fascinating insight into the lives of its inhabitants. In particular, the ancient burial site has allowed researchers to glean a great deal of information about how members of a particular Neolithic community coexisted with one another, both in life and in death.
Measuring approximately 3 meters (10 feet) across, the megalithic burial chamber was first excavated in 2006 and 2007, following its discovery in Burgos, Spain. Initial data retrieved from this project had pointed to the fact that the tomb was initially constructed as a hut above the ground, which the study authors describe as a “house of the dead.” Only later was this dismantled and converted into a grave.
Radiocarbon dating of the bodies has indicated that the grave was used for about a century, beginning around 3700 BCE, and contains members of three successive generations.
Using molecular genetic analysis and stable isotope testing, a team of anthropologists and archaeologists have now uncovered more details of the lives of the 47 corpses found at the site, publishing their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.
For instance, by examining the mitochondrial DNA of the cadavers, the team was able to determine that the community followed a matrilineal kinship pattern, whereby individuals were considered to be part of the same family group as their mother but not their father. This, in turn, determined patterns of reproduction by dictating which members of the collective each person could marry, producing a distinctive distribution of genes throughout the group.
Furthermore, analysis of variants of carbon and nitrogen indicated that all members of the community shared the same diet, which consisted mostly of cereal grains like wheat and barley, and animal products derived from sheep, goats and pigs.
Bodies were found to buried in two layers, with those on top often missing their skulls. The study authors suggest that this may be a result of funerary rituals. Héctor Arcusa Magallón
The fact that no major variations in diet were found between individuals points to an egalitarian society, whereby all members had equal access to resources, and that all lived in the same area. This inference is reinforced by the fact that males and females were buried together, while the complete lack of grave goods suggests that no one was given special treatment in death.
Interestingly, the corpses were found to be buried in two layers, with those on the bottom left intact while those on top often lacked their skulls. The study authors propose that this damage was either caused by bones becoming dislocated as bodies were placed into the tomb, or as a result of some sort of ritual performed by the surviving members of the community.
Overall, the findings point to what the study authors call a “closely related” and “egalitarian” group, which may explain why the bodies were placed in a mass grave as opposed to being buried individually. The researchers note that collective burials were common during the Neolithic period, illustrating the way in which bonds between members of a group were considered more important than any individual, both in life and in death.
The prevalence of personal graves in modern societies, they suggest, may be an indicator of the individualistic mindset that has come to characterize contemporary life.