A Neolithic fisherman who died 5,000 years ago and was buried in a mass grave in northern Chile ‘drowned in salt water’, a new advanced forensic test has revealed.
Researchers at the University of Southampton in England have applied the modern forensic method used to determine the cause of death to the ancient remains.
They confirmed drowning in seawater as the cause of death for a fisherman, closed a 5,000-year-old cold case, and opened up new possibilities for assessing the remains of our prehistoric ancestors using modern methods.
The technique tests diatoms, a group of algae found in oceans, fresh water and soil, inside victims’ bones.
Their discovery suggests that the person drowned. This is because if they had died before they entered the water, they would not have swallowed the salt water.
The team hopes this will help archaeologists learn more about past civilizations in coastal areas and the human stories behind the remains they have discovered.
Neolithic fisherman at the burial site. A Neolithic fisherman who died 5,000 years ago and was buried in a mass grave in northern Chile ‘drowned in salt water’, a new advanced forensic test has revealed.
The team explained that this is the first time diatom tests have been used to determine salt water drowning on prehistoric human remains.
In addition to these tests, the researchers performed a series of microscopic bone marrow analyzes that they expected from 5,000-year-old remains.
This allowed them to search for a wider range of microscopic particles, which could provide more information about the cause of his death.
In a more detailed study, they found many different marine particles, including fossilized algae, parasite eggs and sediment, that would not be detected by a standard diatom test.
Professor James Goff, who led the study, said: “Mass burials are often necessary after natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods or severe storms.
“However, we know very little about whether prehistoric mass grave sites near the coast could have been the result of natural disasters or other causes such as war, famine and disease.
Genevieve Cain, professor Pedro Andrade and a fisherman. Researchers at the University of Southampton in England have applied modern forensic techniques used to determine the cause of death to ancient remains.
KEY FINDINGS: FISHERS OF THE 30-40S DRONKED IN A SEA ACCIDENT
The researchers applied modern methods used to determine the cause of death in forensics to study the 5,000-year-old skeleton.
They found a fisherman between the ages of 35 and 45 who died in a fishing accident by drowning in salt water.
Skeletal remains of a 5,000 year old fisherman in a coastal mass grave.
A modified “diatom test” performed on the marrow of large bones.
Exogenous microscopic material indicates death by drowning.
The microscopic range of mineral grain sizes indicates the absence of bone marrow contamination.
The combined archaeological and geological evidence points to coastal drowning.
“This gave us the opportunity to develop an extended version of a modern forensic test for use on ancient bones.”
At the start of the study, Prof. Goff and Prof. Pedro Andrade of the University of Concepción in Chile looked through archaeological records for records of mass grave sites near the coast.
Professor Andrade previously studied the archaeological site known as Copaca 1, which is 18 miles south of Tocopilla on the Chilean coast, where there is a grave containing three well-preserved skeletons.
They chose this site, and of the three individuals they studied, was a male hunter-gatherer between the ages of 35 and 45.
The condition of his bones indicated that he was a fisherman, as there were signs of frequent harpooning, rowing, and shellfishing.
This made him an ideal candidate to study signs of drowning and evidence of the event leading up to his death.
“Looking at what we found in his bone marrow, we know that he drowned in shallow salt water,” Professor Goff said.
“We could see that the man had swallowed the sediment in his last minutes, and the sediment does not tend to float in sufficient concentration in deeper waters.”
The team believes the man died in a simple marine accident rather than a major catastrophic event such as a tsunami or a massive flood, due to other people’s bones in the grave not containing marine particles.
The team said that if they had checked other human remains at the site besides these three, as well as looking for geological evidence of natural disasters in the area, they could shed more light on the cause of his death.
Professor James Goff and a fisherman. They confirmed drowning in seawater as the cause of death for a fisherman, closed a 5,000-year-old cold case, and opened up new possibilities for assessing the remains of our prehistoric ancestors using modern methods.
Most importantly, scientists say this new technique can be used on ancient mass graves around the world to get a better picture of the lives of people in coastal communities throughout history.
“By spending more time doing forensics and testing a wider range of beasts inside prehistoric bones, we have discovered a whole new way of doing things,” Professor Goff explained.
“This may help us better understand how difficult it was to live on the coast in prehistoric times – and how people there were affected by catastrophic events in the same way that we are today.”
“There are many coastal mass grave sites around the world where excellent archaeological research has been carried out, but the fundamental question of what caused so many deaths has not been resolved. Now we can spread this new technique around the world and potentially rewrite the backstory.”
The finds were published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.