Archaeologists Make Rare, Gruesome Find in Portugal

Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
Oblique cuts in the bottom third of the legs of a medieval skeleton found in Portugal.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the small city of Estremoz, near Portugal’s border with Spain, archaeologists recently excavated three graves located at the edge of a medieval cemetery. They were intrigued by the graves' isolated location and odd burial style. Within, they found something shocking: All three people had amputated hands and feet.

Between the 13th and 15th centuries, Estremoz was an important village located between the kingdoms of Portugal and Castile. In the mid-13th century, Christians colonized the area, driving out the Moors. The famous castle of Estremoz, parts of which still stand, was built to house the royal court. The nearby cemetery of Rossio Marquês de Pombal dates to this period. It's on the edge of this cemetery that the archaeologists found the burials.

Writing in the International Journal of Paleopathology, researchers from the Universities of Évora and Coimbra describe the young to middle-aged men found in the graves with cut marks to their forearms and ankles. The cuts are clean through the bones but not quite at right angles, and appear to have happened just before or just after death. Even more interesting, the bones from the severed hands and feet were also found in the graves—but not in the right places.


Field drawing of the skeletons. The arrow points to one of the men's right hand lying below his left elbow.
T. Fernandes, M. Liberato, C. Marques, E. Cunha

In the case of a late-teenage male, both of his feet and his left hand were buried under his left hip, while his right hand was under his left elbow.

In another grave, they found evidence that one amputation took more than one try to complete. The man's right leg had a second set of cuts, likely inflicted after a failed first attempt to cut off his foot. The researchers think that a sharp implement such as a machete, sword, cleaver, hatchet, or axe was used to deliver the blows swiftly and with high force.

The archaeologists believe the cuts were made while the men were still alive—or very near death—and almost certainly restrained. Lead author Teresa Fernandes tells Mental Floss that “due to the absence of any artifact, we cannot state for sure that the feet were bound; yet considering the historical evidence, prisoners were normally bound with the legs straight while hung."

Why had the men been treated like this?

Generally, amputations occur throughout history as the result of a medical therapy, accident, ritual, intentional violence, or punishment. While there is evidence from the same cemetery for foot disease, these particular men had no other indications of problems with their bodies, meaning medical treatment can be ruled out. So too can ritualistic post-mortem amputation, since there are no historical or archaeological accounts of amputation of hands and feet after death. And their injuries were clearly not the result of an accident.

The researchers think these amputations were a punishment.

Historical records of amputations related to criminal cases are relatively rare. But medieval kings in the Iberian peninsula had the discretion to mete out capital punishment—including hanging, drowning, and even boiling someone alive—as they saw fit. They could also use mutilation as punishment. The researchers found one mention specifically of the amputation of both hands and feet of traitors during a civil war in 14th-century Portugal.

“These skeletons may represent the testimony of vigorous application of justice as an act of royal sovereignty in a peripheral but militarily strategic region,” Fernandes' team writes.

Other researchers agree with this interpretation. Piers Mitchell, a palaeopathologist at the University of Cambridge, tells Mental Floss that because "the amputations are all at similar locations, and are symmetrically placed on the limbs, deliberate amputation as a punishment seems the most plausible interpretation."

Lost to the ages, however, is what these men may have done to merit this extreme punishment. Execution "could be enforced in the event of treason, theft, making false currency, or myriad sexual crimes," Fernandes says. “But the form of execution isn’t stipulated by law."

Archaeological evidence of judicial amputation is extremely rare, according to Jo Buckberry, a bioarchaeologist at the University of Bradford who has done similar studies on ancient British skeletons. "The evidence of cut marks and the inclusion of severed hands and feet make this Portuguese case especially compelling,” she tells Mental Floss. Mitchell explains that often, "the extremities are absent in the graves of those who underwent amputation," which makes it noteworthy that these graves contained the spare body parts.

The fact that amputees were all young men also intrigues scholars. "This pattern has been seen in execution cemeteries in Anglo-Saxon England,” Buckberry says, “leaving us wondering if young men are more likely to commit crimes, or to be caught doing them, or if punishments are especially harsh for this demographic group."

These three unfortunate men may never tell us exactly what they did or who they are. But their bones show the most severe case of amputation as judicial punishment to date, revealing just one of the extreme penalties for committing a crime in medieval Portugal.

Archaeologists Uncover World's Oldest Known Brewery in Israel

People have been knocking back beers for 13,000 years, according to new archaeological findings out of the Middle East. As Science magazine reports, evidence of wheat and barley-based beer was found inside stone mortars carved into the floor of a cave near Haifa, Israel.

The Raqefet Cave was used as a burial site by the Natufians, a group of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers who were also responsible for the world’s oldest known bread, which was discovered in Jordan in July. These findings challenge previous evidence that traced the origin of beer back just 5000 years.

Beer was also previously believed to be merely a by-product of bread-making, but archaeologists say that isn’t necessarily the case. Instead, researchers believe beer may been served during ritual feasts “to venerate the dead and/or to enhance group cohesion among the living,” researchers wrote in their paper, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

Remarkably, the Stanford University researchers who made this discovery weren't even looking for evidence of alcohol. “We did not set out to find alcohol in the stone mortars, but just wanted to investigate what plant foods people may have consumed because very little data was available in the archaeological record,” Li Liu, a professor of Chinese archaeology at Stanford, said in a statement.

Researchers theorize that beer brewing may have inspired the Natufians to cultivate cereals in the region, but it’s not currently known whether beer or bread came first. The mortars dug into the cave floor were reportedly used for storing and pounding wheat and barley, as well as brewing beer.

The beverage wasn’t exactly what we know as beer today, though. According to the BBC, the prehistoric beer was “gruel-like” and similar to porridge. It was likely weaker than modern beer, too.

[h/t Science]

Fossilized Fat Shows 550-Million-Year-Old Sea Creature May Have Been the World's First Animal

Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

A bizarre sea creature whose fossils look like a cross between a leaf and a fingerprint may be Earth's oldest known animal, dating back 558 million years.

As New Scientist reports, researchers from the Australian National University (ANU) made a fortunate find in a remote region of Russia: a Dickinsonia fossil with fat molecules still attached. These odd, oval-shaped creatures were soft-bodied, had rib structures running down their sides, and grew about 4.5 feet long. They were as “strange as life on another planet,” researchers wrote in the abstract of a new paper published in the journal Science.

Another variety of fossil
Ilya Bobrovskiy, the Australian National University

Although Dickinsonia fossils were first discovered in South Australia in 1946, researchers lacked the organic matter needed to classify this creature. "Scientists have been fighting for more than 75 years over what Dickinsonia and other bizarre fossils of the Edicaran biota were: giant single-celled amoeba, lichen, failed experiments of evolution, or the earliest animals on Earth,” senior author Jochen Brocks, an associate professor at ANU, said in a statement.

With the discovery of cholesterol molecules—which are found in almost all animals, but not in other organisms like bacteria and amoebas—scientists can say that Dickinsonia were animals. The creatures swam the seas during the Ediacaran Period, 635 million to 542 million years ago. More complex organisms like mollusks, worms, and sponges didn’t emerge until 20 million years later.

The fossil with fat molecules was found on cliffs near the White Sea in an area of northwest Russia that was so remote that researchers had to take a helicopter to get there. Collecting the samples was a death-defying feat, too.

“I had to hang over the edge of a cliff on ropes and dig out huge blocks of sandstone, throw them down, wash the sandstone, and repeat this process until I found the fossils I was after,” lead author Ilya Bobrovskiy of ANU said. Considering that this find could change our understanding of Earth’s earliest life forms, it seems the risk was worth it.

[h/t New Scientist]

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