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Gernot Keller via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

Did Medieval Brits Worry About a Zombie Uprising?

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Gernot Keller via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5

From Babylon and China to the Czech Republic and Haiti, cultures around the world and throughout human history have whispered stories about the rise of the walking dead. Now researchers in the UK say they may have found evidence of one village’s attempts to keep that from happening. They published their report in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

JThomas via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

The site of the former Wharram Percy village is peaceful today, with grassy meadows and the picturesque ruins of St. Martin’s church. Nearly a thousand years ago, the scene was very different, as the remains of 10 people—including children—were burned, hacked with knives, and left in a pit outside the church cemetery.

This was not standard procedure. Historical records indicate that the people of Wharram Percy were peasant farmers and landowners, accustomed to laying their dead to rest with dignity.

So when archaeologists took a close look at the mutilated remains in the pit, they were mystified. What would inspire ordinary people to commit such violence against the dead? And who were the deceased, to inspire such gruesome acts?

To find out, they reviewed each cut and char mark on every single one of the 137 bones recovered from the site. They used radiocarbon dating to estimate the bones’ age, analyzed the chemical makeup of tooth enamel, and reviewed other archeological records, looking for other examples of this kind of attack on the dead.


Cuts and breaks in the Wharram Percy bones. Image Credit: Mays et al. 2017 in Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports

The team determined that the bones had been laid to rest between the 11th and 13th centuries, and strontium isotope analysis of tooth enamel showed they’d belonged to locals. This latter fact immediately eliminated the most common explanation: that the deceased had been criminals, drifters, or other unwelcome visitors.

The angle, depth, and placement of the cuts in the bone, combined with the way they were broken and burned, eventually led the researchers to settle on two theories. Either these people were eaten by the villagers, or their mutilation was part of “an attempt to lay the revenant dead.”

Both options sound fairly extreme, and they are. But these were hard, lean times in Wharram Percy, and famine can drive people to do terrible things.

Still, close analysis of the bone damage made cannibalism seem unlikely. The cuts were made into the middle of bones, not butcher-style, at the joints.

Zombies, though?

“The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best,” co-author Simon Mays of Historic England told The Guardian.

Yet in their paper, Mays and his colleagues were less certain. “The evidence does not permit arguments to be advanced decisively in favor of either scenario, but it may be more consistent with attempts to lay revenant corpses than with starvation cannibalism,” they wrote.

The truth about Wharram Percy’s desecrated dead eludes us still. But TV producers, if you’re reading this: medieval zombies? Think about it.

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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
9.7-Million-Year-Old Teeth Discovered in Germany Have Scientists Puzzled
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Dave Einsel, Stringer, Getty Images

Scientists in Germany say they've found ape teeth that are surprisingly similar to the teeth of an early human relative dating to millions of years later. As the Independent reports, the team of experts unearthed a pair of 9.7-million-year-old fossilized teeth that, they say, have some of the same features as the teeth of the hominid Australopithecus afarensis.

Scientists from the Natural History Museum in Mainz found the fossils a year ago in nearby Eppelsheim but have waited until now to publish their findings—partly because they weren't sure what to make of the puzzling discovery. Of the two teeth, a canine and a molar, the canine tooth bears a striking resemble to that from "Lucy," one of the first known ancient human relatives to walk upright, who lived in Africa some 3.2 million years ago.

"They are clearly ape teeth," researcher Herbert Lutz told local media in a press conference. "Their characteristics resemble African finds that are four to five million years younger than the fossils excavated in Eppelsheim. This is a tremendous stroke of luck, but also a great mystery."

They dated the fossils using the remains of an extinct horse which was found buried in the same spot. In their paper, the scientists describe the canine’s similarities to other remains found in the lower half of the globe, but they still don't have answers to many of the questions the report raises. They plan to continue examining the teeth for clues. The public will also have a chance to see the teeth for themselves, first at a state exhibition this month, and then at Mainz's Natural History Museum.

[h/t Independent]

6 Pioneering Facts About Mary Leakey

Fossil bones and the earliest footprints of our human ancestors are just a few of Mary Leakey’s groundbreaking discoveries. Get to know the legendary paleoanthropologist, and learn how her serendipitous finds forever altered scientists’ understanding of human origins.


Mary Leakey (1913-1996), née Mary Nicol, was destined to be an explorer: Her father, Erskine Nicol, was a landscape painter, and the family traveled extensively through France, Italy, and Switzerland. While staying in a commune in southern France, 12-year-old Mary became interested in archaeology after meeting Elie Peyrony, a French prehistorian excavating a cave. Mary dug through his tiny finds—which included fine points, scrapers, and flint blades—and sorted them into an amateur classification system.


Leakey’s parents were artists, but hunting for fossils was part of her heritage: Her maternal great-great-grandfather was John Frere, an 18th-century English government official and antiquarian who’s credited with first recognizing Stone Age flint objects as early weapons and tools.


Leakey was intelligent, but she also had a rebellious streak. As a teen, she was expelled from several Roman Catholic convent schools—once for intentionally creating an explosion in a chemistry lab. Figuring she wasn’t cut out for a classroom, Leakey never finished high school, and decided to pursue independent studies in art, geology, and archaeology at the University of London instead. (“I had never passed a single school exam, and clearly never would,” the scientist later wrote in her 1986 autobiography Disclosing the Past.)


Mary Leakey—who inherited her father’s artistic skills— ended up working as an illustrator for archaeological digs. An archaeologist introduced her to Cambridge University paleontologist Louis Leakey, who needed an illustrator for his book Adam’s Ancestors (1934). The two became lovers, but their union resulted in scandal, as Leakey was still married at the time. The couple married in 1936, after Leakey divorced his first wife.


Mary Leakey's first major discovery came in 1948 when she found a fossil skull fragment of Proconsul africanus, an ancestor of apes and humans, which later diverged into two separate species. The fossil was thought to be more than 18 million years old.


In 1978, Leakey was on an expedition in Laetoli, in Tanzania, when members of her camp engaged in a spirited elephant dung fight. A scientist fell down, and he noticed strange indentations on the ground that had been recently exposed by erosion. They turned out to be tracks made around 3.7 million years prior, from animals that had walked over damp volcanic ash. Examining these prints took several years, but the team's efforts paid off when Leakey noted that one of the prints seemed to be made by a hominin. This discovery showed that early humans began walking upright long before scientists thought they had.

Additional source: Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind's Beginnings, Virginia Morell


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