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

Did Medieval Brits Worry About a Zombie Uprising?

Gernot Keller via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.5
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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C. Fritz/MC
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Ice Age Artists Used Charcoal Over 10,000 Years to Create Europe's Oldest Cave Paintings
C. Fritz/MC
C. Fritz/MC

Tiny bits of charcoal found in a cave in France are providing new clues into how our prehistoric ancestors lived some 35,000 years ago.

The samples were taken from the Chauvet Pont d'Arc Cave in southern France, whose wall paintings are the oldest in Europe and among the oldest in the world. Few people have ever been inside the cave, which was discovered only in 1994 and remains one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of all time—but some might recognize it from Werner Herzog's award-winning documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams.

The results of the charcoal analysis, published today in the April issue of the journal Antiquity, enabled researchers to paint a picture of how humans created art in the Ice Age, as well as the bitter climactic conditions of that time.

Researchers collected 171 samples of charcoal from hearths and torch marks in the cave. Other bits of charcoal were found directly beneath the animal paintings, which have been preserved in incredible detail after being sealed off by a rockfall thousands of years ago.

A drawing of rhinos inside the Chauvet cave
C. Fritz/MC

The analysis revealed that all but one of the charcoal samples came from burnt pine trees; the remaining one came from buckthorn. That doesn't sound all that impressive until you consider that some of these drawings were created nearly 10,000 years apart, during two different Ice Age periods. Put differently, for millennia, humans chose to use the same material for the sole purpose of creating art.

Researchers concluded that while other types of wood could have been used, the artists who created these cave paintings continued to choose pine, likely due to the availability of fallen branches as well as its combustion properties. But more remarkably, researchers believe these early artists selected it because it was the perfect medium for their art, ideal "for the smudging and blending techniques used in cave paintings," according to the study.

Over the years, the paintings have been praised for their artistic merit and use of motion. As Herzog commented in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, one artist's rendering of a bison with eight legs suggested movement—"almost a form of proto-cinema."

These findings also reveal what the climate was like during that time, and it was anything but balmy. The researchers write:

"Pine is a pioneer taxon [group] with an affinity for mountainous environments and survived in refuges during the coldest periods of the last ice age. As such, it attests, first and foremost, to the harsh climatic conditions that prevailed during the various occupations of the cave."

To preserve the cave paintings, only researchers are allowed inside the Chauvet Cave. However, a replica of the cave was built in France's Ardèche region and remains open to tourists.

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Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Humans Might Have Practiced Brain Surgery on Cows 5000 Years Ago
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi
Scientific Reports, Fernando Ramirez Rozzi

In the 1970s, archaeologists discovered a site in France containing hundreds of cow skeletons dating back 5000 to 5400 years. The sheer number wasn't surprising—human agriculture in that part of the world was booming by 3000 BCE. What perplexed scientists was something uncovered there a few decades later: a cow skull bearing a thoughtfully drilled hole. Now, a team of researchers has released evidence that suggests the hole is an early example of animal brain surgery.

Fernando Ramírez Rozzi, a paleontologist with the French National Center for Scientific Research, and Alain Froment, an anthropologist at the Museum of Mankind in Paris, published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports. After comparing the opening to the holes chiseled into the skulls of humans from the same era, they found the bones bore some striking similarities. They didn't show any signs of fracturing from blunt force trauma; rather, the hole in the cow skull, like those in the human skulls, seemed to have been carved out carefully using a tool made for exactly that purpose. That suggests that the hole is evidence of the earliest known veterinary surgery performed by humans.

Trepanation, or the practice of boring holes into human skulls, is one of the oldest forms of surgery. Experts are still unsure why ancient humans did this, but the level of care that went into the procedures suggests that the surgery was likely used to treat sick patients while they were still alive. Why a person would perform this same surgery on a cow, however, is harder to explain.

The authors present a few theories, the first being that these ancient brain surgeons were treating a sick cow the same way they might treat a sick human. If a cow was suffering from a neural disease like epilepsy, perhaps they though that cutting a hole in its head would relieve whatever was agitating the brain. The cow would have needed to be pretty special to warrant such an effort when there were hundreds of healthy cows living on the same plot of land, as evidenced by the skeletons it was found with.

Another possible explanation was that whoever operated on the cow did so as practice to prepare them for drilling into the heads of live humans one day. "Cranial surgery requires great manual dexterity and a complete knowledge of the anatomy of the brain and vessel distribution," the authors write in the study. "It is possible that the mastery of techniques in cranial surgery shown in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods was acquired through experimentation on animals."

Either way, the bovine patient didn't live to see the results of the procedure: The bone around the hole hadn't healed at all, which suggests the cow either died during surgery or wasn't alive to begin with.

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