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The gruesome find was made in Koszyce, southern Poland, and shed new light on the mysterious circumstances in which the families in it were killed and buried.
The mass grave was found by archaeologists, and contained the bones of 15 people; the youngest of them small children.
DNA tests showed that the people were related. The group was associated with the Globular Amphora culture found in Central Europe around 3400-2800 BC.
Various experts studied the remains to piece together the story of this ill-fated family.
Some Polish experts suggested that they were killed during a ceremony or even as part of ritual cannibalism.
However, a different theory was proposed by experts in a 2019 report.
The authors said: “All individuals had been brutally killed by blows to the head, but buried with great care.
“Evidently, these individuals were buried by people who knew them well and who carefully placed them in the grave according to familial relationships.”
Using genome-wide analysis, the scientists mapped out the family links between the people in the grave.
They identified four nuclear families in it, with close relatives buried next to each other, rather than mixed haphazardly with strangers.
Based on the nature of their injuries, the authors said that the people in the grave were captured and executed, rather than killed during fighting.
This conformed with the context of violence between competing groups at the time, in which women and children were often taken as captives.
In Koszyce, the men might simply have been away when their partners and children were captured and killed by a rival group, the authors speculate.
They added: “Although alternative scenarios (e.g., ritualistic violence or familicide) cannot be ruled out, it seems most plausible that the massacre at Koszyce falls in the former category.”
In the paper’s conclusion, the authors outline the violent lives people would have lived at the time.
It reads: “Brutal events such as the family massacre documented in the Koszyce burial may have been all too common in the unstable, tumultuous centuries at the beginning of the third millennium BCE.
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“However, along with all the violence and aggression illustrated by the Koszyce find, our study also demonstrates the strong sense of family affiliation and cohesion that prevailed among this group of people.
“Although it has often been suggested that nuclear and/or extended family structures were important in many prehistoric societies, the archaeological and genomic data we have presented here provide actual proof that this was indeed the case.”
The paper is titled ‘Unraveling ancestry, kinship, and violence in a Late Neolithic mass grave’ and was published in May last year.
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