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Distribution and examples of perimortem skeletal lesions at Cornaux

Human Sacrifice or Tsunami? 20 Celt Skeletons in Switzerland Offer Clues

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Skulls, bones, wooden beams – sounds like the remnants of a bloody battle! Archaeologists have been investigating human bones discovered in a riverbed near the ruins of a bridge in Switzerland's Three Lakes region. The riverbed is located near the ruins of the Celtic bridge at Cornaux/Les Sauges. These ruins along with the discovery of twenty skeletons during the 1965 renovations of the Thielle Canal have created much excitement and curiosity over the last 6 decades, with new theories ranging from a violent tsunami to a bloody human sacrifice! 


A Deeper Understanding of Celt Heritage: Problems with Reconstruction 

Now, a team of specialists in archaeology, anthropology, thanatology, biochemistry, and genetics revisited the case. Their findings, supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the Autonomous Province of Bolzano, were published in the journal Scientific Reports. Their goal is to uncover what happened and to gain a deeper understanding of the region's Celtic heritage. 

This study is part of an international project conducted by the University of Bern and the Eurac Research Institute for Mummy Studies in Bolzano, aimed at enhancing our understanding of the Celts in Switzerland and northern Italy. Due to the Celts' predominantly oral culture, there are limited written sources, with much of the available information coming from Julius Caesar's writings. 

“They are the stories of a military adversary, so they are not necessarily objective and complete,” says Zita Laffranchi, a postdoctoral fellow in the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern, and lead author of the study. “By focusing on the archaeological finds, we are able to give a voice to the people who are not attested in the written record,” as quoted in a press release by the SNSF. 

 Distribution and examples of perimortem skeletal lesions at Cornaux/Les Sauges

Distribution and examples of perimortem skeletal lesions at Cornaux/Les Sauges. (Zita Laffranchi et al./Scientific Reports) 

This new study, the first to apply paleogenomics to the analysis of Celtic individuals from Switzerland, confirms their genetic similarity to other Iron Age populations. Some of the genetic lineages identified in Cornaux have been found in Britain, the Czech Republic, Spain, and central Italy. Isotopic analyses reveal that some individuals may have grown up in the Three Lakes region, while others likely came from the Alps. 

The researchers also conducted a bioarchaeological investigation to reconstruct the events that took place in Cornaux/Les Sauges.  

Violence Inherent in Nature: Natural Disaster or Human Sacrifice? 

The ruins of the Celtic bridge and the skeletons have been subjects of controversy. Some believe a sudden flood or tsunami caused the bridge's collapse, while others suggest the corpses were victims of human sacrifice, a known Celtic practice often associated with water. In particular, the Three Lakes region held significant importance for the Celts, particularly the Helvetians (Helvetii), the largest Celtic tribe that settled between Lake Geneva and Lake Constance.  

These findings highlight how important the region was during this time period, and also support the increasingly substantiated notion of a mixed population and high mobility among the Celtic groups. Contrary to the idea that they were isolated by the surrounding mountains, these Helvetian ancestors lived at a bustling crossroads in the heart of Europe. 

 Distribution and examples of perimortem skeletal lesions at Cornaux/Les Sauges

Artistic rendering of the Cornaux/Les Sauges bridge by P. Roeschli. (© LATÉNIUM – PARC ET MUSÉE D'ARCHÉOLOGIE DE NEUCHÂT/Swiss National Fund) 

The skeletons were thoroughly examined to understand the circumstances of their deaths. Their state of preservation and the presence of brain fragments in five skulls suggest sediment covered the corpses shortly after death. Multiple bone lesions across the bodies indicate violent impact, but no intentional injuries or sharp object wounds were found. The entanglement of some bones with pieces of wood, suggest an accidental event, making the theory of a tsunami causing the bridge's collapse likely. 

“Considering all these elements, it is very likely that a violent and sudden accident took place in Cornaux,” posits Marco Milella, researcher at the University of Bern and co-leader of this project. “But this bridge had a prior life. It may have been a place of sacrifice, and it is conceivable that some corpses preceded the accident. There is no reason to choose between the two alternatives.” 

Further information was gathered through chemical analysis of the bones and teeth. Radiocarbon dating provided a time frame for when the individuals lived, while other isotopic analyses offered insights into their diet and places of residence. Paleogenetic analyses allowed the team to study the ancient DNA of half of the individuals, reports La Brujula Verde. 

The analysis confirmed the presence of at least 20 people, with no apparent family links among them: a young girl, two other children, and 17 adults, most of whom were young men. This demographic bias could indicate a group of prisoners or slaves who were sacrificed, or possibly a convoy of merchants or soldiers. However, some radiocarbon dates were ambiguous, making it uncertain whether all the deaths occurred simultaneously with the bridge's destruction. 

"In this type of research, we are interested in individuals. We trace their life stories, which can be emotional", says Zita Laffranchi, while ceding that the exact events of what happened at the bridge are likely to remain a mystery. "But at its root, the goal is to better understand our cultural and biological heritage, at the level of the population.” 

Top image: Distribution and examples of perimortem skeletal lesions at Cornaux/Les Sauges.(image cropped) Were they victims of an ancient tsunami or human sacrifice? Source: Zita Laffranchi et al./Scientific Reports 


Carvajal, G. 2024. What Happened to These 20 Celts 2000 Years Ago? Victims of a Tsunami or Human Sacrifice? Available at: 

Laffranchi, Z. 20224. Geographic origin, ancestry, and death circumstances at the Cornaux/Les Sauges Iron Age bridge, Switzerland . Scientific Reports, 14. Available at: 

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I am a graduate of History from the University of Delhi, and a graduate of Law, from Jindal University, Sonepat. During my study of history, I developed a great interest in post-colonial studies, with a focus on Latin America. I... Read More

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