Neolithic Fisherman Died by Drowning 5,000 Years Ago, New Research Shows
The 5,000-year-old remains of a man unearthed from a mass burial in northern Chile have been identified as having belonged to a Neolithic fisherman who died by drowning. The details of the man’s life were discovered through an extensive analysis of his bones, which showed telltale signs of his lifestyle and cause of death.
The results of the study of the man’s remains which were excavated near the Atacama Desert have just been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. The interdisciplinary team of experts responsible for the analysis included scientists from Chile, Australia, and the United Kingdom. Their research has broken new ground in forensic archaeology, revealing an impressive set of facts about someone who lived and died in a prehistoric era.
Genevieve Cain, Pedro Andrade and the Neolithic fisherman unearthed in Chile. (University of Southampton)
A Neolithic Fisherman’s Difficult Life and Tragic End
The unfortunate man’s skeleton was excavated near Chile’s coastline in the region of Copaca adjacent to the Atacama Desert. He was one of four individuals found in the mass grave, having been buried alongside one other man, one woman, and a child.
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“What we can assess from similar contexts is that they probably belonged to the same family group,” lead study author Pedro Andrade, an archaeologist and anthropologist at the University of Concepción in Chile, told Live Science. The people in the grave hadn’t all died at the same time, Andrade said, but had been buried separately over the course of about 100 years.
The drowned victim would have been approximately 5 feet, 3 inches (1.6 meters) tall, and between the ages of 35 and 45 when he passed away. It was clear from the condition of the skeleton that the man lived a difficult life. His remains showed indications of degenerative disease and physical distress, including signs of osteoarthritis in his back and elbows and damage consistent with a blunt trauma to the back of his head.
The teeth of this Neolithic fisherman were in terrible shape, as he’d suffered from periodontal disease and oral abscesses. The condition of his eye sockets suggested he’d suffered from an iron deficiency caused by a marine animal parasite that had somehow gotten into his body. On his legs and arms, marks imprinted on points where muscles were once attached revealed he’d performed repetitive activities that would have been related to fishing. These would have included rowing, harpooning, and squatting in order to harvest shellfish.
Interior analysis of the Neolithic fisherman's bones revealed traces of microscopic sea life, such as parasite eggs and algae. This image shows a degraded unicellular green alga that lives in marine ecosystems. (Stephen Bates / Andrade et al.)
The Emergence of a New Archaeological and Anthropological Tool
The Neolithic fisherman’s cause of death was not revealed by this type of obvious damage. Instead, it was discovered through a microscopic analysis of his bone marrow. When a person drowns, inhaled water will travel through the bloodstream and saturate every part of the body. It will even get into the bone marrow, through tiny capillaries that enter through a bone’s surface.
If this inhaled water comes from the sea, the water will inevitably be contaminated with a microscopic form of algae known as diatoms, which will then be found distributed throughout the drowned person’s body. Naturally, as the body of a drowned person decays over time most of the evidence that showed how they died would be lost. But traces of diatoms will remain inside the bone marrow, long after everything else has been lost.
The scientists involved in this study weren’t sure if the diatom detection method would actually work for a skeleton that had been in the ground for 5,000 years. To increase their odds of success, they decided to tweak the testing procedures.
James Goff, study co-author and University of Southampton earth sciences professor, photographed alongside the remains of the Neolithic fisherman discovered in Chile. (University of Southampton)
Tweaking Testing Procedures for the Analysis of Ancient Remains
Although it is good for finding microscopic diatoms, the modern diatom test tends to destroy other small organisms and particles that might be present in bone marrow. To prevent such damage to their ancient remains, the scientists in this study developed what they called “a less aggressive process” that preserved a wider range of organic material from inside the preserved bone marrow they extracted.
When they examined the extracted bone marrow with a scanning electron microscope, the scientists were delighted to discover it was teeming with the preserved remains of tiny ocean life. Among their finds, they detected traces of algae, parasite eggs, and miniscule sponge-like structures called spicules.
“By looking at what we found in his bone marrow, we know that he drowned in shallow saltwater,” said study co-author and University of Southampton earth sciences professor James Goff, in a University of Southampton press release. “We could see that the poor man swallowed sediment in his final moments and sediment does not tend to float around in sufficient concentrations in deeper waters.”
The researchers considered the possibility that the man could have lost his life during a tsunami, which might have swept far enough inland to cause a lot of damage and kill a lot of people. It is known from other studies that Chile experienced more than one powerful tsunami around 5,000 years ago, so this is definitely a possibility.
However, the researchers believe it is more likely that he simply fell off a boat or raft while out on the sea fishing, and couldn’t make it safely back to his boat or to land. The man’s rib bones had been broken and he was missing both cervical vertebrae and shoulder joints, and all of this damage likely happened after he drowned and his body crashed into rocks after being washed back to shore.
Did Many Die by Drowning in Prehistoric Times? Researchers May Soon Know
Through their super-careful methodology on studying the Neolithic fisherman, the researchers involved in this groundbreaking study have clearly advanced the science of prehistoric forensic archaeology. Their methodology could be applied to other skeletons found in burial sites in coastal areas.
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“In taking more time over the forensic technique and testing for a broader range of beasties inside the prehistoric bones, we've cracked open a whole new way to do things,” said Professor Goff. "This can help us understand much more about how tough it was living by the coast in pre-historic days—and how people there were affected by catastrophic events, just as we are today."
There have been many mass burials found in coastal areas around the world. This new research methodology will allow researchers to check recovered skeletal remains for signs of drowning, which could reveal occurrences of ancient tsunamis that drowned many, or isolated incidents that drowned only a few.
Top image: Neolithic fisherman Source: Stephen Bates / Andrade et al.
By Nathan Falde