Cave of bones: the strangest archaeological find

(ORDO NEWS) — Among the grottoes of Atapuerca, the “Cave of Bones” is far from the only one, but, of course, the most ominous. A separate secret is the bones of ancient animals found here, including bears, lions, wolves, lynxes … and not a single herbivore.

The Caves of Bones case

At the end of the 19th century, while laying a railway through the Sierra de Atapuerca mountain range in northern Spain, builders tore through a series of karst caves, revealing many paleontological remains. However, systematic development began here much later, when the railway was long abandoned.

Already after 1983, thousands of bone remains of ancient predators, as well as human ones, belonging to at least 29 individuals, were unearthed in the “Cave of Bones”. Who were they and how did they end up at the bottom of the 13-meter crevasse?


Two fatal fractures of the skull No. 17: above – on the data of computed tomography, in longitudinal and cross sections; below – on the restored copy and on the 3D model. Shown is the calculated angle of the assassin’s blows hundreds of thousands of years ago.

A complete gentleman’s suite of paleo surveyors was used to date the remains, including optical dating almost unknown to the layman. This approach is based on observing the luminescence of minerals that have accumulated energy in defects in their crystal lattice. Such defects slowly arise in buried rocks under the influence of ionizing radiation from radioactive elements, which are found everywhere in trace amounts. When crystals are irradiated with light of certain wavelengths, defects begin to “appear” – the stronger, the longer the mineral has spent underground. Potassium in feldspar crystals luminesces when exposed to near infrared radiation (pIRIR method), silicon in quartz crystals – optically (TT-OSL method). They gave a similar result – 433 ± 15 and 416 ± 19 thousand years, respectively,

Atapuerca is an extremely luxurious crime scene: more than 90% of the known remains of Heidelberg were found here. Among them is Miguelon, a superbly preserved skull No. 5 that belonged to a 30-year-old man. However, there is nothing detective about his death – Miguelon died of sepsis, which developed after the infection entered through broken teeth. Other remains give approximately the same picture: most of the fractures were formed as a result of a fall, no more than 4% of them were lifetime, and often with traces of healing. Was the “Cave of Bones” a mass grave or an accidental pit where sediment gradually moved bodies? Perhaps the key piece of evidence in this tangled case will be Skull # 17.

Spanish paleoanthropologists reconstructed it from 52 fragments, immediately drawing attention to a pair of neat forehead breaks, similar, like two twins or like two injuries caused by the same blunt object. It is difficult to imagine that as a result of a fall, collapse or other accident, two completely identical wounds appeared. The same is indicated by the location of the breaks – at the “hat line”, slightly to the left of the center line. Researchers have shown that these lesions on the skull No. 17 appeared during life and the body went to the cleft after death. “The only way for a corpse to be there, below, is to be thrown into a hole,” the “paleo chikov” emphasize. This is definitely a murder – perhaps not the only one among those whose remains were hidden for a long time in the “Cave of Bones”.


Sherlock Holmes had every right to consider his investigations quite elementary. Vivid evidence, living witnesses, an understandable crime scene: all that remains is to arm yourself with the deductive method and prepare a trap for the killer. Another thing is the mysterious cases encountered by anthropologists studying the distant past. Detective puzzles, the usual clues to which have long been lost. Methods that include radioisotope analysis and genetics, investigations, the only evidence of which can be only the bones of ancient victims … No, this is not at all elementary.

Deal with the last bouquet

Local Kurds pointed out the potential crime scene: in the 1950s, several anthropological teams began work in the Shanidar cave in northern Iraq and soon stumbled upon bones belonging to at least eight adults and two children, surrounded by hundreds of stone tools and animal remains. These were Neanderthals, buried 35-65 thousand years ago, many with traces of severe pathologies, diseases and injuries. What happened to them?

Perhaps the most eloquent was skeleton number 1 (“Nandy”) – a very elderly man of 40-50 years old, which is equivalent to our 80, pretty battered by life. Orbital fracture, possibly resulting in loss of vision in the left eye; an amputated right arm with a shoulder that had time to partially atrophy; leg bones that may have been deformed by partial paralysis of the right side of the body. Surprisingly, it seems that the Neanderthals at times showed such concern for the weak that even modern people often forget. On the other hand, skeleton No. 3 looks like an obvious victim of murder or war: on its ninth rib there is a trace of a blow from a sharp weapon – judging by its shape and direction, a throwing spear – which has just begun to heal.

However, the main sensation was brought by the results of palynological examination: in two samples of pollen of ancient plants, collected near skeleton No. 4, clusters of a hundred grains were found, very reminiscent of whole anthers. It is unlikely that the wind or animals could bring them here without dividing them into separate specks of dust – it looks like someone decorated the grave with a bouquet. Yarrow and cornflower, tansy and wild rose, marshmallow, wild onion and mallow stockrose – all these plants are widely used in folk medicine.

It seems that the Neanderthals did not just care for the sick and the weak, but did so almost professionally. Skeleton No. 4 is believed to have belonged to a healer or shaman, whose last bed was adorned with the tools of his labor by the respectful “parishioners”. Some recent works contradict this picture: they indicate that whole accumulations of pollen could be carried into the cave by rodents, who accumulated them behind large cheeks. One way or another, but the “crime” in the “Case with the Last Bouquet” is unlikely to be present: it seems that this is a quite respectable burial, and the Neanderthals were buried in the Shanidar cave after death – with the exception of one (No. 1), who died from a stone blow that fell from the ceiling of this burial cave.


In the Iraqi Shanidar cave, in addition to the “skeleton in flowers” (the illustration shows an artistically rethought reconstruction), a seriously ill old man, an adult man who died from an accidental rockfall, and another who died from wound infection are buried.

The case of the stabbing

There is no statute of limitations in anthropological investigations, and many of these cases continue for decades, every now and then bringing amazing sensations. So it was with the famous Sungir Paleolithic site in the Vladimir region, which has been excavated since 1955, but the main finds – two graves – were made here only almost a decade later. These were already people of the modern type, whose remains are dated to the age of 25-30 thousand years: a large, strong man and adolescents, a boy and a girl, lying in a separate grave head to head.

In general, the determination of the sex and age of victims for an experienced “paleo sensor” does not present any great difficulties. Even the size and shape of the skull will tell a lot: the longitudinal sagittal suture that connects the parietal bones usually grows over the age of 35, the coronal suture that connects the frontal one – by 40. The sternum grows together at the age of 30-35, the bones of the pubic articulation become more bumpy and uneven over the years , teeth wear out, arthritis develops on the joints … The age of the strong man from Sungir is estimated at a little over 50 years – and it looks like he was killed.


The site in Sungir is one of the oldest known ritual burials. The man buried here is literally surrounded by tools and ornaments; the archaeologists have collected more than 13,000 beads alone, calculating that more than 10,000 man-hours were spent on their production.

In 2009, on the left inner side of the first thoracic vertebra of the skeleton, a blind wound 6 x 1−2 mm in size and 10 mm in depth, left by a pointed instrument, was found. The position of the injury may indicate that a narrow spear or long knife entered from the front, above the collarbone, and the absence of healing marks could indicate that the wound was fatal. Judging by the costume embroidered with bone beads, by the abundance of jewelry and red ocher with which the graves were adorned, the man could have belonged to the upper “strata of society”, like the adolescents in the neighboring grave.

Their fate is more mysterious. Judging by the presence of a common point mutation in mitochondrial DNA, they were brother and sister, and the skeleton of the brother (No. 2) showed traces of a sharp object hit in the pelvic region – a blow that could result in fatal bleeding. And the death of children could be the result of a ritual sacrifice, during which they were sent to another world to accompany the murdered “noble” man.


The figure of Ötzi is surrounded by legends about the curse: a series of deaths among the researchers of these remains feed the most incredible rumors. However, hundreds of people worked with the find, including in the dangerous conditions of high-mountain glaciers, so the death of several of them is a completely understandable accident.

It’s in the mountains

The body was discovered in the early fall of 1991 by a German couple on a hike in the Ötztal Alps in Tyrol, Switzerland. The remains frozen into the ice are exceptionally well preserved, and at first the tourists thought they were dealing with a crime of recent times. They called the police, who did not remove the corpse very carefully. However, the venerable age soon became apparent, and scientists accurately dated the time of the crime – 3300 years ago. At that time, 45-year-old Oetzi was an old man and suffered from a whole bunch of diseases, ranging from arthritis and heart failure, ending with intestinal parasites and tick-borne borreliosis. However, he sold his life dearly: injuries to his spine and ribs, a broken nose, many wounds on his body and an arrowhead stuck in his shoulder indicate that Ötzi died as a result of a fierce fight.


Observations that have been painstakingly accumulated by generations of forensic experts allow paleoanthropologists to establish the violent nature of wounds. Some of these signs can be clearly seen on the already familiar skull no. 17 from the Cave of Bones. Unlike other injuries of broken bones, the cut of these breaks is not perpendicular to the bone, but diagonally, ending with the detachment of the cortical layer inside the skull; cracks spread from the center of the impact – in a word, everything that happens when struck with a blunt heavy object. Ötzi’s injuries are equally evidently violent, near-death. On his body remained clothing, quite rich by the standards of the Copper Age, from a bear’s hat to warm moccasins; an 182-centimeter bow and a quiver with arrows, a copper ax, flint tools, and a fire-making tinder were also found. With such evidence on hand, one can apply the deductive method and assume that since the body of Ötzi was not robbed, he died as a result of a conflict or a pre-planned attack. And let the names of the criminals forever remain a mystery – the investigations of the “paleosurgeons” reveal many details of our distant past, not necessarily criminal.


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