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6 Murder Mysteries from the Ancient World

These grisly cases from the ancient world prove that murder runs in our bones.

Violence is a long time coming – some would even say it’s woven into the very nature of human existence. The following ancient murder mysteries show that things weren’t much different in years past. From genocide to intimate killing, this uniquely human act has been with us from the beginning.

1. Georgie of Vindolanda

vindolanda ancient murder mysteries
  • The ruins of Vindolanda

Vindolanda is an ancient Roman outpost in northern England noted for a set of wooden tablets – the most important military correspondence ever recovered from the Roman era. But a far grislier discovery was unearthed at this fort near Hadrian’s Wall – the 1, 800-year-old remains of a child. Archaeologists named the child Georgie, though the sex is impossible to determine. Because the body was buried in a shallow pit below the barracks rather than cremated (a grave crime under Roman law), archeologists believe the child was murdered. The story gets stranger from there – analysis suggests the victim grew up in the Mediterranean and could have had his or her hands tied at time of death. Was Georgie a slave? A soldier’s child? There are still no answers.

2. Moche Massacre in Peru

huaca del sol
  • Huaca del Sol, an adobe brick temple built by the Moche civilization

The Moche culture existed in what is now modern-day Peru from 100 to 700 CE, prior to the great Incan Empire. It was a largely agricultural society with loose political bonds, yet something very dark occurred in this rustic region. In 1997, archaeologists uncovered a mass grave containing the remains of roughly 100 people. They had been skinned alive, decapitated, drained of their blood, and dumped as food for the birds. All were young men, so the most likely explanation is that they died at the hands of their enemy during battle.

3. Gallina Genocide in New Mexico

ancient murder mysteries
  • Cliff house ruins of Northern New Mexico

Genocide, the ugliest piece to the human puzzle, has existed since the dawn of time. The Gallina culture lived in what is now New Mexico, from 1100 to 1275 CE, before mysteriously vanishing off the face of the earth. Less than 100 human remains have ever been found from the group and all were victims of violence in some form. One discovery included seven skeletons in a canyon with their skulls crushed and necks snapped. Of the Gallina dwellings recovered my researchers, many were left in perfect order – save for the ones that were burned with their murdered bodies inside. Was it a form of ethnic cleansing from a neighboring tribe? Many believe that it’s plausible.

4. Cancuén Catastrophe in Guatemala

ancient murder mysteries
  • A panel from Cancuén portraying the ruler Tajal Chan Ahk

Cancuén was a flourishing Mayan city in present day Guatemala that functioned as a major trading point in 7th century Mesoamerica. In 2005, archaeologists discovered 50 skeletons in a sacred pool site. They had all fallen victim to lances and axe blows to the head. The creepiest component to this ancient case? The murderers dressed their victims in the finest clothing and adorned their bodies with shell jewelry. As to the reason for this mass slaughter, researchers remain uncertain.

5. A “Swedish Pompeii” on Öland Island

ancient murder mysteries
  • The island of Öland

On the island of Öland in Sweden, excavations uncovered the site of a 5th century fort that met a grisly end. Those manning the fort were brutally killed and their bodies left to decompose – peculiar, given that cremation was the dominant death rite of Scandinavia at the time. One the strangest parts of this mass murder, which has been dubbed “Swedish Pompeii,” is that the attackers left behind a slew of valuables, meaning they were intent on murder and mayhem. Most likely the event was the result a power dispute.

6. A Stone Age Stabbing in Shanidar Cave

ancient murder mysteries
  • Shanidar Cave in the Zagros Mountains

Even extinct human species, like the Neanderthals, lived in a world of murder. In the Zagros Mountains in modern day Iraq, the body of a middle-aged Neanderthal was found with a puncture wound through the ribs. His time of death occurred between 50,000 to 75, 000 years ago, making it the earliest example of violence in the human fossil record.

The angle of the fatal wound is consistent with a stabbing – possibly by a long-range weapon. Intriguingly, early-modern humans were also present in western Asia, raising the possibility of a prehistoric inter-species conflict between Neanderthals and our earliest human antecedents.



Created on 29 Jun 2015
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