This 5000-year-old mass grave hides a family tragedy

The 15 men, women, and children discovered in a 5000-year-old mass grave near the southern Polish village of Koszyce must have suffered brutal deaths: Each was killed by blows to the head. Yet the tidy, systematic nature of their burial suggests they were laid to rest with care. Now, new genetic analyses reveal the dead all belonged to a single extended family, offering an intimate glimpse of a Bronze Age tragedy.

To discover their identities, a team of geneticists sequenced the genomes of all 15 skeletons. Once it was clear the individuals were closely related, scientists looked at their burial positions. They found that mothers were buried next to their children, and siblings were placed next to one another. Fathers and other older male relatives were conspicuously missing from the group, the researchers report today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The dead belonged to the central European Globular Amphora culture—named for the bulbous pottery vessels included in graves—and were neighbors to the demographically distinct Corded Ware culture. Little is known about the interactions between those two groups, but some researchers speculate that as the Corded Ware culture expanded throughout Europe, competition for resources often boiled over into violence. One of those deadly outbreaks may have led to the killings of those in the Koszyce mass grave.

But although the cause of the massacre isn’t known, it appears that the family’s elder men escaped—and therefore, the scientists say, may have been the ones to bury their dearly departed.