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Scientists Use New Forensic Technique to Confirm a Neolithic Man Died by Drowning

14th February 2022
Genevieve Cain, Prof Pedro Andrade and the fisherman
Genevieve Cain, Prof Pedro Andrade and the fisherman Credit: Genevieve Cain/James Goff

Scientists have been able to use forensics to determine drowning in saltwater on prehistoric human remains for what they say is the first time.

The research team led by the University of Southampton has confirmed saltwater drowning as the cause of death for a Neolithic man whose remains were found in a mass grave on the coast of Northern Chile.

The team developed an enhanced version of a modern forensic test to solve a “5000-year-old cold case and believe it will help archaeologists understand more about past civilisations in coastal regions.

Professor James Goff of the University of Southampton, who led the study. worked with Prof Pedro Andrade of the Universidad de Concepción in Chile.

Prof Andrade had previously studied an archaeological site known as Copaca 1, 30 kilometres south of Tocopilla on the Chilean coastline. The site area contains a grave with three well-preserved skeletons.

Prof James Goff and the fishermanProf James Goff and the fisherman (Credit Genevieve Cain/James Goff)

The individual they studied was a male hunter-gather aged between 35 and 45. The condition of his bones suggested he was a fisherman as there were signs of frequent harpooning, rowing and harvesting of shellfish.

As the research team explains in a paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science, modern forensics can confirm drowning as the cause of death in recent victims by testing for diatoms inside the bones of the victims.

Diatoms are a group of algae found in oceans, freshwater and soils. When diatoms are found inside the bones of victims’ bodies, it is likely that they drowned; if they had died before entering the water, they would not have swallowed any saltwater.

In addition to the diatom test, the research team says they carried out a wide-ranging microscopic analysis of bone marrow extracted from the man’s skeleton.

This allowed them to search for a greater range of microscopic particles that could provide more insight into the cause of his death. Apart from marine particles, they found evidence of fossilised algae, parasite eggs and sediment.

“By looking at what we found in his bone marrow, we know that he drowned in shallow saltwater,” Prof Goff continued. “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.”

Based on their initial findings, the team believe that he died in a marine accident rather than in a major catastrophic event. This is partly because the bones of the others he was buried with did not contain marine particles so it is unlikely they all died by saltwater drowning.

Prof Goff noted that “mass burials have often been necessary after natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods or large storms”.

“However we know very little about whether prehistoric mass burial sites near coastlines could be the result of natural disasters or other causes such as war, famine and disease. This gave us our light bulb moment of developing an enhanced version of a modern forensic test to use on ancient bones,” he said.

The team advise they could shed more light on this by testing other human remains in the site and studying geological records for evidence of natural disasters in the area.

Most importantly, the scientist believes this new technique can be used for ancient mass burial sites around the world to get a richer picture of the lives of people in coastal communities throughout history.

Prof Goff said the team had “cracked open a whole new way to do things”.

“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,” he said.

“There are many coastal mass burial sites around the world where excellent archaeological studies have been carried out but the fundamental question of what caused so many deaths have not been addressed. Now we can take this new technique out around the world and potentially re-write prehistory.”

The study “Evidence for a mid-Holocene drowning from the Atacama Desert coast of Chile” has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science with DOI here

Published in Marine Science
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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Marine Science Perhaps it is the work of the Irish research vessel RV Celtic Explorer out in the Atlantic Ocean that best highlights the essential nature of marine research, development and sustainable management, through which Ireland is developing a strong and well-deserved reputation as an emerging centre of excellence. From Wavebob Ocean energy technology to aquaculture to weather buoys and oil exploration these pages document the work of Irish marine science and how Irish scientists have secured prominent roles in many European and international marine science bodies.

 

At A Glance – Ocean Facts

  • 71% of the earth’s surface is covered by the ocean
  • The ocean is responsible for the water cycle, which affects our weather
  • The ocean absorbs 30% of the carbon dioxide added to the atmosphere by human activity
  • The real map of Ireland has a seabed territory ten times the size of its land area
  • The ocean is the support system of our planet.
  • Over half of the oxygen we breathe was produced in the ocean
  • The global market for seaweed is valued at approximately €5.4 billion
  • · Coral reefs are among the oldest ecosystems in the world — at 230 million years
  • 1.9 million people live within 5km of the coast in Ireland
  • Ocean waters hold nearly 20 million tons of gold. If we could mine all of the gold from the ocean, we would have enough to give every person on earth 9lbs of the precious metal!
  • Aquaculture is the fastest growing food sector in the world – Ireland is ranked 7th largest aquaculture producer in the EU
  • The Atlantic Ocean is the second largest ocean in the world, covering 20% of the earth’s surface. Out of all the oceans, the Atlantic Ocean is the saltiest
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  • Ireland is surrounded by some of the most productive fishing grounds in Europe, with Irish commercial fish landings worth around €200 million annually
  • 97% of the earth’s water is in the ocean
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  • Only 10% of the oceans have been explored.
  • 8 million tonnes of plastic enter the ocean each year, equal to dumping a garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute.
  • 12 humans have walked on the moon but only 3 humans have been to the deepest part of the ocean.

(Ref: Marine Institute)

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