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Some coastal mass burial sites could be tsunami-related

Posted August 2, 2018

There are several ancient mass graves in in the Pacific, Mediterranean and northern Scotland and around these regions. They have been interesting to scientists for quite some time because of the findings in these sites. Scientists have also been interested in origins of these mass graves that appear to have been formed in a tight period of time. Now researchers from UNSW say that these mass graves could have resulted from catastrophic tsunamis.

There are a lot of evidence of tsunamis in prehistoric times and they definitely took a lot of lives. Image credit: Katsushika Hokusai via Wikimedia

People very often live beside water. It is an important resource as well as a place to fish. There are many mass burial sites from ancient coastal communities, but none of them have ever been linked to tsunamis. Proving that at least some cases could be tsunami-related would result in a fundamental rewrite of the history of these early settlements. It would change everything, including our perception of the culture of these prehistoric communities and the way archaeologists analyse these sites. In this research scientists looked into mass burial sites in the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu as well as in Orkney and Shetland.

In order to have a better frame of reference, scientists analysed burial sites from different time periods – from about 5000 years ago to as recent as about 500-600 years ago. Other records show that tsunamis definitely occurred in these areas so scientists only had to look for evidence in the burial sites to see if tsunamis had anything to do with them. Standard explanations for mass burial sites are typically warfare or epidemic, but scientists could make a strong case for tsunamis as well. For example, in a mass burial site in the Solomon Islands people were buried very young and in atypical positions, which could indicate a natural disaster like tsunami. Atypical positions could be a result of massive number of deaths – it overwhelmed normal burial protocols.

Scientists say that it is inaccurate to dismiss the possibility that some of these mass burial sites are tsunami-related. James Goff, co-author of the paper, said: “Our archaeological research in conjunction with geological evidence recognises that exactly what has happened in modern events must have happened in the past. This line of analysis will hopefully start being at the forefront of researchers’ minds when excavating a coastal mass burial”.

Now scientists have some clues – unusual burial positions, matching geological evidence and timing. But they also want to see if these people in fact have drowned. That is what in the next stage of the research scientists are going to do – they will look for deposits of marine micro-organisms called diatoms in the bone marrow of larger bones.


Source: UNSW

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