People have been killing each other in all sorts of ways since the beginning of time. Some would say that by now, it’s an inherent part of the human genome, as archeologists continue to find ancient mass graves or other sites of violence around the world. In many cases, it’s easy to identify the perpetrators, thanks to modern forensic and archeological techniques. That’s not always the case, however, as many of these mass graves or murder sites from ancient history remain shrouded in mystery.
10. Koszyce Mass Grave
Discovered in the Polish village of Koszyce in 2011, the Koszyce mass grave contains the bodies of 15 women, children, and young men. Estimated to be around 5,000 years old, all of the victims belonged to the same extended family, representing three generations of the ancient central-European Globular Amphora culture. All the individuals in the grave suffered brutal deaths, as they were killed by blows to the head. They were also carefully buried, as the burial positions show that the mothers were laid to rest beside their children, and siblings were placed side by side. However, there were no signs of fathers and older male relatives at the grave site, indicating that they may not have been present during the incident.
Researchers believe that the massacre likely occurred between 2776 and 2880 BC, possibly due to violent territorial clashes and competition for resources during the expansion of the Corded Ware culture across Europe. The victims didn’t exhibit signs of hand-to-hand combat, suggesting that they were captured and executed. Despite extensive archeological investigations and analysis, the perpetrators of the deaths remain unknown.
9. Clonycavan Man
Clonycavan Man refers to a body discovered in March 2003 in Clonycavan, Ireland. Found by peat cutters in a peat bog, radiocarbon dating estimated that he died some time in the Iron Age between 392 BC and 201 BC. His remains were well-preserved due to the unique conditions of the peat bogs. He was five feet and two inches tall, with a distinctive spiked hairstyle kept together by an ancient hair gel made from plant oil and pine resin originating in France or Spain.
According to forensic examinations, the Clonycavan Man experienced a violent death. He had a broken nose, a deep wound from his nose to under his right eye, and a severe head injury that split open his skull, with parts of his brain found at the site. One theory says that he was a part of a ritual known as the ‘triple killing of kings’ – a brutal end reserved for Celtic upper-class individuals in ancient Ireland.
8. Prince Of Helmsdorf
Also sometimes called the oldest known political assassination in history, the case of the prince of Helmsdorf dates back to roughly 3,850 years ago. Uncovered in the Leubingen archaeological site in what is now Germany’s Thuringia region, the prince – estimated to be 30 to 50 years old – suffered a brutal death.
Originally uncovered in 1877, the dig was revisited by archaeologists and forensic researchers in 2012. They found three new lethal injuries inflicted by an experienced warrior wielding a dagger, suggesting that the prince was likely surprised by the attacker that he knew and trusted, and that he had attempted to defend himself before he was killed.
The prince was buried with valuable weapons and tools from the Bronze Age Unetice culture, along with what appears to be a sacrificed child. His opulent burial indicates respect from his subjects, though the exact circumstances leading to his death are still somewhat of a mystery.
7. Grauballe Man
The Grauballe Man was a body uncovered in a peat bog in Denmark on April 26, 1952. According to firsthand reports, it was so well-preserved that it was initially thought to have been no more than 65 years old. Further examinations revealed that it was instead 2,300 years old, dating back to the Germanic Iron Age between 310 and 55 BC. Discovered by peat cutters in the Nebelgaard Bog in Central Jutland, the dig was named after the nearby village of Grauballe.
Grauballe Man was about 30 years old at the time of death, standing at five feet and nine inches tall with striking red hair. The examination suggested that he had smooth hands, indicating little to no manual labor during his lifetime. The cause of his death remains uncertain, but theories range from natural illness induced by ingesting poisonous fungi to ritualistic sacrifice or punishment for criminal acts. Despite a slit throat and other injuries, later assessments found that external injuries occurred post-mortem, possibly due to the peat bog’s pressure.
6. Herxheim Mass Grave
In 2009, anywhere between 500 and 1,000 human remains were discovered at Herxheim – a Neolithic-era archaeological site in southwest Germany. The oval pits belonged to the Linear Pottery culture, and the remains showed signs of cannibalism, scalping, brain removal, and rib chipping. Some skeletons were also incomplete, suggesting secondary burials from other locations in the region.
Further analysis confirmed that some of the bodies were brought there from faraway regions, along with pottery findings from diverse geographical areas. The deliberate destruction of high-quality pottery, artifacts, and the careful handling of the human remains suggest that the site was an elaborate necropolis associated with ritual practices.
Settled some time around 5300 BC, Herxheim was likely an idyllic Stone Age settlement at some point, though the community abruptly vanished by 4950 BC. The victims weren’t malnourished or sickly, and came from various European regions. To date, we don’t know if it was a ritualistic burial site, a religious cult of some sort, or simply a city used to house the dead.
5. Sandby Borg Massacre
Sandby Borg – also sometimes called the ‘Swedish Pompeii’ – is a mysterious archaeological site discovered on the island of Öland in Sweden in 2011. It’s an ancient village dating back to 1,500 years ago, nestled within a ring fort. A series of excavations since its discovery have revealed that it was also a site of a massacre, where 200 to 250 people, including children, were brutally killed.
Archaeologists found Roman gold coins, silver jewelry, and Roman glass at the dig, hinting at the island’s connection with the Roman Empire. The absence of weapons at the site indicates a possible ritualistic offering. After they were killed, the bodies were left to rot where they fell, with skeletons found inside houses and scattered across the village street.
Despite three seasons of excavation, the mystery of what happened there persists today. The locals caution against visiting Sandby Borg because they think it’s haunted. The absence of female skeletons raises some horrifying questions about what happened to the women in the town.
According to the archaeologists, all evidence points to a power struggle on the island, suggesting an internal conflict rather than an external attack. Whatever the cause, it’s clear that some terribly-dark events unfolded on this Swedish island around 1,500 years ago.
4. Pit Of Bones
Excavation at Sima de los Huesos – or the Pit of Bones – in Spain began in the 1980s, gradually unearthing the remains of over 1,600 people. This lower Paleolithic site, part of the Cueva Mayor-Cueva del Silo cave system in the Sierra de Atapuerca, contains the largest and oldest collection of human remains ever found, with 28 hominid fossils definitively dated to 430,000 years ago.
The site’s unique features include a bone pit at the cave’s bottom with both human and animal remains, though the identity of the perpetrators is not exactly known. The fossilized individuals have been dated close to the split between Neanderthal and Denisovan lineages, though it’s also a complete mystery who they were. Some have compared them to both Neanderthals and Denisovans, though DNA studies suggest that they might have been related to other hominid species living in the region at the time.
3. Entrains-sur-Nohain Mass Grave
The Entrains-sur-Nohain archaeological site was uncovered over the course of five months in 2013. Located in Burgundy, France, it was also the location of the Roman city of Intaranum, which thrived for four centuries around the beginning of the first millennium. Archaeologists eventually uncovered a mass grave containing over 20 bodies of men, women, and children at the site, carbon-dated between the 8th and 10th centuries. Curiously, the victims were not a part of the Roman settlement.
Many theories have been suggested for this anomaly. According to one, the victims were casualties of the nearby Battle of Fontenoy-en-Puisaye on June 25, 841. Tens of thousands fought for the Carolingian Empire in the battle, potentially leaving the village vulnerable to raids. Another theory says that it could be linked with Viking raids, which had been a big problem for French villages during the late ninth century.
2. How Did Cleopatra Die?
Cleopatra was the last active ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of ancient Egypt. She died on August 12, 30 BC, and the most widely-known theory says that the cause of death was suicide. Following the defeat of her forces in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony retreated to Alexandria. As Octavian’s Roman Army were at the gates, Antony killed himself with a sword to avoid capture and possible torture, and Cleopatra allowed a venomous snake to bite and kill her in a mausoleum.
According to some historians, however, that story might not be true at all, as there’s little historical evidence to corroborate this series of events. Till now, there’s no academic consensus on exactly who or what killed Cleopatra, or even if she died on the same date, as the only reliable account of her death was written by Plutarch generations after she lived. One theory says that she didn’t commit suicide at all, and was instead captured and killed by Octavian.
1. Gallina Genocide
The Gallina culture lived in northern New Mexico between the 12th and 13th centuries. Till now, almost every Gallina skeleton ever found has been of someone brutally murdered, suggesting a trail of genocide of an entire people spread across the region. This includes the discovery of seven skeletons in a remote canyon in 2007, further adding to the mystery. The dig uncovered the remains of five adults, one child, and one infant with signs of fractures, cut marks, and crushed skulls.
Because of these finds, it’s possible that the Gallina people were brutally and systematically killed around 1275, though it’s unclear who the perpetrators were. Archaeologists have suggested several motives, like severe drought conditions leading to resource-related conflicts, or conflicts with newcomers to the region.