We humans can be a superstitious lot, and scientists are revealing yet another example of the extremes we'll go to in the fight to keep evil and danger at bay.
In this case, experts report in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports that human bones excavated in 1963 and 1964 from the much-studied medieval English village Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire had been chopped, broken, and burned post-mortem.
In their study, the researchers note that textual accounts of revenants—that is, "a re-animated corpse that arises from its grave"—in England date back to the 11th century, and they conclude the mutilation was likely done in an attempt to "lay revenant corpses." It would be the first such evidence of the practice in England.
Researchers reached this conclusion after studying 137 bones from 10 people (between the ages of 2 and 50) who'd been dismembered and decapitated between the 11th and 14th centuries.
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They say the revenant-corpse evidence is stronger than that of a competing theory: survival cannibalism. The BBC reports the cut marks were in the wrong places for butchery (not near large joints, for instance) and differed from those made on animals consumed at Wharram Percy.
Scientists also seemingly disproved another theory, that the remains were those of foreigners whom the villagers feared. The Guardian reports an isotopic analysis of their teeth indicated they were of the area.
"It shows us a dark side of medieval beliefs and provides a graphic reminder of how different the medieval view of the world was from our own," says lead researcher Simon Mays.