Neolithic fisherman drowned

Enhanced forensic testing reveals ancient fisherman, found in mass grave in Northern Chile, drowned in saltwater.


A 5,000 year-old case might seem impossible to solve, but biological anthropologists led by Prof. James Goff of the University of Southampton, England, have solved one from northern Chile. The victim drowned.


He came from a mass grave with three burials at a site known as Copaca 1, some 30km south of Tocopilla on the Chilean coast. The man was between 35 and 40 years old when he died and his bones revealed tell-tale signs of repeated harpooning, constant paddling, and the harvesting of shellfish.


His was a tough life of unrelenting hard work, and he probably died in an accident rather than a catastrophic event involving several people. While the bones of the other skeletons did not contain any marine particles, those of the victim did. His bone marrow contained marine sediments swallowed during his last moments, almost certainly ingested in shallow water.


The wide-ranging microscopic analysis of his bone marrow further identified a range of marine particles that included fossilized algae, parasite eggs and other microscopic sediments which could not be identified by diatom tests alone. That a fisher drowned while working in shallow water off an exposed ocean coast is not unusual, especially when one realizes that that he was probably working in a low-slung reed canoe. Perhaps he speared a large fish and lost his balance. Maybe an unexpected wave tipped the canoe over. We will never know. James Goff’s research opens the door for a fascinating avenue of new research – into ancient fishing casualties.


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Image: The Neolithic fisherman in burial site.

Credit: Pedro Andrade