High on a sand hill in a remote corner of China, a team of archaeologists were hard at work at what could turn out to be the most significant discovery of their careers. That’s because, slowly but surely, they uncovered the remains of a house destroyed by fire thousands of years ago. And what was inside surely chilled them to the bone.
This event occurred between May and November 2011, and the people involved were part of a joint team from China’s Jilin University and Inner Mongolia’s Institute of Archaeology and Cultural Relics. The researchers’ chosen site was near Shebotu, a town in the Chinese autonomous region of Inner Mongolia.
The location, known as Hamin Mangha, was inhabited around 5,000 years ago. And as the “largest and best-preserved prehistoric settlement site found to date in northeast China,” according to archaeologists writing in the journal Chinese Archaeology, it offers amazing insights into the daily life of a long-ago civilization.
Experts estimate that the site would have stretched to cover more than 1 million square feet at its peak. Indeed, the region is thought to have been the central area of a larger settlement, and it’s located on the slope of a sandy dune, surrounded by meadows, lakes and an ancient river bed.
After an initial excavation here in 2010, the team got to work investigating an area of approximately 30,000 square feet. It was the first time that anyone had attempted a prehistoric settlement excavation on such a scale this far north.
As the archaeologists dug, though, a picture of life at Hamin Mangha began to emerge. Alongside evidence of ancient burials, the team discovered the foundations of 43 separate dwellings. In among the former houses, meanwhile, fragments of pottery, tools and weapons were uncovered.
Interestingly, the village is thought to be so ancient that it predates the use of the written word. In fact, its original inhabitants were prehistoric humans who harvested crops and hunted wild animals for meat. They would have thrived in modest settlements just like the one at Hamin Mangha.
The houses came in varying sizes, with the smallest dwellings covering just 75 square feet and the largest being up to five times bigger. Most, though, had just one room, which normally accommodated a fireplace for cooking.
But as the archaeologists uncovered this ancient village and catalogued their findings, they were in for a surprise. Why? Because one structure, named “F40” by the team, had a macabre secret in store.
Unbelievably, the team discovered almost 100 deformed human skeletons crammed into a single ancient abode. And if that wasn’t enough to make the skin of those who were digging crawl, it also appeared that the dwelling had been set on fire.
Clearly, such a stash of bodies could not have come about naturally. So what sinister forces had been at work? Well, using the evidence available to them, the archaeologists tried to piece together what might have happened, and the results are fascinating.
Altogether, the house’s ruins contained the bones of at least 97 people. What’s more, they were scattered about in a seemingly random fashion, sometimes stacked several layers deep.
The archeologists’ report stated, “The skeletons in the northwest are relatively complete, while those in the east often [have] only skulls, with limb bones scarcely remaining. But in the south, limb bones were discovered in a mess, forming two or three layers.”
Furthermore, an analysis revealed that the average age of death among the deceased was almost 27. There were, however, also some children in the group, although no elder adults could be identified.
Perhaps most eerily, many of the bones were blackened and deformed. At some point in this building’s gruesome history, then, a fire must have raged through its walls and its collection of skeletal remains.
Archaeologists were able to rule out ritual burial as an explanation owing to the locations of the skeletons. But what was the story behind this house of bones? Well, a team of anthropologists from China’s Jilin University believe they might have found the answer.
Their research concluded that the remains belonged to the victims of some kind of large-scale disaster. “The human bone accumulation in F40 was formed because ancient humans put remains into the house successively and stacked centrally,” the team explained in the university’s journal.
Researchers were also able to draw parallels between the site at Hamin Mangha and a similar discovery made in Miaozigou, northeastern China. There, another mass burial site, which accommodated victims of the same age, had been uncovered.
The team deduced that an outbreak of a deadly disease could have been the cause of both strange discoveries. Further, researchers theorized that the unidentified illness may have ravaged the settlements quickly, leaving the survivors with no time to give the deceased proper burial.
As for the fire, scientists have been unable to determine whether it was deliberately started or the result of an accident. Whatever its cause, though, the blaze ended up preserving this haunting oddity that, thousands of years down the line, has baffled scientists.