The zombie is a pretty good metaphor for itself: a creature that keeps being brought back to life in movies, TV and video games, no matter how stale it gets. But the idea of the undead is older than you might think, and for people in medieval England the stories weren't mere entertainment – they were based on a very real fear of the dead returning to wreak havoc on the living. Bones from a medieval North Yorkshire village have been found to bear telltale signs that the living took some extreme measures to make sure the dead stayed dead.

Dated to sometime between the 11th and 13th centuries CE, the skeletons were collected from a pit in what was once the village of Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire, England. These 137 bones come from at least 10 men and women, ranging in age from two years up to about 50.

Ready for the disturbing part? The bodies appear to have been stabbed, cut, decapitated, dismembered and burned after death. A total of 76 sharp-force marks, mostly made with knives, were found on 17 of the bones, and the attacks were concentrated on the upper part of the bodies. Six of the bones appeared to have been deliberately broken, and another 17 of them showed evidence of being burned.

The researchers had a few theories on how this grisly scenario could've played out. Could it be that the victims were cannibalized by desperate villagers after a famine? The archaeologists found that the wounds didn't line up: a human diner would usually leave knife marks on the bones around the meatiest parts of the body, such as near major muscle attachments or large joints. None of those usual spots were scuffed, with the marks instead concentrated around the head and neck of the victims.

The bones were found in a pit in Wharram Percy in North Yorkshire, England, which was the site of a medieval village(Credit: Historic England)

Another hypothesis is that the bones belonged to people that the villagers thought of as outsiders, hence the subpar post-mortem treatment. But the researchers debunked this possibility by analyzing strontium isotopes in the teeth of the skeletons, which indicated they were locals.

"Strontium isotopes in teeth reflect the geology on which an individual was living as their teeth formed in childhood," says Alistair Pike, co-author of the study. "A match between the isotopes in the teeth and the geology around Wharram Percy suggests they grew up in an area close to where they were buried, possibly in the village. This was surprising to us, as we first wondered if the unusual treatment of the bodies might relate to their being from further afield, rather than local."

With those ideas all but ruled out, the researchers resorted to a more fantastic story: this was a ritual to prevent the dead coming back to life. Like our modern-day zombies, medieval European legends told the tale of the revenant, reanimated corpses that would rise from their graves to stalk the living, spreading disease in the process.

The only way to prevent that unholy creature from terrorizing the village? Decapitation, dismemberment and burning the pieces of the body. The wounds fit the bill, and the researchers believe their find represents the first direct evidence of this practice.

"The idea that the Wharram Percy bones are the remains of corpses burnt and dismembered to stop them walking from their graves seems to fit the evidence best," says Simon Mays, first author of the study. "If we are right, then this is the first good archaeological evidence we have for this practice. 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."

The research was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science Reports.

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