A chance to solve a 6 500-year-old mystery

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IOL scitech nov 16 Prehistory820

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he grave of two young woman known as the ladies of Teviec, who where killed 6500 years ago. Picture: Itumeleng English

Johannesburg - Two bodies laid out on the slab. There has been a murder and the crime has to be solved.

But this is no ordinary mortuary slab – it’s a museum and it is here that the investigation begins.

The two skeletons are not real – they are replicas – but the murders are real and you have to solve them. That is, with the help of some state-of-the-art 3D scans and forensic tools.

It’s an exhibition that is part of the French-South Africa Seasons 2012/13 and it is being hosted by the Origins Centre at Wits University.

The bodies are of two women, aged between 30 and 35. Pressing a button on the display panel throws out the first clue. The clue sends you to one of the display cubicles. There are several cubicles dealing with various aspects of the women’s lives, the age they lived in, and their murders. It is here you learn that the two women were brutally murdered.

Head back to the slab. A closer examination of the two skulls reveals telltale star-like fractures. Any forensic anthropologist working on a murder will tell you such a fracture is a result of blunt force trauma, a blow from a club, perhaps. There’s more: one of the skulls shows a gouge above the eye, archaeologists believe it was caused by a projectile, most likely an arrow.

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Programs manager for the Origin centre at Wits University Lara Mallen, gives a inside view of the Prehistory the investigation exhibition at Origin centre, Wits university. Picture: Itumeleng English

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The murders happened 6 500 years ago. The two bodies were excavated from a grave on the island of Téviec, off the west coast of France. Known as the Ladies of Téviec they were buried under a roof of deer antlers, decorated with necklaces and surrounded by shells and even a few stone tools.

“When you create an exhibition, you need to create an atmosphere and a lot of TV shows are about CSI and forensics and they always start with a forensics table – and here it is,” says Dr Francis Duranthon, the director of the Toulouse Natural History Museum, pointing to the mortuary slab.

The exhibition, titled Prehistory: The Investigation, was a big hit in France. In the city of Toulouse, 100 000 people visited the exhibition, while in Paris 200 000 people tried to solve this prehistoric whodunit. Now the exhibition has headed overseas and the first stop is South Africa.

“Visitors learn about the mystery and at the same time can follow in the footsteps of an archaeologist,” says Lara Mallen, programmes manager for The Origins Centre.

More clues, and the pieces begin to fall into place. Isotope analysis of the two women's’ teeth reveals a diet of seafood and meat. They probably came from a small community that farmed, harvested the sea and hunted. The exhibition reveals that this was probably a community where women fulfilled a more domestic role.

“It is unusual to find women killed this way during this period,” says Duranthon. “What we know is that at least two people were involved in these killings.”

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Dr francis Duranthon director of the Toulouse natural history museum, stands next to the remains of cave lion at Origin centre, Wits university that he discovered. Picture: Itumeleng English

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These were violent times. As the Agricultural Revolution took hold in Europe and humans took up farming, food surpluses grew. Some academics believe that this caused murder rates to climb. Food stores became things to raid or steal; the two women perhaps got caught up in a bloody raid.

But something else might have happened. With settling down and farming came a heavier reliance on nature and the goodwill of the gods. A drought could decimate a farming community, a hailstorm destroy crops… so the gods needed to be appeased. The two women might have been a sacrifice. A ritual murder, slain by the people they knew.

Two possible scenarios, but which one led to a bloody killing all that time ago? To find out, do the detective work yourself and head to the Origins Centre. The exhibition runs until the end of March. - The Star

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