The secret of the woman in the well


Everything speaks for a violent crime committed about 3,600 years ago. More specifically: between 1625 and 1511 BC. The victim: a woman, 40 to 45 years old, a blessed age at the time. The crime scene: the ancient city of Alalach in what is now the southern Turkish province of Hatay, about a hundred kilometers west of Aleppo. The culprit: unknown, as well as the cause of death.

In 2011 Turkish archaeologists discovered the skeleton of a woman on the bottom of a deep well. There were no signs of fatal injury to the bones, so it may have been strangled or stabbed.

„The position of the skeleton suggests that she was already dead when she was thrown into the well,“ says Philipp Stockhammer, professor of prehistoric archeology at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich and co-director of Max Planck -Harvard research center for archaeological and scientific research into the ancient Mediterranean region in Jena.

But what fascinated the Munich archaeologist and the other members of an international research group at the Max Planck Institute about the woman from the fountain was not so much the circumstances of her death, but her origin. Analysis of her genome revealed that she came from Central Asia, probably a region in what is now Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan, more than 3000 kilometers from the place where she died.

„We have known for a long time that there were already established trade routes between the Middle and the Far East at that time,“ says Stockhammer. „We already know spices from India, tin and lapis lazuli from Afghanistan from the Eastern Mediterranean at this time. But finally, we also have a human being with these objects.“

How and why the woman came to Alalach from her distant homeland „we can only speculate,“ says Stockhammer. „From literary sources, we know that women often traveled through the Middle East as spouses during this time. But maybe she was also the boss of a commercial branch in Alalach. There is nothing to prevent her from being a bronze-age Marco Polo.“

The discovery of exotic long-distance travelers is actually just a by-product of the Max Planck research project, in which scientists from Turkey, the United States, Great Britain, Azerbaijan, Italy, France, and Germany were involved. The earliest evidence of human civilization can be found in the region between the eastern Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and the Persian Gulf. Plants and animals were domesticated here for the first time in history, the first script was invented here, and the first city-states were created here.

The researchers wanted to find out what role human mobility played in this development. How did new cultural techniques spread? How did the exchange of ideas and material goods work? To find out, the genome of 110 individuals from archaeological sites in Anatolia, the northern Levante, and the southern Caucasus was analyzed. The age of the samples was between 7500 and 3000 years before our time, which is about 5500 to 1000 BC. The results were amazing.

In the 10th millennium BC, groups of hunters and gatherers began to settle and produce food in the Middle East. It was still six thousand years before the first urban settlements emerged. „During this time,“ says Stockhammer, „there was extensive genetic unification of the originally genetically very different groups from western Anatolia to the southern Caucasus.

That requires extensive mobility of people relevant to reproduction. „In other words: in a region that extends the distance from Munich to Moscow, marriage partners must have been exchanged continuously for thousands of years in a stable system.

However, this genetic homogenization was by no means accompanied by cultural unification. „In the area covered by our research, there were very different ways of life, certainly also different languages, religious beliefs, different cultural habits, such as burial techniques,“ says Stockhammer. „We learn from this: There is no causal connection between genetic and cultural uniformity.“

Arslantepe in Eastern Anatolia, not far from the modern city of Malatya, offers a particularly vivid example of this. „In the 4th millennium, this was a city strongly shaped by Mesopotamia, with monumental temples and turntable ceramics,“ says Stockhammer. Around the year 3300 BC It was destroyed in 500 BC and cattle herders settled over the ruins of the palaces, the ceramics of which point to an origin from the Caucasus. „Nevertheless, we found hardly any genetic differences between the inhabitants of the city of Arslantepe and the alleged conquerors,“ says Stockhammer.

The finding in Alalach was similar. „It was an urban center of the second millennium,“ says Stockhammer. „There were Aegean frescoes, Hittite tablets, a variety of different burial customs. A kind of New York of antiquity. I would have expected that we would find genetically very different individuals there.“ But it was not like that. The genome of 26 people from Alalach was analyzed, all from the period between 2100 and 1300 BC. All were genetically almost identical – with one exception: the woman in the well.