In 2014, excavators in Germany discovered one body in a cemetery of 340 who was buried face down. Items found on the man, which included coins and a dagger, allowed researchers to date the body back to between 1630 and 1650, but they reamined clueless as to why this specific person of all the deceased in the cemetery was buried face down, with all his items still intact.
Now, new research has indicated the answer – some were buried face down as the survivors feared zombies.
By looking back over the records, the team found several people were buried face down over the past 900 years, mainly across central Europe such as Germany, Switzerland and Austria.
The team believe the practice originally happened to show humanity’s humility to God.
But, by the 1300s, Amelie Alterauge of Bern University’s Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland, notes “something changes”.
By analysing medieval folklore, the authors of the study published in PLOS One, found tales of nachzehrer, loosely translated as corpse devourers – or zombies to be more specific.
Before the 1300s, the dead, or ghosts, were considered a friendly presence.
But as the plague swept across Europe in the 1300s killing almost half the population, the people of the time thought it was a punishment from God.
Bodies would build up in the street as the civilisation struggled to cope with the rate of death and with the fear humanity was being punished, the perception of the dead shifted and people were afraid.
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“There was a theory someone became a nachzehrer if he was the first of the community to die during an epidemic.”
With little known about the plague at the time, people thought they were being cursed at the funerals of their loved ones as many more would die shortly after the funerals.
Matthias Toplak, an archaeologist at the University of Tübingen in Germany who was not involved with the study, also told National Geographic: “This shift to evil spirits takes place around 1300 or 1400.
“The background of all these supernatural beliefs must be the sudden deaths of several individuals from one society.
“It makes sense that people blamed supernatural spirits and took measures to prevent the dead from returning.”