Professor Bermudez de Castro and his colleagues considered
whether the remains in the pit fitted an attrition profile, in which
individuals die one by one over long periods; or a catastrophic one,
in which the dead cover the age spectrum of a population.
Natural disasters, violence, epidemics of diseases such as
influenza or bubonic plague and occasionally famine can be
responsible for catastrophic mortality profiles.
The team compared the mortality profile of the Atapuerca remains
with 26 other Homo heidelbergensis hominid remains from across
The proportion of individuals between the ages of eleven and
64% compared with just 39% for the other European sample.
"This corresponds best with a group of people who all died at
the same time - a catastrophic profile," said Professor Bermudez de
"The only problem with this model is that we are missing the
infants. But it is certainly a more rational model than the
Victims of conflict?
Other scientists have suggested that carnivores could have
removed the bones of infants, although this is difficult to prove.
Dr Andrew Chamberlain, a biological anthropologist at the
University of Sheffield, UK, agreed with this broad assessment of
the mortality profile.
"This profile is very similar to the kind of one you get in
conflicts, with people who fight and die in battle; you get this
peak of teenagers and young adults.