Archaeology of the Undead - Archaeology Magazine Archive

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Zombie expert Max Brooks explains humanity's oldest struggle.

[image] Recent scholarship suggests the Easter Island statues memorialize a prehistoric zombie outbreak.
[image] Clues include the as yet undeciphered Rongorongo script of Easter Island, which has characters that are clearly inspired by the undead.

There are so many myths about the undead. Just what is a zombie? And what's the origin of the word?

Although there are many different definitions for the word "zombie," from a West African Snake God to a West Indian victim of voodoo, what we are really talking about here is a reanimated, human corpse that seeks to devour the flesh of living human beings.

Can zombie outbreaks be discerned in the archaeological record?

Hard zombie evidence is always difficult to uncover. The bones of the living dead are not physically different from those of the conventionally deceased. An archaeologist looking for evidence of zombies should look for corpses that have been either decapitated or brained. As we all know, these two methods are the only two ways of stopping the living dead. Of course, a crushed skull does not necessarily prove the presence of the undead. If possible, scholars should research the methods of warfare used by the people in question. If decapitation and braining were not part of their "M.O.," then cranial trauma might be a red flag.
   The remains of a zombie's victim may also tell us as much, if not more, than the remains of an actual zombie. Look for bones that have been marked by human teeth but lack the scrapes of a butchering implement. This may be evidence of the living dead, since traditional human cannibals have a tendency to 'prepare' their meals with scrapers and other tools.

What about zombieism among our hominid ancestors? Is it possible that Homo erectus, or even Australopithicenes, were also confronted by the spectre of the undead? If so, could zombies be responsible for the extinction of some hominid species?

The theory of "Undead Evolutionary Influence" has many supporters in the paleoanthropological community. Louis Leakey even mentioned it in his ground-breaking paper "Lucy Fights a Ghoul." However, in order to test this theory, one would have to clone our pre-human ancestors, then infect them with the zombie virus. That would be, needless to say, both financially and politically expensive, and the technical difficulties are formidable.    Recently, a South Korean researcher claimed to have cloned, then infected, an Australopithecus, in effect creating an undead hominid. However the experiment was quickly revealed to be a hoax.


The figure in the so-called "Shaft of the Dead Man" in France's Lascaux cave is one of the most puzzling figures in Paleolithic art. It's likely the "man" is actually a zombie. Though this interpretation does not explain the equally puzzling "duck on the stick."

What explains the long gap in the record between the Katanda event 60,000 years ago in sub-Saharan Africa and the next documented occurence of zombieism at 3000 B.C. in Predynastic Egypt?

Although the answer is still a mystery, more and more experts theorize that the gap in zombie attacks during this long period may, in fact, be more of a gap in our ability to decipher the archaeological record. One recent expedition to Iraq believes that they have uncovered a cuneiform tablet inscribed with the Sumerian word for "zombie." Though others have translated it as "turnip."

What impact did the rise of city-states in Mesopotamia and the other so-called cradles of civilization, like the Indus Valley and the Yangzte River basin, have on zombies?

The rise of civilization was both a blessing and a curse. Although it gave potential victims the ability to organize and combat the undead menace, it also presented that menace with a larger pool of potential victims.

Books like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel completely ignore the impact zombies have had on the course of human development. Does anyone out there have a global view of how profoundly the undead have influenced history?

The new book 1490 [by former Russian submarine commander Kadavar Devouravich-ed] postulates that the living dead got to the New World before Columbus, and were responsible for the annihilation of several indigenous American societies. According to its author, infected sailors from Europe were "thrown overboard by their crew, only to be washed ashore along the coast of The New World." The book is still highly controversial.

Were any ancient cultures particularly successful in containing zombie outbreaks?

The Roman Empire was very efficient at dealing with the living dead. The fact that they referred to their zombie containment tactics simply as "XXXVII" shows how practical their legions were when dealing with a zombie outbreak.

Literary evidence for ancient zombieism can be unrealiable. I'm thinking here particularly of Hanno of Carthage's ca. 500 B.C. reports of zombies on the African coast, which are highly suspect, to put it mildly. What can archaeology bring to the table in terms of the study of ancient zombies to augment or even correct textual scholarship?

Unfortunately most authors, then and now, are mainly just concerned with selling books. Hanno's accounts might have been "sexed up" by either himself, his editor, or even subsequent translators. Modern archaeology, largely unconcerned with profit margins, gives us an unbiased view of the history of zombies.

When excavating a possible zombie archaeological site, what special precautions can be taken to protect the people digging at the site?

Be extremely careful when excavating sealed tombs. The lack of oxygen might have retarded the living dead's already slow rate of decomposition. Arctic or subarctic environments are considered the "hottest" danger zones because a reanimated ghoul may thaw even after centuries of frozen imprisonment; another reason to be concerned about global warming.

Does the archaeological record hold any zombie-related lessons for us today? What can our ancestors teach us about meeting and, ultimately, defeating the undead menace?

The greatest lesson our ancestors have to teach us is to remain both vigilant and unafraid. We must endeavor to emulate the ancient Romans; calm, efficient, treating zombies as just one more item on a rather mundane checklist. Panic is the undead's greatest ally, doing far more damage, in, some cases, than the creatures themselves. The goal is to be prepared, not scared, to use our heads, and cut off theirs.

Max Brooks is the author of The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection From the Living Dead and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Timeline of Known Prehistoric and Historic Zombie Outbreaks
(Adapted from The Zombie Survival Guide)
60,000 B.C. Katanda, Central Africa
3000 B.C. Hierakonpolis, Egypt
500 B.C. Africa (reports from Hanno of Carthage)
329 B.C. Afghanistan
212 B.C. China
A.D. 121 Fanum Cocidi, Caledonia (Scotland)
A.D. 140-41 Thamugadi, Mumidia (Algeria)
A.D. 156 Castra Regina, Germania
A.D. 177 Tolosa, Aquitania (southwest France)
A.D. 700 Frisia (northern Holland)
A.D. 850 Saxony
A.D. 1073 Jerusalem
A.D. 1253 Fiskurhofn, Greenland
A.D. 1587 Roanoke Island, North Carolina