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Hiding a leaf in the forest: uncovering a 1300-year-old homicide case in a 2000-year-old cemetery


Disposal of victims’ bodies in existing tombs or graveyards is a strategy not uncommon in modern homicide cases. In this study, we report a young male homicide victim dated 1300 years ago (during the Tang Dynasty) found in a shaft made by the robbers of a 2000-year-old tomb (East Han Dynasty), located in the Shiyanzi cemetery of Ningxia, China. The skeleton of the victim was nearly complete, found in a slumped posture inside the half-filled shaft from the grave robbers. There were multiple sharp-force marks on his skeleton, including more severe traumata to the facial skeleton and the thoracic elements. Through a reconstruction of the tomb and its relationship with the individual, it was believed that this individual was a victim of an assault. After the assault, the victim was dumped in this shaft to purposely kept from sight. The case indicates that the strategy of hiding victims’ bodies in existing tombs or graveyards as a means of disposal, akin to “hiding a leaf in the forest,” has been practiced since antiquity. This millennium-old case enriches the long history of homicide behaviors, such as the returning of senses to the perpetrator/s after violent actions to hide evidence and avoid punishment.

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Data availability statement

Research data and images will be available in the public domain after the completion and publication of the findings. Entities include Jilin University and Texas A&M University.


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We thank the Ningxia Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology for their support. Q.W. was supported by the T3 grant from Texas A&M University. Ms. Meghann Holt is thanked for editing the English. We are also grateful to Dr. Li Sun for help and support of various kinds. Drs. Ken Pritzker, Bruce Rothschild, and Matthew Kessler are thanked for helping with differential diagnosis of the lesion on the skull of the original male occupant of the tomb. The editor and reviewers are also thanked for their constructive comments.

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Correspondence to Quanchao Zhang or Qian Wang.

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Zining Zou and Xiaoyang Wang are joint first authors who contributed equally to this paper.



Fig. 6
figure 6

Remains of three individuals buried in the M12 tomb, including a 35–40–year–old male, a 30–year–old female, and a child of about 7–8 years old. (a) Remains of a child and a female in the burial chamber in situ. (b) Remains of the male in situ. The skeletons scattered in the burial chambers, presumably by the grave robbers; the layer of the male skeleton was slightly higher than that of skeletons of the female and the juvenile. (c) The skeleton of the male owner for the M12 tomb. (d) The skeleton of the female owner for the M12 tomb. It is noteworthy that there is a lesion in the skull of the male: a circumscribed solitary large lesion, which crosses the midline. There is new bone formation within all three layers of skull with signs yet limited exophytic extension outwards or inwards. Differential diagnosis include osteoblastoma (possible), chronic osteomyelitis (less likely as lesion appears uniform), secondary neoplasm (unlikely as lesion appears uniform and lacks significant exophytic extension. But see Zhang et al. 2020). Hemangiosarcoma, bizarre leukemia, and lymphoma are possible differential diagnosis too

Fig. 7
figure 7

A rusted sword (white arrow) about 0.60 m above the human skeleton in the robbery shaft, or about 1.5 m from the surface. The handle of the sword is missing, the remaining body of the sword is about 830 mm long. A mandible of Ovis aries (black arrow) was found at the same layer

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Zou, Z., Wang, X., Wang, C. et al. Hiding a leaf in the forest: uncovering a 1300-year-old homicide case in a 2000-year-old cemetery. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 13, 200 (2021).

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  • Homicide
  • Strategy of victim body disposal
  • Trauma analysis
  • Taphonomy