Prehistoric Disaster: An Alpine Pompeii from the Stone Age

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What happened to the prehistoric village on Lake Mondsee in the Austrian Alps? One geologist has found evidence that a vast rock slide may have set off a tsunami that buried the lakeside settlement. He's hoping to find funding -- and mummies.

The fall of Pompeii began with a small cloud of smoke drifting out of Mt. Vesuvius. Within a few days, though, the affluent Roman city lay coated in a meter-thick shroud of ash. Even more devastating were the effects of a giant meteorite that crashed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago, bringing an end to the age of the dinosaurs.

Such violent events, putting human beings and animals at the mercy of destructive natural forces, have always stimulated the fantasies of those born afterwards. In some cases, however, the truth has been less dramatic. The notion that the Mayans starved to death because of failed harvests and that the palaces of the Minoans were destroyed by dramatic floods is just as untrue as the claim that murderers smashed a hole into the head of Tutankhamun.

Now scientists are examining a new catastrophic scenario. Could it be that a severe rockslide in the Alps destroyed a prehistoric village? Alexander Binsteiner, a geologist and flint stone expert, has proposed the thesis. He believes that the accident affected lake dwellers living on the eastern tip of Mondsee Lake, near present-day Salzburg. Twenty to 50 wooden huts, coated with mud or cow dung, stood there on stilts along the lakefront. The women wore dresses made of flax, decorated with shells and snails, and the men wore bast fiber ponchos and sandals. It was considered cool to chew on birch tar, the prehistoric version of chewing gum.

Shimmering Red Weapons of Metal

Similar lakeside settlements were common in the fourth millennium B.C. These collections of slightly elevated huts on moist ground were scattered around the Alps, from Lake Paladru in France, across the lakes of Switzerland and Austria to Slovenia and Lake Garda in present-day Italy.

The people of the Mondsee Lake settlement were apparently relatively advanced within this cultural group. They had metallurgical skills, which were rare in Europe. They cleverly searched the mountains for copper deposits, melted the crude ore in clay ovens and made refined, shimmering red weapons out of the metal.

In dugout canoes not unlike those of the American Indians, they paddled along the region's river networks and sold their goods in areas of present-day Switzerland and to their relatives on Lake Constance. Even Ötzi the Iceman had an axe, made of so-called Mondsee copper.

At approximately 3200 B.C., says Binsteiner, the master blacksmiths were struck by a "devastating natural disaster." The event began with a muffled cracking noise. Then a cliff 150 meters (492-foot) tall and five kilometers (3.1 miles) long broke off on the southern shore of Mondsee Lake and plunged into the water.

The geological traces of the disaster were discovered by accident, and only recently. "A heavy storm knocked down hundreds of trees here recently," explains Binsteiner. The forest floor was thus exposed for all to see. The root systems of the trees jut high in to the air and, more importantly, it is now apparent that the site is littered with large boulders, extending all the way down to the water's edge.

An Alpine Pompeii

After weeks spent examining the fracture zone, the geologist submitted a report of his findings last Friday. He estimates that the fractured cliff consisted of "50 million cubic meters" of rock, and that an ensuing tsunami at least five meters (16 feet) tall rushed against the opposite shore, inundating the settlement there.

Helmut Schlichtherle, Germany's leading expert on lakeside settlements, says that Binsteiner's theory of an "Alpine tsunami" is "very exciting." Erwin Ruprechtsberger, an archeologist in the Austrian city of Linz who specializes in the region, calls the cliff collapse idea "a completely new approach that could solve many of the mysteries of the Mondsee culture."

"We know that the settlements here were abruptly abandoned at around 3200 B.C.," says Binsteiner. "There were no people in the region for almost 1,000 years." Was it perhaps seen as cursed after the disaster?

Now the mayor of a nearby Alpine town wants funding for an archeological dig from the state government. The researchers could very well uncover a new -- Alpine -- Pompeii.

Even if the effort ends up shedding only a small amount of light on the remote world of the lake dwellers, it will be worth it. For years, archeologists have been digging around in the mud, while divers have constantly been pulling new, decaying posts from the water. Until now, however, their search for the early Europeans' graves, temples and statues of deities has been in vain.

Archeologists lack clear answers to even the most basic questions. Why, for example, did the lakeside dwellers settle on peninsulas, islands and the flat zones along the shores of these lakes? Even getting to the settlements, across swampy plank roadways, must have been a trying experience. And then there were the challenges of living with plagues of mosquitoes, damp clothes and constantly sinking houses. The huts lasted about 15 years before the wood decayed.

Some scientists attribute this preference for moist environments to the residents' need for protection. It was a violent time around 3000 B.C., and people erected increasingly thick walls to protect themselves. It is also true that, in the Neolithic Age, the division of labor led to the development of gaps between rich and poor, which in turn led to struggles for resources and frequent raids.

Or were the lakeshores chosen for transportation reasons? "The rivers were the highways of the Stone Age," says Swiss archeologist Urs Leuzinger. In their boats, the settlers paddled down the Danube all the way to the Black Sea. They brought back decorative shells from the Adriatic and, traveling along the Rhine and Elbe Rivers, amber from the north.

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