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.
A Possibility of Mummies?
As effective as the bartering network in this Stone Age European Union was, agriculture and raising livestock were not well developed. In the early lakeside villages, milk and cheese were rare, hay was unknown as animal feed and the settlers had not yet discovered the benefits of using sheep's wool for clothing. The fields were relatively unproductive. The lake dwellers preferred fishing and hunting for deer -- or roasting dogs for supper.
The villages were filled with garbage and waste, and the residents relieved themselves directly from the walkway into the lake. Washing dishes was apparently unpopular. Archeologists have found pots containing the encrusted remains of food and fish bones baked into the clay.
The ancient population reached Mondsee Lake around 3600 B.C. They probably came from the Balkans, as the circular designs on their pottery suggest. They felled oaks and willows with stone hatchets, using the lumber to make the first thresholds for their new houses along the swampy lakeshore.
Despite its drawbacks, the location was an astute choice. A small creek next to the village flowed to the nearby Attersee Lake, providing natural drainage for the villagers' foul-smelling sewage and fecal matter. Steep hills on both sides created a funnel-like effect, so that there was constantly a breeze in the settlement. This helped fire the copper furnaces, which required operating temperatures of about 1,100 degrees Celsius (2,012 degrees Fahrenheit).
Enormous Tectonic Forces
But there was one thing the settlers did not know: The Mondsee Lake is at the interface between enormous tectonic forces. "The jagged Alpine limestone mountains of the Schafberg region of Tyrol on the southern shore presses against the soft rock of the Flysch region on the opposite shore," Binsteiner explains. The cliffs are pushed up, millimeter-by-millimeter, becoming increasing steep, until they become top-heavy and eventually break off.
Although this only happens extremely rarely, the consequences can be devastating, as comparable landslides show. In 1958, for example, a jagged cliff wall fell into Lituya Bay, producing a 524 meter (1,720 foot) localized tsunami. In 1963, 260 million cubic meters (2.8 billion cubic feet) of rock crashed into the Vajont Reservoir in northern Italy, killing about 2,000 people.
Zürich geologist Flavio Anselmetti collects the evidence of such disasters. Using ultrasound, he scanned the bed of Lake Lucerne and located countless boulders caused by landslides and "sub-aquatic slides." "There was a serious tsunami here at around 1000 B.C.," he says, "and in 1806, a village of 500 inhabitants was destroyed on Lake Brienz."
Drill cores of the sediment provide the evidence of the landslide at Mondsee Lake. They show that the avalanche of rock plugged the lake's drainage system, causing the water level to rise rapidly by two to four meters (six to 13 feet).
But efforts to determine exactly when the event occurred have been less conclusive. "All we know so far is that the landslide happened sometime after the end of the first Ice Age, around 10,000 B.C.," says Anselmetti.
This is far from exact. It could very well be that the boulders came crashing into the lake when Mondsee Lake was still uninhabited.
Binsteiner, at least, has additional evidence to support his theory of an apocalypse brought on by a landslide. In 1872, the lake dwelling was discovered in shallow water and crudely dug up with long excavator shovels. More than 10,000 artifacts were uncovered. They are among the finest relics of the Neolithic Age.
The site was already remarkable for the weapons discovered there, including 595 stone hatchets, cudgels and studded battleaxes, 451 arrowheads along with a dozen hatchets and six daggers made of copper. In the Neolithic Age, these metal tools were such sought-after status symbols that they were even beyond the reach of many a tribal leader.
If it was so valuable, why was this costly arsenal left lying in the mud? "If the site had been abandoned peacefully, such treasures would never have been left behind," says Linz archeologist Ruprechtsberger.
The countless charred fruits found in the mud beneath the settlement are yet another sign that it came to an abrupt end. They include blackened, hard hazelnuts, ears of grain and even pieces of apples, all of them extremely well preserved, because they were quickly deprived of oxygen. Were they preserved by the wave of mud brought on by the tsunami?
Given the many clues, archeologists are anxious to come up with explanations soon. "We need a new, large excavation project at the site of the disaster," says Binsteiner. "Perhaps we will even find mummies there."