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Polish 'Vampires' Suffered from Cholera

Nov 26, 2014 05:52 PM EST

Potential "vampires" buried in northwestern Poland, with large stones wedged into their mouths or sickles over their necks, were probably suffering from cholera, according to new research.

About 285 skeletons of post-medieval Polish, dating to the 17th and 18th centuries, were unearthed from a cemetery in Drawsko from 2008-2012. Among the remains, six were identified as so-called vampire burials.

According to the study, during this time period people of Poland conducted certain funeral practices in order to ward off evil. To ensure that the dead didn't return as a plague upon the living, returning to seek revenge and inflict illness upon others, they were buried with stones and sickles around them.

What they didn't realize was that these people weren't potential vampires, they were merely sick with disease, specifically cholera.

"There was no scientific understanding of how infectious disease was spread. Instead, because they couldn't explain it, they attributed cholera to the supernatural - specifically, to vampires," Lesley Gregoricka from the University of South Alabama told Discovery News.

Among the deceased - including an adult male, a late adolescent female, three adult females, and a younger person of unknown sex - some had large stones placed under their chins supposedly to keep them from biting people should they rise from the grave.

A sickle, on the other hand, was placed across the throat or abdomen, "intended to remove the head or open the gut should they attempt to rise from the grave," the researchers wrote in the journal PLOS ONE.

Gregoricka and her colleagues thought at first that these people were targeted due to the fact that they were immigrants. To test their theory, they analyzed permanent molars from 60 individuals, including the six "vampires," using radiogenic strontium isotope ratios from teeth enamel to determine their origins.

However, their theory was debunked when their tests showed that all the buried were locals, and not outsiders.

It turns out that waves of cholera struck post-medieval Europe, the bacteria spreading through drinking water. Thinking the dead would come back and spread the disease, the Polish gave them unique burials.

Although this is just a hypothesis, researchers note, it's impossible to tell whether these "vampires" actually suffered from cholera since it leaves no marks on human bone.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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