The Salem Witch Trials: A case of mass hysteria

Between February 1692 and May 1693 in current day Massachusetts, more than 200 people were accused of witchcraft. Of them, thirty were found guilty, and nineteen of whom were executed. This period of witch trials later came to be known as the Salem witch trials, named after the town of Salem and Salem Village (present-day Danvers).

Salem Village was known for its divided population with many internal disputes about property lines, grazing rights, and church privileges. After a series of short-term ministers, Samuel Parris became the first ordained minister of Salem Village in 1689. He was not successful in solving conflicts in the village; rather he contributed to the dissonance by making well-known church members suffer public penance due to their small mistakes. This only created more division among the people. According to Historian Marion Starkey, serious conflict was inevitable in this tense environment (1949).

A map of Salem Village, 1692

In February 1692, Reverend Parris’ daughter Elizabeth, age 9, and niece, Abigail Williams, age 11, started having “fits” (Hale 1697). They would shriek, make weird sounds, crawl under furniture, and convulse into strange positions. These “fits” were considered to be supernatural in origin, and members of the community were accused of consorting with the devil and afflicting the young children through witchcraft (Lawson 1692). With the seeds of paranoia planted, more accusations arose, and more people were arrested. By the end of the month of May, a total of 62 individuals were in custody (Roach 2002).

Illustration of the Salem witch trials, depicting Mary Walcott, one of the afflicted victims

On June 2, 1962, the Court of Oyer and Terminer (to hear and decide) was established to handle the large number of people in jail for witchcraft. These trials relied heavily on spectral evidence, or testimony based on dreams or apparitions seen by the afflicted. The “touch test” was also used to determine guilt or innocence. The accused witch was told to touch a victim having a fit, and if the victim stopped having a fit, the accused was believed to have afflicted the victim (Boyer & Nissenbaum 1972). Other evidence included confessions made by accused witches, and testimony by a guilty witch who pointed out others as witches. In January 1693, the new Superior Court of Judicature convened, and those who had been accused of witchcraft, but not yet tried, went on trial. The series of trials and executions finally ended in May 1693.

The Salem witch trials are an infamous case of mass hysteria; they are an example of the consequences of religious extremism, false allegations, and lapses in the due legal processes. These trials had a lasting effect on people’s attitude towards separation of state and church, as historian George Lincoln Burr said, “the Salem witchcraft was the rock on which the theocracy shattered” (1914:197). The Salem witch trials left a lesson for the future, a caution for the outcome of unbridled religious fanaticism and over enthusiasm about the supernatural.

Further reading on Finding the exact spot of witch execution in Salem and Witch trials in Europe

Reference list:

Boyer, Paul S., Stephen Nissenbaum

1972  Salem-Village Witchcraft: A Documentary Record of Local Conflict in Colonial New England. Northeastern University Press, Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Burr, George Lincoln

1914  Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases, 1648–1706. C. Scribner’s Sons, New York.

Hale, John

1696  A Modest Enquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft. B. Green and J. Allen, Boston.

Lawson, Deodat

1692  A Brief and True Narrative of Some Remarkable Passages Relating to Sundry Persons Afflicted by Witchcraft, at Salem Village: Which happened from the Nineteenth of March, to the Fifth of April, 1692. Benjamin Harris, Boston.

Roach , Marilynne K.

2002  The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-To-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege. Cooper Square Press, New York.

Starkey, Marion L.

1949  The Devil in Massachusetts. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, New York.

Images: Figure 1, Figure 2

Neanderthal DNA: How different were they from humans?

The Homo neanderthalensis are often regarded as the long-lost cousins of the Homo sapiens sapiens. However, it is an ongoing debate whether the Neanderthals were a sub-species of humans, or a separate species by themselves. The analysis of Neanderthal DNA has provided the key to the many questions surrounding this member of the Homo genus.

The nuclear DNA of Neanderthals has been studied extensively in the Neanderthal genome project, which gave the conclusion that modern non-African human populations have traces of Neanderthal DNA. To explain this, Green et al. argues that interbreeding happened between Neanderthals and humans shortly after the ancestors of modern non-Africans migrated out of Africa. Hence modern African populations do not show any Neanderthal DNA traces. However, fossil records did not place humans and Neanderthals in the same geographic region at this period.

In 2015 Neanderthal remains dating to about 55 thousand years ago were discovered in Manot Cave, Israel. This bridged the gap between the fossil record and DNA record and provided evidence for both species inhabiting the region at the same period, hence inbreeding was possible (Hershkovitz 2015).

Figure 1: Geographic Location of Manot Cave, Israel

Other sections of Neanderthal DNA have also been researched on. Mitochondria, a type of cell organelle, contains small DNA loops (mtDna), which is only passed along by females (Renfrew 2018). The analysis of mtDNA from Neanderthals fossils shows that the Neanderthals have not contributed to the modern human mtDNA pool. Yet this only disapproves the flow of DNA from Neanderthals to humans through maternal lines (Wang 2013). The Y chromosome of Neanderthals has also been studied, primarily by Mendez et al. in 2016. Unlike mtDNA, Y chromosomes are passed along the paternal line. The data suggests that the Neanderthal Y chromosome is not present in modern human samples at all. Mendez concluded that mutations made the Neanderthals genetically incompatible to humans and consequently resulted in the loss of the Neanderthal Y chromosome in present-day humans.

However, for all that DNA analysis tells us, it does not tell us much about the material culture of the Neanderthals. This is where archaeology comes in. The sites and artifacts can tell us how the Neanderthals lived, what they ate, what technology they used. They used stone and wooden tools but unlike early humans, their living areas did not have specific activity sites. Their diets were highly reliant on meat, as has been revealed by isotopic analysis of their remains. It has also been argued that the rarity of “symbolic” objects such as art or ornaments in Neanderthal sites indicates “a lack of human cognitive ability and language” (Harvati 2010).

Figure 2: 337,000 – 300,000 years old wooden spear from Schöningen

To summarize, present-day humans outside of Africa show traces of Neanderthal DNA, but there are no Neanderthal mtDNA or Neanderthal Y chromosomes in modern human populations. The current consensus among anthropologists is that Homo neanderthalensis and Homo sapiens sapiens are indeed separate species, although that might change with further research and with the discovery of more Neanderthal samples.


Further information on early hominids and the great human migration.


Images: Figure 1 and Figure 2


References cited:

Green, Richard E., et al.

2010  A Draft Sequence of the Neandertal Genome. Science 328: 710-722

Link to “A Draft Sequence of Neandertal Genome

Harvati, Katerina

2010  Neanderthals. Evo Edu Outreach 3: 367–376

Link to “Neanderthals”

Hershkovitz, Israel, et al.

2015  Levantine cranium from Manot Cave (Israel) foreshadows the first European modern humans. Nature 520: 216–219

Link to “Levantine cranium from Manot Cave (Israel) foreshadows the first European modern humans”

Mendez, Fernando l., G. David Poznik, Sergi Castellano, and Carlos D. Bustamante

2016  The Divergence of Neandertal and Modern Human Y Chromosomes. Am J Hum Genet 98(4): 728-734

Link to “The Divergence of Neandertal and Modern Human Y Chromosome

Renfrew, Colin, and Paul Bahn

2018  Archaeology Essentials Theories/ Methods/ Practice. Thames &Hudson, London.

Wang, Chuan-Chao, Sara E. Farina, and Hui Li

2012  Neanderthal DNA and modern human origins. Quaternary International 295: 126-129

Link to “Neanderthal DNA and modern human origins”