Human Sacrifice Clues Found in European Stone Age Burials

James Owen
for National Geographic News
May 30, 2007
Common Stone Age graves in Europe that include the remains of physically disabled people hint at ritual human sacrifice there, a new study says.

The research is based on unusual burial sites dating to between 26,000 and 8000 B.C.

Skeletons such as those of a teenage dwarf and a girl with malformed bones were found buried alongside able-bodied dead. This indicates that human sacrifices may have been an important ritual activity among ancient hunter-gatherer tribes, according to lead study author Vincenzo Formicola of the University of Pisa in Italy.

The finds also suggest that prehistoric societies during the Upper Paleolithic period were surprisingly advanced compared to later Stone Age peoples in Europe.

Previous Clues

Formicola and colleagues' study focused on three previously described ceremonial burial sites in Russia, the Czech Republic, and Italy.

Bodies in these multiple graves appear to have been purposely selected, Formicola said. There were similarities in sex and age along with the presence of individuals with serious physical impairments.

The sites include a double burial of the so-called Sunghir children, unearthed at Vladimir, Russia, some 120 miles (193 kilometers) east of Moscow.

The bodies of a preteen boy and girl were discovered with grave goods, including about 5,000 perforated ivory beads thought to have been sown into caps and clothing.

Perforated arctic fox teeth, ivory pins, and carvings, as well as disk-shaped pendants and giant spears made of mammoth tusks were also found. The bones had been covered in red ochre, a pigment made from clay.

Since each bead would have taken more than an hour to make, the children's burial may have been planned before they died some 24,000 years ago, Formicola said.

"The enormous amount of time required to prepare all those ivory objects leads one to wonder whether this ceremony was foreseen long in advance," he said.

Formicola also noted that the girl had abnormal thigh bones that were bowed and shortened.

The study appears in the June issue of the journal Current Anthropology.

Similar Burials

A second multiple burial found at Dolni Vestonice in Moravia, Czech Republic, contained the remains of a disabled teenager thought to have been female.

Lying between two adolescent males, the teenagers had limbs and a skull showing signs of severe deformity, possibly the result of a rare genetic disorder.

Again the bodies appear to have been buried at the same time, Formicola said. They were arranged in an unusual position, with the hands of one male placed on the middle skeleton's pelvic region, which had been covered in red ochre.

The third burial, at Romito Cave in Calabria in southern Italy, revealed the skeleton of a teenage dwarf, believed to be male, entwined in the arms of an adult female. The bodies lay beneath an elaborate engraving of a bull.

Formicola argues that similarities shared by the three multiple burials could be explained by ritual human sacrifice.

The practice hasn't previously been recorded from the Upper Paleolithic period, but is known from other large, hierarchical societies.

(See related: Stone Age Massacre Revealed in British Tombs [March 16, 2007].)

Meanwhile studies of well-preserved remains of Iron Age bodies found in Denmark bogs suggest that the young and disabled were often chosen for human sacrifice.

"Disabled people may have been selected because they were seen as different. These individuals may be feared, hated, or revered," Formicola said.

Was it Homicide?

None of the remains buried at the three Stone Age sites show signs of a violent death.

This could be because the bones no longer show signs of homicide, Formicola said.

Moreover, a sacrifice doesnt necessarily imply injuries to the bones, he added.

Anthropologist David Frayer of the University of Kansas agrees that multiple burials first appeared in Europe during the Upper Paleolithic.

"Something different was going on for sure," he said.

"We always wondered what the odds were of three people dying at the same time at Dolni Vestonice. It's really hard to imagine they died together because all those individuals were fairly young."

But Frayer says he would expect some evidence to show that one or more people in the three graves were killed deliberately.

One of the things that bothers me a bit is that there is no evidence of any homicide, he said. The easiest way to kill somebody is to bash them in the head.

Frayer said there may have just been a greater density of people at that time in history, so it may have been more likely that two or more people would die simultaneously.

Formicola, the study author, accepts that many questions remain unanswered.

But he said the sites stress the complexity of Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies and the symbolic importance of the burials they left.

"Using information drawn from burials and art we can better [understand] the expressions of the beliefs and rituals left by these populations," he said.

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