Mysterious graves discovered at a 8,500-year old European cemetery baffle researchers

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The German cemetery called Gross Fredenwalde is a recent discovery in terms of archaeology, with initial excavations only taking place in the 60’s. And in spite of its modern-day unearthing, the cemetery is easily one of the oldest in Europe with graves dating back almost 8,500 years. But beyond just its dating, the archaeologists are rather perplexed by the mysterious nature of the multiple graves that were uncommon during the late Mesolithic period. To that end, researchers have come across varied types of human remain specimens (with a total of nine skeletons), including four children below six years of age, an infant, a woman buried oddly with a child on her belly, and a young man who was bizarrely buried in an upright position. And that is not all – the archaeologists expect to come across more varied graves from the Gross Fredenwalde cemetery in the future, judging by the evidence they have gathered.

The cemetery itself is perched atop a 300 ft high hill, around 50 miles north of Berlin (in the northeast state of Brandenburg). Now intriguingly enough, not only does the hill exhibit hard soil of the rocky variety (which would have made it difficult to actually dig the graves), but the location also has no proximate water sources, which more-or-less rules out the possibility of a nearby settlement. Simply put, the raised ground was chosen specifically for burying the dead remains, as opposed to an ‘accidental’ cemetery. Pertaining to the latter part, hunter-gatherer groups during this period tended to bury their dead close to where they resided (like beside rudimentary settlements), instead of choosing specific places for burials. As Thomas Terberger, the lead archaeologist of a recent excavation project conducted in 2014, and a member of the Lower Saxony Department of Historic Preservation, mentioned (in the journal Quartär) –

It’s not an accumulation of burials by accident, but a place where they decided to put their dead. It’s the first evidence of a true cemetery in northern Europe or Scandinavia.

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Remains of the six-month-old baby. Credit: RÉMI BÉNALI, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.

The mystery however doesn’t stop there. The archaeologists were pretty surprised by the presence of the tiny skeleton of an infant less than six-months old. Almost 8,400 years old, the skeletal remains of this child was found to be in a relatively well preserved condition, with the arms conspicuously folded across its small chest. These bones and the soil block inside which the body was kept intact, were found to have red stains that were derived from the ochre pigment used for embellishing the corpse.

But even more baffling to the researchers were the specimens of a 24-27 year old male who was ‘buried’ in a fully upright, standing position. Entombed more than a millennium after the infant, the vertical grave of sand only filled up till his knees. In other words, his upper torso and head were allowed to face the whims of open-air nature, thus leading to partial decay of the upper body along with attack marks of the roving carnivores in the area (who probably gnawed on some of the arm-bones).

The researchers also found bone tools and flint knives buried alongside this young man. Moreover, on analyzing his skeleton, the scientists have determined that the man led a pretty easy life that eschew most of the contemporary physically taxing activities. In that regard, he might have been an expert craftsman of the group who showcased his ‘talent’ via skills instead of brute force. Interestingly enough, the archaeologists have also been able to detect (very moderate) influences of burial traditions of Olenij Ostrov, another cemetery lying northeast of Gross Fredenwalde, in modern-day Russia.

This suggests that were tepid cultural connections across the expansive regions of northern Europe. And we stretch the ambit a bit, the time of this (hunter-gatherer) man’s death almost coincides with the period when farmers were arriving in the particular area. So there is always the possibility that during the initial phase of their migration, the farmers lived side-by-side with the hunter-gatherer groups, thus resulting in some degree of cultural exchange. But such relations would rather have been ‘unenthusiastic’, since the different groups still didn’t adopt trade connections or societal bonds.

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Skull of a 40-49-year-old female buried in the Gross Fredenwalde cemetery. Credit: B. Jungklaus.

Source: NationalGeographic

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