Human Sacrifice in Stone Age Europe

Vincenzo Formicola, of the University of Pisa in Italy, has studied three different European burial sites dating to between 26,000 and 8,000 B.C. These dates fall smack dab in the Stone Age and offer a unique insight into the behaviors of early Europeans, because the graves,

“include the remains of physically disabled people hint at ritual human sacrifice there…

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 tribe…”

Formicola analyzed the bones from the Sunghir children in Russia, the interment of youngins in unsual positions of Dolní Vestonice in Moravia, and the adolescent dwarf from Romito Cave in Italy. These three sites were discovered in 1957-1964, 1986, and 1909 respectively. They are well studied sites, and from the beginning were remarkable because they had children in them. People have hypothesized that natural this kids all died from diseases or accidents, because their burials lack a ‘funeral’ feel. Formicola thinks these kids were sacrified because they all have similarities in age and sex, which suggests there’s some sort of selective practice.

I’ve picked up some illustrations of two site burials if you are curious to see how they look. I got these images all from Don’s Maps, an excellent resource on archaeological sites.

The first is an artistic depiction of the Sunghir burials. Two children, aged 8 and 13, are buried head to head with elaborately decorated clothes and other jewellery. Notice that the perforated disc is shown here as being atop a wooden lance.

Sunghir Burial

As you can see the bodies of these preteens were discovered with grave goods, “including about 5,000 perforated ivory beads thought to have been sown into caps and clothing.” The bones had been covered in red ochre, a pigment made from clay. Other items include:

  • Perforated arctic teeth
  • Ivory pins
  • Carvings
  • Disk-shaped pendants
  • Giant spears made of mammoth tusks

A great bit of detail must have gone into this burial, Formicola has commented on this saying,

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

The next image is another illustration but this time of the triple burials of Dolni Vestonice. In this burial, the bodies of three teenagers were discovered in a common grave. Two of the skeletons were heavily built males. By its slender proportions, the third was judged to be female, aged seventeen to twenty. A marked left curvature of the spine, along with several other skeletal abnormalities, suggested that she had been painfully crippled. The two males had died healthy, in the prime of their lives. The remains of a thick wooden pole thrust through the hip of one of them hinted that his death might not have been entirely natural. A sidenote, Erik Trinkaus worked on the Dolni Vestonice burials.

Triple burials of Dolni Vestonice

The Dolni Vestonice triplet burials were arranged in an unusual position, with the hands of one male placed on the middle skeleton’s pelvic region, which had been also been covered in red ochre.

Unfortunately, the Romito caves example isn’t all too well illustrated — maybe because it was excavated almost 100 years ago. This grave is unique in that it holds the remains of an adolescent dwarf held in the arms of an adult female. Both of these skeletons bodies lie under an elaborate engraving of a bull.

Formicola has taken all the similarities of these burials and has synthesized an argument — all of these commonalities can be explained by ritual human sacrifice. He has published his findings in Current Anthropology, under the title, “From the Sunghir Children to the Romito Dwarf.” The big controversy with this explanation he has derived is that this practice has not yet been recorded from the Upper Paleolithic period, nor do any of the bones show signs of homicide.

Ritual sacrifice is known from other large, hierarchical societies but not really in Stone Age Europe. What Formicola is suggesting implies that Stone Age European cultures were more structured than we believed them to be. Formicola says, the sites stress the complexity of Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherer societies and the symbolic importance of the burials they left,

“Disabled people may have been selected because they were seen as different. These individuals may be feared, hated, or revered… Using information drawn from burials and art we can better [understand] the expressions of the beliefs and rituals left by these populations.”


One thought on “Human Sacrifice in Stone Age Europe

  1. “By its slender proportions, the third was judged to be female, aged seventeen to twenty”
    Oh dear, I wish people would stop that. Sexual dimorphism is relative to time period and population, and not as simple as small = female.
    Anyways, I thought the middle skeleton had been sexed as a male? A lecturer of mine reviewed the case about three weeks ago and she mentioned that all individuals were males. Maybe somebody reassessed the skeletons after this post was made?

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