The prehistoric burial of two young boys in Siberia is challenging how we thought ancient hunter-gatherer societies lived. We tend to assume that in a world where people were living a hand-to-mouth existence, where having food or not often meant the difference between life and death, every single member of the community would be needed to pull their weight.
Roughly 34,000 years ago, however, one group of hunter-gatherers carefully laid to rest two boys aged around 10 and 12 years old, both of whom showed signs of disability. What is more, the young boys were adorned with a trove of Palaeolithic riches indicating they were important members of the community.
The bodies were decorated with over 10,000 mammoth ivory beads, 300 pierced fox teeth, 20 armbands, and 16 mammoth ivory spears. The graves were also filled with carved figurines and ivory disks, deer antlers, and even two human leg bones, before being covered with red ochre.
The remains were first discovered half a century ago at what is known as Sunghir, just north-east of Moscow, along with those of at least six other graves, and are thought to be some of the earliest ritual human burials known to date. In contrast with the young boys, none of the other adult burials have anywhere near the same amount of grave goods, suggesting that despite being disabled the children had high social standing, argues a new study published in Antiquity.
The 10-year-old showed that his legs were severely bowed and short, while his teeth revealed that he had likely experienced bouts of extreme stress during his short lifetime. The 12-year-old was probably in a much more severe state. His skeleton indicates that he may have been bedridden, while his teeth show almost no wear. This is particularly unusual for someone of such age from this period, and suggests that he may have been fed soft foods his entire life.
Not only were these ancient hunter-gatherers treating the remains with a great deal of respect, but they appeared to have been extensively caring for them during life, despite the burden they may have placed on the group.
Perhaps this highlights a problem that we have when trying to imagine what these groups of ancient hunter-gatherers were like. Because they lived so far back, in a world filled with long-extinct animals and retreating icecaps, we are often detached as we study them, as if they were somehow a separate species to us.
But these people were as human as you or I am, and in precisely the same way that parents and communities today would do anything to help children in their group, it really shouldn't come as a surprise these prehistoric humans would have done the same for their own.