Given that one has to spend the rest of eternity in one's grave, it's desirable to be buried in a comfortable position, although recent excavations in north-east Germany have unearthed the body of a man who has spent the last 7,000 years standing upright. While the discovery of this unusual ancient burial practice is pretty interesting in its own right, researchers believe that the site itself, which contains corpses interred over a period of 1,500 years, may represent one of the earliest cemeteries in Europe.
Located on top of the 110-meter-high (300-foot) Weinberg hill, the graveyard was first discovered back in 1962, when construction workers stumbled upon the remains of six bodies. Named after the nearby town of Groß Fredenwalde, the site did not receive any scientific attention until 1992, when researchers analyzed the bones to determine their age, dating them back to around 6,500 BCE.
Further excavations took place in 2012 and 2013, during which three further bodies were discovered in separate burial pits. Among these was a baby, believed to be around 6 months old when it died about 8,400 years ago. Also unearthed at this time was the body of the upright gentleman, who researchers believe was in his mid-20s at the time of death.
Publishing a report of the findings in the journal Quartär, the team describes how the bones above the knee of this particular individual are somewhat jumbled up, and also covered in gnawing marks. This leads them to suggest that the erect man's grave was initially only filled up to the top of his shins, leaving most of his body exposed above the ground for some time. During this period, his decaying corpse was likely regularly attacked by carnivorous animals, before crumbling completely.
At this point, the rest of the grave was filled in with earth, though not before more than 30 rudimentary tools were placed alongside the body. Examining these flints, the study authors predict that the man – who measured 1.56 meters (5 feet 1 inch) in height – was a master craftsman. This appears to be confirmed by the fact that his body bore no signs of hard physical labor, suggesting he was not involved in arduous pursuits.
One of the graves discovered at Groß Fredenwalde. A. Kotula/Quartär
Interestingly, the young man was buried some 1,500 years after the baby, suggesting that the site was in use for a long period of time. This, combined with the fact that no evidence of any settlements have been found on the hill itself, leads the study authors to conclude that the bodies were not simply buried close to one another by chance, but that the site was indeed a designated graveyard, probably used by the inhabitants of numerous different nearby settlements over a long period of time.
Speaking to National Geographic, Thomas Terberger, who led the archaeological dig, has described the finding as “the first evidence of a true cemetery in northern Europe or Scandinavia.”
Furthermore, by studying the different forms of nitrogen present in the bones, the researchers were able to classify bodies as belonging to “typical Mesolithic people whose way of life was based on gathering, hunting and some fishing.”
However, according to the age of the youngest burial – that of the upright young man – the later members of this community would have been contemporaries of the Linear Band Pottery culture, who originated on the banks of the Danube before migrating north-west, and are considered the earliest agriculturalists in the region.
Therefore, while previous genetic studies had rejected the idea of population continuity between Mesolithic and Linear Pottery Band cultures, the new finding sheds some fascinating new light onto the shifting demographics of ancient humans.