The fossilized remains of two Late Pleistocene young boys reveal that ancient hunter-gatherers gave them a royal burial, fit for an ancient king. The remains of the two children are from the Sunghir burial site in Russia that was excavated between 1957 and 1977.
Despite archaeologists having known about the Sunghir burials for decades, a new study revealed that Late Pleistocene societies saw different individuals being treated in different ways after their death.
Researchers discovered that the two boys were among the 10 ancient humans buried at Sunghir and their remains indicated that they had physical conditions. Although the cause of their death is unknown, researchers believe it "may be related to their abnormalities".
Unlike some of the other adults also buried at Sunghir, the two boys were found buried with care and their grave was filled with numerous treasures. The two children were placed head to head. Buried along with them were over 10,000 mammoth ivory beads, over 300 fox teeth, 16 ivory mammoth spears, two human fibulas, carved artwork and deer antlers.
"An exceptional inclusion in the grave was the femoral shaft of a medium-sized adult human of indeterminate sex, from which the epiphyses had been removed and the medullary cavity filled with ochre," Erik Trinkaus, a professor of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis and co-lead of the study, and Alexandra Buzhilova, an anthropologist at Lomonosov Moscow State University and co-author of the researcher, wrote in their new study.
"One can only speculate as to whether the manners of their deaths influenced their final burial contexts."
Despite their physical abnormalities, both boys were believed to be fairly physically active. LiveScience reported that the researchers believe the 12-year-old boy may have been fed soft foods like porridge. However, "it is really bizarre to have an individual who looks like he was bedridden in a group of hunters and gatherers who were extremely mobile," Trinkaus pointed out.
It was not unusual for individuals in ancient hunter-gatherer societies to be born with disabilities. "In the Mid Upper Palaeolithic, individuals with marked developmental or degenerative abnormalities are relatively common in the burial record, accounting for a third of the sufficiently well-preserved individuals," the researchers said.
However, the diversity in the burial patterns, especially the burial artefacts, such as mammoth ivory beads and fox teeth, are what researchers found to be unusual, in comparison with the burial practices found in other Mid Upper Palaeolithic sites.
"From the point of view of the mortuary behavior, the burial of the adult is, in fact, very different from the burial of the children," Trinkaus told Live Science.
"The Sunghir mortuary patterns are unusual only in some of the offerings and the quantity of personal decoration. In this context, they are not exceptional, just spectacular," the researchers said. "The differential disposal of the dead at Sunghir is, however, sufficient to reflect a complex diversity of mortuary behaviour among these Late Pleistocene foragers. Most importantly, it reflects a diversity of social behaviours in terms of social identities and social considerations. The Sunghir remains, both biological and cultural, herald the establishment and the subsequent elaboration of these patterns among Late Pleistocene foragers."
The new study was published in the journal Antiquity.