Remains of children and a man buried in a strange upright position have been discovered in Germany. Dating back to 8,500 years ago, the cemetery is said to be one of the oldest ever found in Europe.
The burial site, Gross Fredenwalde – named after a nearby village – is located on a 300ft hill in the northeast state of Brandenburg, about 70km south of Berlin. It belongs to the Mesolithic era when Europe was inhabited by hunter-gatherers.
Nine skeletons have been excavated so far from the site that include four children younger than six years of age and a skeleton of a six-month-old infant, archaeologists said in a press briefing in Berlin.
Researchers have found evidence for many more graves at the site, which is rare for hunter-gatherers to bury people at one place, as they were constantly on the move.
"It's not an accumulation of burials by accident, but a place where they decided to put their dead," Thomas Terberger of the Lower Saxony Department of Historic Preservation who led the excavation at the cemetery said in a paper published in the journal Quartär, according to National Geographic. "It's the first evidence of a true cemetery in northern Europe or Scandinavia," he wrote.
"Hunter-gatherer people typically buried their dead right next to their houses. Here in northern Europe, a site like this is unique," co-archaeologist Erik Brinch Petersen at the University of Copenhagen, added. "It's a big surprise."
Forensic anthropologist Bettina Jungklaus, who excavated one of the bodies, told National Geographic that the find was particularly rare because of the infant's skeleton which was remarkably well-preserved and intact. "It's really rare to find an intact burial like this, because an infant's bones are so small and fragile," Jungklaus said.
She added that further examination and DNA test will reveal about the infant's gender, cause of its death and its link with other skeletons found in the cemetery. The infant's bones will also offer clue to conditions of early European dwellers.
"We can look at possible illnesses, and perhaps determine the cause of death," Jungklaus said. "Children are always the weakest link–they're the first victims when the environment or living situation changes."
Archaeologists were also baffled by the remains of a young man who was buried in a standing position with bone tools and flint knives. "He looks like a flint knapper or experienced craftsman, rather than the strongest boy of the group," Terberger said. He added that similar odd burials have been found in Russia indicating that there were eastern influences on the culture of ancient Europe.
Early DNA analyses have shown that the man died almost 1,000 years after the infant, suggesting that the prehistoric cemetery was in use for more than a millennium, the report said.