Making sacrifices in Stone Age societies

From San Juan, Puerto Rico, at the Paleoanthropology Society and Society for American Archaeology meeting

Double and triple burials at 23,000-to-27,000-year-old sites in Europe and western Asia suggest prehistoric human sacrifices, says Vincenzo Formicola of the University of Pisa in Italy.

Of 30 known burials from that time period and area, 6 held more than one person. These graves contain two or three children, adolescents, or young adults apparently buried at the same time, positioned in curious ways, and accompanied by unusually valuable objects, Formicola says. Most of the multiple burials include at least one youngster with a deformity.

One of the graves, at Russia’s 24,000-year-old Sunghir site, contains a boy and a girl buried head to head, dusted in red ocher, and ornamented with thousands of ivory beads, fox-teeth pendants, and pierced antlers. Spears carved out of mammoth tusks lay next to the children. The Stone Age girl displayed severely bowed legs that would have limited her mobility.

It would have taken months to produce all the items interred with the two youngsters, Formicola says. “Was the burial of these children foreseen long in advance?” he asks. “It raises the possibility of [prehistoric] human sacrifices.”

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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