Around 34,000 years ago, hunter-gatherers roaming the Russian plains started to bury their dead at the site of Sunghir, about 200 kilometres east of what is today Moscow. Excavations carried out here from 1957 to 1977 uncovered a range of burial practices ranging from single bones to the extremely elaborate burial of an adult male covered in beads and ochre (a red clay earth pigment), and a juvenile and an adolescent, approximately 10 and 12 years old, buried head to head.
Over the last 60 years, the remains of at least 10 individuals have been discovered at Sunghir. In a recent study published in the journal Antiquity, researchers pooled all of the data available about the remains at the site. Skeletal remains range from elaborate burials to isolated adult femurs which seem to have been abandoned on the surface, and others apparently placed inside graves in the context of a funerary ritual. This has led the authors to conclude that at least three different forms of burials were practiced at Sunghir.
“What’s impressive here is that the diverse mortuary behaviours which we see across Europe at this time all come together at Sunghir,” says lead author Erik Trinkaus, based at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Radiocarbon dating suggests that these different burials took place in the same period. The contrast between lavish burials and isolated skeletal elements at the site suggests that there was some kind of differentiation between individuals during their lifetimes that was then reflected in death.
The male adult covered in beads and ochre was between 35 and 45 years of age when he died. Analysis suggests he might have sustained a sudden death, probably due to an incision in his neck. His grave contains about 3,000 mammoth ivory beads, pierced fox canines, and ivory armbands. The head and chest were decorated with many ivory beads, originally sewn onto cloth. There were also mammoth ivory bracelets on his arms and the remains of a beaded cap on his head.
Even more telling is the burial of the two young men. In addition to beads and ochre, carefully manufactured mammoth ivory spears, ivory disks, and pierced cervid (deer) antlers were found with the skeletons. The spears would have taken time to produce, and would have had a high utilitarian value.
Both men appear to have suffered from physical abnormalities. Although no diagnosis has been established so far, it’s likely that their disabilities would have been visible to others. Their difference may have been part of the reason they were given an extravagant burial.
For more than a decade now, archaeologists have found mounting evidence all over Europe to suggest that such individuals had a unique position. “These elaborate burials should not be seen as the standard way people were putting their loved ones to rest – they are odd,” says Paul Pettitt, professor of Paleolithic archaeology at Durham University in the U.K. The ornate interments may be interpreted as displays of ritual acts that were practiced on rare occasions for individuals who had stood out in life due to the way they looked, behaved, or died.