Archaeologists have long been fascinated by prehistoric burial sites containing the remains of an adult holding or embracing a child in death. A new international study provides fascinating new insights into these enigmatic burial practices and the family relationships of early Bronze Age communities in Western Eurasia around 3000-2000 BC.

Researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz, University of Ferrara, and other European institutions re-examined two remarkably similar double burial sites from this time period. One was discovered in 2000 during a construction project in Altwies, Luxembourg and contained the skeletons of a woman and a 3-year-old boy buried facing one another, with the woman holding the boy’s head in her hand.

The other site was uncovered in 1887 at Dunstable Downs, England over 500 kilometers away. A multidisciplinary analysis incorporating archaeology, anthropology and ancient DNA techniques was conducted on the four sets of human remains to look for cultural and genetic connections between these earliest Bell Beaker people.

The DNA analysis produced some surprising results. It revealed that the individuals from Luxembourg were a biological mother and son, matching their burial positioning. However, the remains from England were of a young woman buried with a 6-year-old girl who were identified as paternal aunt and niece rather than mother and daughter as one might expect.

This suggested that kinship and hereditary descent may have been traced through the male line in some Bell Beaker communities. Additional evidence came from the strict orientation rules observed in Bell Beaker graves based on the deceased’s gender. In Luxembourg, the boy’s grave orientation followed his male sex rather than his mother buried beside him.

When combined with over 100 other similar Bronze Age burial sites found across Eurasia, some broader patterns began to emerge. It appeared this practice of interring an adult holding or embracing a subadult child was widespread between 3000-2000 BC. However, the meaning and reasons behind it remain unknown.

While the direct causes of the individuals’ deaths could not be determined, violence, infectious disease, or pandemic were proposed as possibilities. However, the ritual treatment and positioning of the bodies in burial seems to have held deep symbolic significance which was adhered to closely in different regions.

Analysis of the ancient DNA also provided insights into the heritage and migrations of early European farmers. All four individuals had genetic signatures deriving mostly from pastoralist steppe populations that moved west into Central and Eastern Europe during the 3rd millennium BC. So the buried kin in Luxembourg and England likely shared cultural ancestry despite their geographical separation.

Further research for the project uncovered over a hundred joint burials of adults and children similar to the ones described here across Eurasia, dating from the 3rd and 2nd millennium BC. The researchers could propose many explanations for joint burial and simultaneous death, perhaps violence, infections, or pandemics, but the astonishing similarities between the burials from Luxembourg and Britain suggest that communities, indeed perhaps families, in Bell Beaker Europe mourned their dead according to widely held and closely followed formal rituals.


Sources

Johannes Gutenberg Universität Mainz | Zedda, N., Meheux, K., Blöcher, J. et al. Biological and substitute parents in Beaker period adult–child graves. Sci Rep 13, 18765 (2023). doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-45612-3


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