Over the last 60 years, the remains of at least 10 individuals have been discovered at Sunghir, though some of the bones have been lost in the intervening years.
In a recent study published in the journal Antiquity, researchers pooled all of the data available about the remains at Sunghir. The team provides the most complete description to date of the humans interred and the objects recovered at the site.
The male adult covered in beads and ocher was between 35 and 45 years of age when he died. Bioarchaeological analysis suggests he might have sustained a sudden death, probably due to an incision in his neck. While his grave—which contains about 3,000 mammoth ivory beads, pierced fox canines, and ivory armbands—is stunning, that of the juvenile and the adolescent is even more so. In addition to beads and ocher, carefully manufactured mammoth ivory spears, ivory disks, and pierced cervid antlers were found with the skeletons.
Yet these extravagant burials are only part of the reason why Sunghir stands out in the archaeological record. The research now suggests that the site is characterized by a much greater diversity of mortuary behaviors than archaeologists previously thought.
While an adult femur shaft was found in the grave with the two youngsters, another femur bone was discovered isolated near the graves, with indications that the body had been abandoned on the surface without receiving any formal treatment. A cranium, the first human bone to be discovered at the site in 1964, was found with artifacts just above the adult’s lavish grave. Although this cranium represents only one part of the skeleton, it appears to have been deposited there in the context of a funerary ritual.
These analyses have led the authors to conclude that at least three different forms of burials were practiced at Sunghir.
“What’s impressive here is that diverse mortuary behaviors we see across Europe at this time all come together at Sunghir,” says the lead author Erik Trinkaus, who is based at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
Radiocarbon dating suggests that these different burials date back to the same period. Early on in the Upper Paleolithic, these ancient people embraced a range of mortuary behaviors across a limited span of time. This finding challenges us to see that these modern humans may have had rich beliefs about death and about how the deceased should be treated.
The contrast between lavish burials and isolated skeletal elements at the site also suggests that there was some kind of differentiation between individuals during their lifetimes that was then reflected in death. Although it is not clear what the social structure of these people looked like or how it was determined, the evidence at Sunghir suggests that individuals didn’t necessarily acquire a status through their actions. Something else may have determined their position within their communities and how they were eventually treated in death.