Stone Age boy’s grave found in Finland reveals secrets

(CNN) — The burial site of a child who lived 8,000 years ago has been discovered in eastern Finland, providing a rare insight into how Stone Age people treated their dead.

Majoonsu’s tomb first attracted the attention of researchers in Outokumpu Municipality in 1992, when bright red ocher and iron-rich clay were discovered on the surface of a new forest road. Red ocher was associated with rock art, as well as decorations and burials.

The Finnish Heritage Agency began excavations at the site in 2018 due to concerns about erosion and motorized traffic.

Finds in the tomb were rare, but the surrounding soil revealed its secrets in a recent microscopic analysis published in September in the journal PLOS One.

Bright red ocher makes it possible to identify the site of the tomb, discovered on a path in a forest in eastern Finland. (Credit: Kristiina Mannermaa)

Found in a stone age pit

Stone Age Finnish societies buried their dead in pits in the ground. The soil in Finland is so acidic that after thousands of years hardly any remains are preserved, which means that traces of archaeological evidence are extremely rare.

A child’s teeth were found in the pit, as well as fragments of bird feathers, plant fibers and strands of dog hair. This was discovered in an analysis that used a painstaking protocol to detect microscopic evidence.

Taken together, this evidence allows a portrait of the deceased to be drawn.

Investigators determined that the teeth belonged to a child between the ages of 3 and 10. Also found were two quartz arrowheads and two other quartz objects believed to be grave goods.

In addition, 24 fragments of tiny feathers were found, seven of which were associated with wading birds. These are the oldest feather fragments found in Finland. The child may have been placed on a feather bed or wrapped in waterfowl clothing, such as an ancient jacket or anorak.

Also found in the grave was a falcon feather, which is believed to have been part of an arrow that was probably attached to an arrowhead or used as an ornament on the child’s clothing.

The fine hairs found on the boy’s legs belonged to a dog or a wolf. It is possible that one was buried near the boy’s feet, or that the boy wore shoes made of dog or wolf skin.

This image shows hair that may be from a dog and was found in a grave. (Credit: Tuija Kirkinen)

“Dogs have been found buried with the deceased, for example, at Skateholm, a famous burial site in southern Sweden that is around 7,000 years old,” said study co-author Kristiina Mannermaa, researcher and associate professor at the University of Sweden’s Department of Cultures. The University of Helsinki, in a statement.

“The discovery at Majoonsuo is sensational, despite the fact that there is nothing left but hair from an animal or animals, not even teeth. We don’t even know if it is a dog or a wolf. The method used shows that traces of fur and feathers can be found even in graves several thousand years old, even in Finland,” he explained.

Studying the relationship between humans and animals

The study’s lead author, Tuija Kirkinen, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Crops at the University of Helsinki, conducted an analysis of the plant and animal materials present in the soil.

The team collected 60 bags of soil samples and carefully separated the organic matter from the soil with water. In three laboratories, samples were searched for microparticles and fatty acids, and soil analysis was performed. The soil, stained red ocher, had to be sifted and then studied with electron microscopes and high-resolution images.

Kirkinen works on the Animals Make Identities project led by Mannermaa. The research team is studying “human-animal social connections in hunter-gatherer graves” from northeastern Europe. These links can reveal more information about the deceased, who lived 7500 to 9000 years ago. Kirkinen’s work is focused on developing methods to search for tiny remains that help uncover ancient stories.

This artist’s impression shows what the boy buried in Majoonsuo might have looked like during his lifetime. A dog or a wolf could be laid at the child’s feet. (Credit: Tom Björklund)

Kirkinen also found plant fibers that probably came from willows or nettles, which could have been used to make fishing nets, ropes for tying clothes or bundles of rope. The protocol he developed to look for fibers and fragments in the soil took time, but it paid off.

“The work is very slow and my heart skipped a beat when I found tiny fragments of clothing and grave furniture from the past, especially in Finland, where all unburned bones tend to decompose,” he said.

“All this gives us a valuable insight into Stone Age burial habits, indicating how people prepared the child for the journey after death.”

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