6,500-Year-Old Arctic Site Might Be World’s Northernmost Ancient Cemetery
Signs of human use and occupation have been found at a lonely Artic outpost known as Tainiaro, which is located in the far-northern Finnish region of Lapland, just 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of the Arctic Circle. Incredibly, many of these signs point to Tainiaro having been used as a Stone Age cemetery, which would be the first of its kind discovered at such a high latitude. While acknowledging that this would be an extraordinarily unusual choice for a burial site for Stone Age hunter-gatherers, archaeologists who’ve researched the site confirm that there is supporting evidence for this hypothesis.
So, was one section of this 6,500-year-old site on the frozen tundra of Lapland really used as an ancient graveyard? That’s what a team of archaeologists from the University of Oulu in Finland were determined to find out, as they explain in an article they’ve just published in the journal Antiquity. After finishing an in-depth analysis of previous finds at Tainiaro, and conducting some additional onsite surveys, the scientists are now convinced there was a Stone Age cemetery at this remote Arctic site, despite the temperature extremes and the fact that there are no recovered human bones to prove it.
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The site of the excavations in Tainiaro, Finland. (Aki Hakonen/Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Tainiaro was first discovered about four decades ago. Later excavations at the site revealed the presence of multiple pits, the shapes and dimensions of which were consistent with ancient burial pits or tombs found at other Stone Age archaeological sites in more hospitable climates. Dating procedures eventually proved that the pits had been dug in the fifth millennium BC, when the sparsely populated region was patrolled by hardy hunter-gather groups.
Unfortunately, there were no human bones found in the pits. So while classifying them as burial pits seemed logical, direct proof of this intriguing thesis has been lacking. But the new study offers the best evidence yet to show that a significant number of these ancient pits were dug for the benefit of the dearly departed, in a far northern location where multigenerational cemeteries must have exceedingly rare in Stone Age times.
Some examples of the pits found at Tainiaro from 1984-1990. (Aki Hakonen/Antiquity Publications Ltd)
Excavating the Truth about the Mysterious Pits of Tainiaro
The archaeological site known as Tainiaro can be found in Simo, Finland, a village near the northern edge of the Baltic Sea in southern Lapland. Stone tools were first recovered at the site in 1959 (accidentally, by workmen), and a series of excavations sponsored by the Finnish Heritage Agency in the 1980s and 90s unearthed thousands of artifacts dating to ancient times. This included stone tools, ceramic pottery and animal bones from species hunted by Stone Age hunter-gatherers or caught by prehistoric fishermen and women.
Despite completing digs that covered only about 20 percent of the Tainiaro site, excavators also unearthed 127 deep pits they believed could have been used as graves. Some of these pits contained traces of burned materials, and also red ochre, a pigment made from iron that is often found in connection with Stone Age burials (it can act as a preservative of organic materials). But the soil in this part of the Arctic is notoriously acidic, meaning it would have been difficult for human bones to have survived intact over the passage of several thousand years.
Curious to see if they could prove or disprove the theory that these pits were Stone Age graves, the University of Oulu archaeologists launched a comprehensive study of the Tainiaro site, pouring through records and looking at recovered artifacts, and also visiting the site to undertake their own investigation.
There was no question about the presence of the pits. There were at least 127 at the site, and they had unquestionably been dug by human hands thousands of years ago.
But were they graves for humans, or hearths where roaring fires could be built for warmth and for cooking meat? There were in fact thousands of burned animal bones excavated at Tainiaro, which came from species like seals, reindeer, salmon and beaver that would have been harvested from the land and sea by ancient hunter-gatherers. The sheer volume of these discoveries showed there was significant human activity at the site in prehistoric times, and those who visited or lived there for part of the year would have had reason to dig a lot of fire pits.
Led by University of Oulu archaeologist Aki Hakonen, the team of researchers analyzed the pits’ sizes and contents, comparing their artifacts and measurements with those from hundreds of Stone Age tombs found in 14 prehistoric cemeteries elsewhere in Europe. Based on these comparisons, the Finnish archaeologists concluded that at least 44 of the Tainiaro pits must have been dug as graves, and not as burning pits.
They were able to determine this because of the rounded-edge rectangular shapes of the pits, and because of the traces of red ochre and remnants of burial-good-style artifacts that were recovered from several of these distinctive holes. Given the relatively small size of ancient hunter-gatherer groups, finding 44 graves in one frigid location in remote northern Europe has to be considered a remarkable discovery!
“Such a large cemetery at such a high northerly latitude does not necessarily fit preconceptions about prehistoric foragers in this region,” the study authors acknowledge in their Antiquity article. “But, perhaps, instead of forcing an alternative interpretation it is time to recalibrate our expectations. Even though no skeletal material has survived at Tainiaro, our review of the available evidence supports an interpretation of the site as a cemetery.”
Based on the shapes of the burial pits, it seems the people buried there would have been laid on their backs or on their sides with their knees bent, surrounded by grave goods, red ochre and foods, study lead author Aki Hakonen told Live Science.
"There would have been furs," he added, "the deceased could have been wrapped in [seal] skins."
The rest of the pits were different and seemed more likely to have been used as hearths, which along with the graves shows that ancient hunter-gatherers must have visited the area frequently and stayed there for extended periods of time (presumably during the Arctic summer, when temperatures would have been more bearable).
The Search for Bonafide Human Remains Continues
With just 20 percent of the Tainiaro site excavated so far, it is possible that more graves will yet be found as investigations continue. Current plans are to use ground-penetrating radar to detect additional pits, which could then be dug up in targeted excavations that will protect the rest of the site from unnecessary damage.
Hakonen and his team members are optimistic that future discoveries might include graves that contain partially preserved human skeletons. This could be possible if enough red ochre was used during a burial, since this substance can preserve organic remains indefinitely if enough is applied. And Hakonen even raises the possibility that genetic samples might be retrieved from any newly discovered graves, which would be astounding it if actually happened.
“If we manage new excavations at the site,” Hakonen said, “we will also test whether ancient DNA could survive in the soil itself. But I wouldn't get my hopes up.”
Top image: Archaeologists excavating at the site in Tainiaro forest, Finland. Source: Aki Hakonen/Antiquity Publications Ltd
By Nathan Falde