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Artist’s representation of the triple burial of Dolni Vestonice

The Prehistoric Triple Burial at Dolni Vestonice - New DNA Evidence Deepens the Mystery

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Three decades ago, in the Spring of 1986, archaeologists uncovered the extraordinary burial of three young individuals in a common grave. What they found presented an archaeological mystery – the first skeleton, a male, was buried with a hand over the ochre-stained pelvis of the second whose sex was more ambiguous. The third, male skeleton had been dumped into the grave, and was lying face down beside the others.  Archaeologists and anthropologist have been theorizing about the reason for the unusual burial since its discovery. As the middle skeleton has long been assumed to be female, arguments centered around a love triangle, or a fertility ritual gone wrong. Research conducted by Mittnik et al   in 2016 has now deepened the mystery as it turns out all three skeletons were male – and they were brothers.

Sitemap of Dolni Vestonice 1 and 2

Sitemap of Dolni Vestonice 1 and 2. (Sarahfennel / CC BY-SA 3.0 )

What is the Significance of the Site?

The Upper Paleolithic site of Dolni Vestonice in modern Czech Republic has proved to be a gold mine for archaeologists since its discovery in the 1920s, with a wealth of art, weapons, Venus figurines, personal artifacts, engravings, and a number of impeccably preserved burials. It has shed light onto the lives of our ancestors and how they were living during the Gravettian period in Europe almost 30,000 years ago. Many of the unusual finds from the site have some logical explanations – the figure of a woman with a deformed face seems to be connected to the burial of a woman with a similar facial disfigurement, and Mediterranean shells provide evidence of travel or trade – but the triple burial has long eluded those who have searched for its meaning.

Carved female head from Dolni Vestonice, Krahuletz-Museum.

Carved female head from Dolni Vestonice, Krahuletz-Museum. (Wolfgang Sauber / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

What Facts Do We Know About The Triple Burial?

Dated to approximately 28,000 years ago, the burial is remarkably well preserved. Archaeologists have been able to determine that the bodies were covered by burned spruce, which may have formed part of a funerary structure, and that all three had ochre on their heads. It was apparent from osteological analysis that the skeletons were all between the ages of 16 and 21, which fueled speculation that the burial had been the result of a relationship or love triangle which ended in disaster.

The two obviously male skeletons were buried with pierced carnivore teeth and ivory ornamentation around their skulls, and the male whose hand is on the crotch of the middle skeleton was wearing some kind of mask which some have interpreted as evidence he was a shaman.

There were several theories that formed based on the middle skeleton being a female. Some people thought she had died during a fertility ritual or in childbirth, and her partner and the shaman people held responsible had been killed. Others thought the person who was dumped in the grave could have seriously wronged the middle skeleton in some way or broken a major taboo such as sexual abuse.

View of the three young men buried together at Prehistoric Triple Burial a Dolni Vestonice

View of the three young men buried together at Prehistoric Triple Burial a Dolni Vestonice. ( connellodonovan)

What Recent Developments Have There Been to the Discovery?

In 2016 Mittnik et al analyzed the DNA of all three skeletons and discovered through sequencing the DNA that the middle skeleton was actually a male. They were also able to determine that the individuals were all brothers. This has ruled out a lot of the theories that people had about the burial, as it eliminates the possibility of the middle skeleton dying in childbirth and makes a fertility rite highly unlikely.

Despite the discovery making it possible to remove some theories from the list, in many ways it has deepened the mystery as the theories it removes seem to have been the most logical when looking at the burial through modern eyes. Three brothers being buried this way could have been for very different reasons – some people have argued the bodies were all dumped carelessly into a pit, not just the third skeleton, though this seems unlikely due to the ochre and the evidence of a potential funerary structure. Perhaps they shared a family living quarters and were held responsible when an illness struck the whole group that seemed to originate with the brothers, but this does not fully explain the positioning of the bodies. Maybe the brother who was dumped into the grave had killed the others – but this does not explain the position of the other two, either.

It seems that knowing more about the burial has raised even more questions than we had before, and no matter what we may be able to learn from the skeletons in the future, we will never be able to answer some questions.  Ultimately, we are left with the knowledge that nearly 30,000 years ago three young brothers were buried in a shared grave – we will never know who they were in life, or what their passions were. We do not know what led to their untimely demise, but even if we were able to learn this in the future, we will never be able to fully understand their bizarre burial or know what rituals may have surrounded it.

Top image: Artist’s representation of the triple burial of Dolni Vestonice. Source:   anthropology.net

By Sarah P Young

References

Hirst, K. K., 2016.  Dolní Vestonice (Czech Republic).  [Online]
Available at:  http://archaeology.about.com/od/dterms/g/dolnivestonice.htm

Hitchcock, D., 2014.  Dolni Vestonice and Pavlov burials, including the triple burial.  [Online]
Available at:  http://donsmaps.com/tripleburial.html

Mittnik, A et al , 2016, A molecular Approach to the Sexing of the triple burial at the Upper Paleolithic site of Dolni Vestonice [Online] Available at: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0163019

O'Donovan, C., 2016.  The Burial Tableau of Dolní Vestonice.  [Online]
Available at:  http://www.connellodonovan.com/dolni.html

Owen, J., 2007.  Human Sacrifice Clues Found in European Stone Age Burials.  [Online]
Available at:  http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2007/05/070530-sacrifice-burial_2.html

Comments

My thought on positions: one was buried facing the earth, the other facing the sky, their faces turned to the gods of the sky and earth. The third's position rather looks like he was a last minute addition.
So how about two died of disease and were already in the grave when the other brother also died and he was added at the last moment hence the odd positioning.
As for the ochre on the youngest it may have administered by their mother as this would have been perhaps her last living child and her youngest.
A sad story that three young children died so close together in time. May they and their Mom (and Dad) rest in peace.

Why do so many leap to sex as an explanation. There are so many ways these young men could have died and with just skeletons we cannot even tell if they died at the same time. Perhaps they were annoying and their mother poisoned them. Maybe they got lost in a snow storm and froze to death and when found were brought back and their bodies buried when frozen in certain positions. There needs to be some logical reason to form the basis of a hypothesis without immediately pointing to sexual motivations. 

HMF

Questions
How deep was the grave dug at the time of the funerary ritual, was there ash under the fossils as well as on top, was the ochre placed on top of their heads as they laid or was it placed on the front?

I cannot form a more solid hypothesis without the answers to my inquiries.

Seems as though they were placed on a funeral pyre over a hole.
As the pyre burned down, that is just how their remains came to rest.

RalphTuckerSr's picture

First, let me tell you how difficult to post it is. You have to much bullshite advertising not to use an adblocker and when turned off, the page is not worth loading to attempt comment.

That being said, it is my understanding, ancient native american indian shamans were considered to have the understanding of both male and female. This would imply a bisexuality. Maybe these brothers were punished for these acts of incest.

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