The Prehistoric Triple Burial at Dolni Vestonice - New DNA Evidence Deepens the Mystery
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. (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. (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.
- 5,000-year-old musical scene found on pottery in Israel may reflect sacred marriage ritual
- Archaeologists in the UK Find Two Mutilated Skeletons
- Tied Up in His Grave, The Strange 'Dancing Skeleton' of Ust-Ivanovka
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
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