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A man of the Pitted Ware Culture in the tomb field of Ajvide in Gotland represents a typical burial. Source: Åsa Malmberg, (Uppsala University)

Mystery of Sweden’s Stone Age Cultures Unraveled with Genetics

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Scientists in Sweden have completed a multidisciplinary genetic and archaeological study that provides clarity to the mysterious cross-cultural influences found in the grave sites of Stone Age dwellers.

The origins of Sweden began with the melting of the Northern Polar Ice Caps in about 12,000 BC, at which time groups of hunters started to inhabit the area. Throughout the Stone Age (8,000 BC to 6,000 BC), its early inhabitants fashioned stone tools and weapons for hunting, gathering, and fishing as a means of survival.

Forging Sweden in the Icy Tundra

During the middle Stone Age, at least three culturally different groups existed in Sweden. Archaeologists have identified the Funnel Beaker culture, considered to be Scandinavia s first farmers, the Pitted Ware culture, which is linked to fishing and hunting, and the Battle Axe culture, responsible for the progress of cattle herders. These three groups differed in lifestyles, genetics, and burial traditions and rituals.

A joint team of archaeologists and geneticists at Stockholm University have recently published a new study that reveals answers as to why Battle Axe cultural influences are found in the graves of people from the Pitted Ware culture.

Ironing out Evidence of Cross-Cultural Influences

Professor Jan Storå is an archaeologist at Stockholm University and one of the authors of a new study that reveals the importance of the team’s earlier genetic mapping . Storå, who led the team that analyzed DNA samples from 25 Stone Age individuals from four Pitted Ware burial grounds in Gotland, found that some of the graves were influenced by the Battle Axe culture. This is a unique study that contributes to our understanding of the interactions between the cultural groups of the Stone Age,” said Storå.

The study goes on to explain that in Pitted Ware graves, the deceased were most often buried on their backs with their hunting tools and sometimes interred with the bones of seals, whom they hunted. The graves were not marked with either boulders or earth mounds. According to Storå, there also exist several atypical graves with apparent influences from the Battle Axe culture, for example, some individuals were buried with battle axes and are positioned on their sides, with their legs pulled up, which is usually associated with Battle Axe culture.

A woman of the Pitted Ware Culture in the tomb field of Ajvide in Gotland represents a burial influenced by the Battle Axe Culture   Source: Photo by Göran Burenhult, (Uppsala University)

A woman of the Pitted Ware Culture in the tomb field of Ajvide in Gotland represents a burial influenced by the Battle Axe Culture   Source: Photo by Göran Burenhult, ( Uppsala University )

The team of researchers found that about half of the people examined had been buried in classical Pitted Ware graves while the other half showed influences of Battle Axe burial traditions. To the team’s surprise, according to a report in Heritage Daily , the researchers discovered that none of the individuals were genetically linked to people of the Battle Axe culture and that all of the bodies appeared to belong to a very homogeneous group that is genetically similar to hunter-gatherer groups from earlier periods.

The team believe people of the Pitted Ware culture were influenced by the Battle Axe culture, and because the researchers failed to find a single genetic connection between the two groups, it is likely that contact was in the form of trade rather than through migration.

The study is part of the Atlas Project , which investigates prehistoric population patterns in Scandinavia and Eurasia. 

Top Image: A man of the Pitted Ware Culture in the tomb field of Ajvide in Gotland represents a typical burial. Source: Åsa Malmberg , ( Uppsala University )

By Ashley Cowie

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