A sensational discovery was made at Uckermark, northeast of Berlin, in northeastern Brandenburg State. It is believed to be one of the oldest, if not the very oldest cemetery known in Central Europe. The Stone Age graveyard dates to the Mesolithic period 8,500 years ago, when hunter-gatherers were still seeking to bring down mastodons, and giant cave bears were a constant threat. Nine skeletons were discovered. Of these, five of them were children who were aged six years or less at the time of death. There are signs that many more skeletons are waiting to be unearthed at the site.
According to one of the lead investigators – forensic anthropologist Dr. Bettina Jungklaus – “It’s rare for the Mesolithic to find multiple graves in one place,” who added, “They were mobile people, ranging over the landscape.”
The cemetery is called Gross Fredenwalde, after a nearby village. Excavations in 2013 and 2014 found evidence of the ancient cemetery on a hill rising about plains 100 yards below. The summit of the hill is rocky, thus making hard work of digging the graves especially without metal implements. Having a settlement there would have been difficult also, because there are no sources of water nearby.
The practice of burying people together, which later became widespread, was not a commonplace during the Mesolithic. Cultures such as the Urnfield had the custom, but that did not occur until about 3,000 years ago. In a study published in the Quartär journal, lead archaeologist Dr. Thomas Terberger said he believes that these burials were carefully planned. “It’s not an accumulation of burials by accident, but a place where they decided to put their dead,” said Terberger. “It’s the first evidence of a true cemetery in northern Europe or Scandinavia.”
"I had always dreamed to investigate a Mesolithic burial at least once," said Terberger.
Combining this knowledge with the fact that children were buried there and an adult was buried standing upright, things become even more mysterious. According to Jungklaus, "Some bone parts have already been studied." One child was approximately six months at the time of death. Isotope analysis showed the baby probably died as a result of malnutrition. DNA tests are planned to determine the sex of the child. Because infants’ skeletons are so rare, and the delicate status of the bones, archaeologists dug around the remains and removed them as part of a large block of earth weighing more than 650 pounds.
The baby’s bones were in near-perfect preservation. Its skull, spinal column and feet were intact. Its arms were folded over its tiny chest. The soil around the bones showed traces of red ochre. The ochre is believed to have decorated the body at the time of burial, giving evidence of cultural practices of the age.
Jungklaus has conducted numerous studies of bones discovered at sites all over Germany and is best known for her work on burials dating to the time of the Thirty Years’ War. Since 1994, she has been a freelance anthropologist but has also taught at several institutions in Germany, in addition to work for several state agencies.
It is hoped that further analysis will reveal more details about the way of life of these Mesolithic people. For example, chemical signatures found in the bones can tell if the baby was breast fed, or if any of the people buried there were related. Researchers plan to look for evidence of disease, or even the cause of death.
The researchers are excited, not only by the discovery of the baby’s bones, but also by the finding of the remains of a young man. The man, who was in his 20s when he died, was buried about 1,000 years after the baby. He was buried standing up. In his grave were found bone tools and flint implements. It appears that he had a relatively easy but short life. Archaeologists theorize that he made have been a expert craftsman who made flint arrow heads and other blades.
The burial practice used by the proto-Germans was until now unheard of in the area. The young man in the vertical grave was buried up to his knees first. His upper body was allowed to rot and fall apart before the rest of the vertical grave was filled in. Then, at some later time, a fire was built on top of the grave.
Stranger still, the vertical grave was filled in just as far as the man’s knees at first. His upper body was allowed to partially decay and fall apart before the grave was filled in. At some point, a fire was built on top of the tomb. This practice was found much further to the east in Russia, at a place called Olenij Ostrov. The finding leads to theories that there was more cultural influence from the East than was previously perceived.