Science

Five grisly archeological finds will change how you see ancient humans

Till death do us part — unless we’re in the same grave.

Zhang et al. / International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

Jacqueline Jing Lin

Relationships are a quintessential part of our human experience — our ancient ancestors were no exception.

The fog of the past makes it difficult to decipher what human bonds looked like thousands of years ago.

Luckily, archaeologists have unearthed some telling remains that hint at the dynamics of ancient relationships — be it among friends, lovers, family, or companions.

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Here are 5 findings that show the strength of ancient human relationships:

Zhang et al. / International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

5. A thoughtful burial

In May 2021, archaeologists reported in the journal Nature they had discovered the remains of a baby in modern-day Kenya that appeared to be swaddled in cloth.

Fernando Fueyo

Analysis revealed that the 78,000-year-old child was intentionally covered and positioned in its grave.

Jorge González/Elena Santos

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The researchers say that this intentional human burial — the oldest known in Africa — reveals the ancient roots of our relationship to the dead.

“More than 78,000 years ago there was a community who felt [strongly] about losing a child and elaborated a warm farewell.”

Maria Martinon Torres, lead author

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4. Flowers for the dead

Neanderthals, too, may have respected burial rituals, according to a 2020 paper in the journal Antiquity.

Trevor Anderson via Giphy

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Archaeologists studying Neanderthal burial sites in Shanidar Cave in Iraqi Kurdistan found evidence of flowers that were placed alongside a deceased individual at the time of burial.

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The flowers were likely part of a ritual or carried symbolic meaning, the researchers say, since the flowers don’t serve an obvious practical purpose.

3. Forever embrace

Archaeologists excavating graves in Northern China reported in 2021 that they’d found the remains of a couple wrapped in each other’s arms.

Zhang et al. / International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

Zhang et al. / International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

The male and female pair likely lived during the North Wei Dynasty, during 386-534 BCE, when Buddhism rose to prominence in the region.

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The female skeleton had a silver ring on her finger, which could represent the couple’s bond.

However, wedding bands weren’t a common symbol for marriage in the region at that time in history.

Dual graves are a rare find, though a few have been discovered around the world.

One famous example is the Lovers of Valdaro in Italy, which was thought to be a male and female couple. But a 2019 analysis found that the skeletons are both males.

Zhang et al. / International Journal of Osteoarchaeology

2. Set in stone

Archaeologists found trinkets in the walls of an ancient Scottish roundhouse that may have been kept by friends and relatives after a loved one’s death.

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Dating back to the Iron Age (700 BCE — 500 AD), the structure held spoons and game pieces that would not normally be used as building materials.

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The researchers think the tokens could have been kept by friends and family to remind them of their loved ones who passed away.

1. Man’s best friend

Thousands of years ago, ancient humans buried their relatives lovingly — and their dogs.

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One analysis found that ancient peoples living in modern-day Illinois intentionally buried their pet dogs some 10,000 years ago.

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Sometimes, humans didn’t want to die without their animals.

A 2019 report in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports found that pet dogs belonging to Neolithic humans in modern-day Spain were sacrificed to be buried with their owners.