Hunter-Gatherer Skulls Mounted on Stakes Reveal Symbolic Ritual Practice

A seemingly gory prehistoric site in Sweden may be something else altogether: a sacred burial for revered people.

Healed wound on the skull of a man found in an unusual burial display at Kanaljorden, Sweden | Fredrik Hallgren
Healed wound on the skull of a man found in an unusual burial display at Kanaljorden, Sweden | Fredrik Hallgren

Fredrik Hallgren of the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Sweden has pretty much seen it all when it comes to early human burials, since he and his colleagues regularly study them. So, when he and his team found human bones in 2009 at the site of a former lake in Kanaljorden, Sweden, it seemed like research as usual.

The bones at first appeared to have been scattered from a once-complete body, perhaps due to animals, water flow, or some other occurrence.

Upon closer examination, Hallgren and his associates noticed that the remains consisted of select bones — mostly skulls — from a larger number of individuals.

"That was in itself an amazing realization, as it hinted at a ritual complexity unknown for this time period and region," Hallgren told Seeker, mentioning that the site dates to between 9,000–6,000 years ago.

As he and his team continued to study the remains and related artifacts, a more complete picture came to light of this extraordinary burial.

"The fact that the skulls were deposited on a massive man-made stone packing built by some 3,000 stones, that two skulls were mounted on wooden stakes still embedded in the crania, that one skull contained a large skull fragment from another individual, and that the depositions also included beautiful artifacts made of bone, antler, stone, wood, and bark, as well as parts of animals, created an unreal feeling," Hallgren said, still in awe of the discovery.

"As an archaeological context," he added, "this was almost too good to be true."

A human skull on a stake found at Kanaljorden, Sweden | Fredrik Hallgren

The remains belonged to Scandinavian hunter-gatherers, report Hallgren and colleagues Sara Gummesson and Anna Kjellström in the journal Antiquity.

Kjellström, a researcher at Stockholm University's Department of Archaeology and Classical Studies, told Seeker that the remains of at least 10 individuals — 9 adults and an infant — were found at the site.

At least seven of them — 2 women, 4 men, and 1 whose sex remains undetermined — showed clear evidence for blunt force trauma to the head that happened before death and had healed. The researchers therefore do not think that the head blows caused the deaths of the people.

"The cause of death is unknown, but may be due to natural causes," Hallgren said. "There are no indications of decapitation, only of removal of skulls from bodies and graves."

The excavation site at Kanaljorden, Sweden, where an unusual collection of human and animal remains, plus other artifacts, were discovered | Fredrik Hallgren

It could be that all of the skulls were originally mounted on wooden stakes, but the researchers are not sure.

The stone structure upon which the remains were placed must have taken considerable time and effort to build. It measured about 39 feet by 46 feet, was constructed out of large, densely packed stones, and was located at the bottom of the former lake. Today, the site lies at the margin of a small lake close to the river Motala Ström.

The scientists believe that the associated animal bones and artifacts were placed intentionally on the structure and at the same time as the human remains were arranged there. The objects are thought to have been grave gifts or offerings.

Hallgren explained that the depositions of parts of animals were done in a structured way that refers to some kind of symbolism, the meaning of which still eludes interpretation. He explained that while the humans are mostly represented by crania without mandibles, the opposite is true for the animals; they are represented by mandibles and post-cranial bones.

"Furthermore," he said, "the human and animal bones were placed in different spatial zones on the stone-packing according to species and category, with humans in one zone, brown bears in one zone, and big forest game — wild boar, red deer, roe deer, and moose — in one zone."

He continued, "While we cannot decipher the meaning of these patterns, it is clear that the depositions were structured by norms and symbolic intention."

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The image of skulls mounted on stakes is, to modern eyes, an inherently gory one. In the past, some ancient cultures displayed the heads of victims to warn off enemies or to otherwise control people. Europeans did something similar, by letting the public view the remains of individuals beheaded by guillotine. Headhunters in places like South America and Africa would line up heads of victims, placing their remains in unmistakable view of potential enemies.

The unusual Swedish burial, however, does not seem to be connected to these practices.

"The individuals in Kanaljorden appear to have died some time before the crania were mounted or deposited in the lake," Kjellström said. "This separates them from the more 'common' headhunter practice where usually 'fresh' heads were used."

She added that the associated artifacts further strengthen the view that the Swedish burial was a "complex practice with ceremonial features."

The precise meaning of the burial remains unknown, but the researchers pose some possibilities.

Since both men and women experienced head trauma that healed before death, it is possible that the individuals were all slaves. The authors, however, note that slavery is rare among mobile hunter-gatherers. It also would have been a logistical challenge for a group with such a low-density population to have held captives for any length of time.

Raiding and warfare, on the other hand, are common occurrences among hunter-gatherers. Interestingly, the Swedish women victims were hit over the head differently: front-to-top versus back-to-side for men.

These same patterns of head trauma have been observed among prehistoric Native Americans, according to the authors. The patterns have been interpreted as resulting from the different roles and behaviors that men and women have traditionally held in some cultures in combat.

It is possible then that the Swedish individuals were victims of warfare who survived. Gummesson, also of Stockholm University, told Seeker that "the deposition of their skulls could be related to reverence of these individuals or their accomplishments during life."

Archaeologist Tove Stjärna of Stockholm University and another researcher study an ancient cranium found at Kanaljorden, Sweden. | Fredrik Hallgren

She and her team point out that, in traditional societies, medical disorders caused by head trauma may be interpreted as an altered state of consciousness, a gift that gives a special ability to commune with spiritual entities.

Robert Kaplan, an Australia-based forensic psychiatrist, has studied this subject, particularly as it relates to ancient shamanism.

Kaplan explained, "Hunter-gatherer shamanism is based on altered states of consciousness, induced by a variety of means."

Those could include conditions related to head trauma; inherited disorders such as epilepsy, schizophrenia, and other psychoses; as well as drug-induced states. The latter could be intentional, or not.

It has long been suspected that the Oracle of Delphi — an ancient Greek priestess who had visions — either took drugs that placed her in a trance-like state, or breathed in naturally emitted vapors. The truth behind her story, like that of the ancient Swedish individuals, has yet to be fully determined.

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Gummesson said, in terms of the Swedish finds, research is now being conducted on a neighboring site, Strandvägen. It could be that burials similar to the one found at Kanaljorden exist in other parts of Sweden and perhaps other parts of Scandinavia.

Hallgren said analysis of the Kanaljorden finds continues, and DNA analysis may shed light on any family relations between the interred individuals.

He added that prior media coverage had largely focused on traces of violence, but he explained that the hunter-gatherers would likely not have survived their ante-mortem wounds without support from the community.

He concluded, "The practice to handle disarticulated human bones and put them on display may at first glance look gruesome, but is in reality not so different than the handling of, for example, relics of Christian saints in historical times."