Photo: Fredrik Hallgren

Ten Stone Age people – men, women, and a child – may have been killed, sacrificed, or even died by accident. All sustained blows to the head, and some showed wounds at the time of death or just after they had taken their last breaths.

But at least some of the heads of the deceased were mounted on stakes, according to a “sensational” new find at the 8,000-year-old Kanaljorden burial site in Sweden, reported in the journal Antiquity.

“The discovery of selected remains of 10 Mesolithic individuals deposited on a man-made stone structure underwater is unique,” the resarchers write. “The find raises questions concerning the life history and final fate of the individuals, which may be discussed from the osteological parameters in combination with their depositional and taphonomic situation.”

The 10 crania and bones were found at the bottom of what was once a lake, underneath a mound of large stones measuring 12 by 14 meters over the ground. Nine of the sets were identified as adults, with just one identified as a fetus or newborn infant. Of the adults, two were identified as female and four as male.

Seven of the skulls showed antemortem (pre-death) blunt trauma to the head. The women had wounds inflicted to the back and sides of their skulls, while the men had powerful blows to the crown of the head. Additionally, three of the men showed perimortem (time of death) sharp force trauma.

The excavation from 2009 to 2013 uncovered wooden stakes, as well. Some parts of those stakes were found within the skulls themselves, the study authors report.

“In both cases the stakes were inserted through the foramen magnum, reaching all the way to the inner tabula,” they write. “These finds show that at least two of the crania were mounted.”

Another 400 stakes, intact and in pieces, were recovered – all of which likely may have been used to mount skulls, animal remains or other artifacts.

Although decapitations came to be a part of warfare and violent death in millennia to come, the Stone Age brutality shown at the site was something altogether new, the authors conclude.

“The intentional removal of mandibles and the separation of the skull from the body stand in contrast to reported Mesolithic burial practices in Northern Europe, where bodily integrity was often respected after interment in primary earthen burials,” they write.

Scattered bones of 14 animals from seven different species were also interspersed with the human bones in the burial.

Interpretations of the burials remain inconclusive. The 10 people may have been a stigmatized group, like slaves, or they could have been captives from warfare. The head wounds may not even have had a negative connotation in the Mesolithic, since medical disorders caused by brain wounds may be “interpreted as an altered state of consciousness, a gift that gives a special ability to commune with spiritual entities,” the study authors add.

But one thing’s fairly assured: these people were marked for death and burial beneath the stone mound, from among their peers in the hunter-gatherer community of the time.

“The fact that the majority of the individuals show healed injuries seems to be more than a coincidence and implies that they were specifically chosen for inclusion in the deposition,” the researchers write.

Anna Kjellstrom. Photo: Micke Agaton