An ancient life revealed: Forager-turned-farmer crossed seas

A Stone Age skeleton found in a peat bog in northwest Denmark has been analysed to flesh out in stunning detail the ancient person’s life and death.

Nicknamed “Vittrup Man,” the skeleton is from an individual who died between 3300–3100 BCE. He is named after the small town of Vittrup, 250 km northwest of Copenhagen, near where the skeleton was found in 1915.

Along with the skeleton were a wooden club, a ceramic vessel and cow bones.

New analysis of the remains is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time that research has been able to map a north European inhabitant’s life history in such a high degree of detail and in such high distance of time,” the authors write.

They show that Vittrup Man had a different genetic signature to people who lived in the region at the same time. The authors found that his DNA had more in common with Mesolithic (Middle Stone Age) people from Sweden and Norway.

The Scandinavian Mesolithic lasted between about 14,500 to 5,900 years ago.

He could even be from as far north as the Norwegian coast near the Arctic Circle, the authors note.

Isotopes found in Vittrup Man’s early childhood was spent along the Scandinavian coast. Vittrup is 140 km west of modern-day Gothenburg in Sweden which is separated from Denmark’s Jutlandic peninsula by the Kattegat sea.

Further analysis of isotopes and proteins in his teeth show Vittrup Man’s diet shifted from coastal food (marine mammals and fish) in early life to farm food (including sheep or goat). The transition happened in his later teen years.

It’s not clear why Vittrup Man moved. He would have to have covered at least 75 km by boat across open sea, even if small islands were used as stopovers.

What could have sparked such a journey?

The authors aren’t sure, but “two main scenarios could explain his life story,” they write.

One is that he was part of an exchange for flint from the Jutland heading north to the Scandinavian Peninsula. Previous archaeological finds seem to suggest a reciprocal relationship between Denmark and Scandinavia: “valuable artefacts moved north and humans moved south,” the authors note.

“Another possibility,” they write, “is that he was taken prisoner, possibly far north in west coast Scandinavia” and spent the years of his life when he was in peak physical fitness “as a captive and source of labour.”

The fragmented remains include a smashed skull. This suggests that Vittrup Man met his end in a ritualistic sacrifice. Alternatively, he could have been a victim of feud or murder.

He was 30–40 years old when he died.

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