Mysterious pre-Roman human-animal burials require further digging

European archaeologists, anthropologists and researchers remain perplexed about a handful of human-animal co-burials found in a pre-Roman settlement.

An archaeological site at Seminario Vescovile (in modern day Italy) contains 161 human graves dating between the 3rd and 1st century BCE. Among the graves are 4 individuals interred alongside skeletal remains of horses and dogs. 

Among the 4, there is an adult female buried with the remains of a 36 to 40-week-old baby or foetus, the near-complete skeleton of a horse, remains of several other horses and a dog. 

A second grave contains a 38-week-old baby with the near complete skeleton of a dog. 

Third, an adult male with grave goods, a small dog and some horse remains; and fourth, a young adult male interred with an adult horse.

It was this tetrad of human-animal co-burials which piqued the researchers’ interest. 

The multidisciplinary team of researchers applied various analytical techniques – zooarchaeology and anthropology, ancient DNA analysis, radiocarbon and stable isotope analysis – to try to understand the social and cultural meaning behind the 4 human-animal co-burials.

The researchers also analysed a further 13 graves at the site (including one of the human-animal co-burials) which included the remains of pigs, a chicken and bovine, these were most likely food offerings.

Human-animal co-burials are distinct from animal food offerings, as animals like horses and dogs which did not play a dietary role. The graves often include mostly complete animal skeletons, suggesting the animals had some social, emotional or symbolic meaning. 

The team had hoped to find patterns among the 4 human-animal co-burials. Instead, their results reveal the lack of any similarities on demographic, genetic, dietary, or funerary characteristics.

They conclude: “our results point to the unsuitability of simple, straightforward explanations”.

Their findings are published in PLOS One.

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