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Current Anthropology Article in the News

July 12, 2007

Professor Vincenzo Formicola (Department of Biology, University of Pisa, Italy) has been conducting research in different Upper Paleolithic Burial Sites across Europe and his results indicate that the region's population may have practiced ritual human sacrifice. The large number of multiple-burial sites, some containing skeletons of dwarfs and deformed children with ornate burial offerings such as ivory beads, suggests that human sacrifice was a custom in Europe in the period between 28,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Many burial sites across Europe continue to remain in good condition and provide an important source of information for researchers to investigate ideological aspects underlying Prehistoric funeral practices. Dr. Formicola's analysis of the European record reveals an intriguing number multiple burials. Furthermore, Dr. Formicola finds that the burials, if not simultaneous, were not long separated in time. The conservative explanation for a multiple burial would be to conclude it is the result of a natural event such as an accident or disease but analysis of age and sex lead Dr. Formicola to conclude that these sites are the result of selective practices. In addition, some of the most spectacular multiple burials include a severely deformed individual. This is the case of the extraordinarily ornamented double burial of the Sunghir children (Russia), the triple interment of Dolní Vestonice (Moravia) (in the drawing above), which includes young individuals lying in unusual positions, and the adolescent dwarf from Romito Cave (Italy), buried together with a woman under the engraving of a bull. These findings point to the possibility that human sacrifices were part of the population's ritual activity and provide some insight into the complexity and symbolism pervading Upper Paleolithic societies as well as the perception of "diversity" and its links to magical-religious beliefs. Dr Formicola's research is the first of its kind to record this practice from the Upper Paleolithic period. While ritual sacrifice has been documented in other large, hierarchical societies it has not yet really been shown in Stone Age Europe. Dr. Formicola's research implies that Stone Age European cultures were more structured than we previously thought.

Dr. Formicola's article, From the Sunghir Children to the Romito Dwarf: Aspects of the Upper Paleolithic Funerary Landscape was published in the June 2007 issue of Current Anthropology . It was followed up in national and international media outlets, including the LA Times , The National Geographic and The Washington Post among others.