Facial reconstruction of a prehistoric man whose head was mounted on a stake

Left: facial reconstruction of a Mesolithic man from Sweden.  Right: his skull, from which the reconstruction was based.

Left: facial reconstruction of a Mesolithic man from Sweden. Right: his skull, from which the reconstruction was based.
Image: Oscar Nilsson / S. Gummesson et al., 2018

In 2011, Swedish archaeologists found human skulls that had been mounted on stakes at an 8,000-year-old burial site, representing behavior rarely seen among prehistoric hunter-gatherers. An incredible computer-assisted facial reconstruction finally puts one of these skulls to face.

Swedish forensic artist Oscar Nilsson created this impressive reconstruction using a replica of the 8,000-year-old skull, which belonged to a Mesolithic man who died at age 50. Using clues derived from archeology and genetics, Nilsson sought to create an accurate portrait of this prehistoric hunter-gatherer, whose head was mounted on a wooden stake after his death.

Facial reconstruction of the Kanaljorden skull.

Facial reconstruction of the Kanaljorden skull.
Image: Oscar Nilsson

Researchers from Stockholm University and the Cultural Heritage Foundation found the original skull, along with several others, in 2011 at the Kanaljorden site near the Motala Ström River. The remains of 10 people, nine adults and a baby, were found piled on a thick layer of large stones. All adult skulls exhibited signs of blunt force trauma before death, which may explain how they died. Some skulls, including the reconstructed skull, had evidence of past wounds that healed. No jaws were found at the site.

Interestingly, three adult male skulls showed signs of acute force trauma after death, consistent with the skulls that had been mounted on stakes. And, in fact, one of the specimens still had a wooden stake protruding from the skull. This was a strange hunter-gatherer post-death ritual and was not commonly seen until the Middle Ages.

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Two years ago, archaeologists contacted Nilsson to do the facial reconstruction. As Nilsson explained to Gizmodo, his first step was to scan the skull and generate a 3D replica.

Facial reconstruction of the Kanaljorden skull.

Facial reconstruction of the Kanaljorden skull.
Image: Oscar Nilsson

“I never work on the original,” he told Gizmodo. At the same time, however, “I wanted this man to be a true eye-receiver and unique in its individuality. ”

In addition to the skull, Nilsson used evidence obtained from the man’s DNA, including his haplogroup (which may indicate ancestry), as well as her hair, eyes and skin color. The jaw of the skull was missing, requiring Nilsson to calculate its probable dimensions based on the skull, which he described as “challenging work.”

Nilsson trusted archaeological evidence in the form of jaws belonging to wild boars, elk, bears, badgers and other animal remains found at the Kanaljorden site.

“My idea here is that these animals were very important to these people, as totems or spirit animals,” Nilsson told Gizmodo. “This guy is connected to the boar, he wears the skin of a boar, and her hairstyle is inspired by these animals, “he said, adding that” this is, of course, purely speculative, but such a specific and dramatic finding requires a coincidental interpretation. “

Nilsson also added a little white body paint to the man’s chest, a practice known among Stone Age peoples.

Reconstruction in progress.

Reconstruction in progress.
Image: Oscar Nilsson

As for why this man’s head was attached to a wooden stake, that’s still an open question. This is what I wrote when I covered this discovery in 2018:

As for handling the bodies after death and mounting heads on wooden stakes, that’s definitely weird. Mesolithic hunter-gatherers are not known to remove body parts like this; their graves show respect for bodily integrity after death. That said, groups that appeared much later in history beheaded their enemies, sometimes using the skulls of the vanquished as a trophy or warning. Historical examples include European settlers mounting the skulls of murdered indigenous peoples, or indigenous peoples using skulls in burial rituals and as trophy displays. It is unclear what the context was in this case. All we know is that, for whatever reason, these heads were mounted on the stakes, left there for a relatively short period of time, and then deliberately placed in the shallow lake bed on the stones.

“The fact that two skulls were mounted suggests that they have been on display, in the lake or elsewhere,” he said. [Stockholm University archeologist Anna] Kjellström. Generally, jawless skulls were chosen for display. “Since we did not find any acute trauma showing active attempts to separate the lower jaw from the skulls, this indicates that the individuals were likely buried elsewhere before the deposits … One interpretation could be that this is an alternative funeral act . “

More research will be needed for scientists to reach a more definitive conclusion.

As for the new facial interpretation, which is exactly that, an interpretation, it provides us with a rare insight into the past, reminding us of humanity. of people who lived so long ago. It may not be perfect or totally accurate, but this facial reconstruction is successful because it connects us better with our past, even if that past was brutal at times.