Scientists unlock the mystery of Vittrup Man’s death

The Scandinavian forager earned respect of a farming tribe in Denmark before being sacrificed.

Since being first discovered in 1915 near the Danish village of Vittrup, the remains of a man who was brutally murdered around 5,200 years ago posed challenges to researcher regarding how he died and – more importantly – why his skull was cracked.

As a matter of fact, the Vittrup Man, as he was called, was one of a number of individuals who perished in northern parts of Europe by getting their skulls cracked with wooden clubs. Researchers believed they died during religious rituals. However, DNA, isotope, and protein analysis of his remains - a right anklebone, a lower left shinbone, jawbone, and parts of skull – suggest that his genetic ancestry is different from the other Stone Age victims and yet he died the same way, says a statement from the University of Gothenburg. 

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Strontium, carbon and oxygen isotopes from Vittrup Man’s tooth enamel indicate a childhood spent along the coast of the Scandinavian Peninsula.

Corroborating this, genetic analysis found a close relationship between Vittrup Man and Mesolithic people from Norway and Sweden. Additional isotope and protein analysis of the teeth and bones indicate a shift in diet from coastal food (marine mammals and fish) in early life to farm food (including sheep or goat) in later life, a transition that happened in the later teen years.

A team of scientists from Sweden, Denmark, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia points out in a study published last February in the open-access journal PLOS ONE that the Vittrup Man was born along the Scandinavian coast before moving to Denmark, where he was later sacrificed, probably in return for a favor from gods, between 3300 and 3100 BC. 

Ritualistic sacrifice was common among Neolithic societies and the chosen ones must have enjoyed a high status in order to get slaughtered.

So why was the Vittrup Man, a foreigner, sacrificed?

The study suggests that the Vittrup Man had spent his early years in a northern foraging tribe somewhere in modern Sweden or Norway before relocating to a farming community in what is today Denmark. It isn’t clear why or how he ended up in the new location, though the authors speculate he might have been a trader or captive who later integrated with his new hosts.

His outstanding skills and character must have played a role in earning him a deep respect from locals, who ultimately decided he was their best messenger to gods.

While mysteries remain about the Vittrup Man, this is one of the few research papers to provide comprehensive understanding about the geographic and dietary life history of early Europeans and interactions between Mesolithic and Neolithic societies on the continent.

“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 noted.


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