On a remote German hilltop, 25 miles from Berlin lies a graveyard that has proved equally challenging to archaeologists. Gross Fredenwalde’s Mesolithic cemetery is one of the oldest in Europe, with its earliest burial dating back 8,500 years-dating it to a time of transition when the hunter-gathering lifestyle was being challenged by early farming.
Mesolithic graves were usually isolated because of the nomadic lifestyle of hunter-gatherers. But Gross Fredenwalde shows a concentration of graves in one place, gradually established over time. It is Europe’s earliest mass cemetery.
The burials seem to reflect the changing times, showing a gradual inclusion of early farmers as well as hunter-gatherers. The oldest burial is that of a six-month-old baby. Traces of red ochre on the child’s bones and in the soil around the grave indicate that the corpse was decorated with the pigment as per Mesolithic burial custom. But analysis of the DNA of the remains and pottery types suggest that later burials belonged to both foragers and farmers who migrated to the area bringing new ideas to the region.
But the most intriguing burial is that of the only adult male found in the graveyard. Buried 7,500 years ago, archaeologists have established he was in his 20s and probably a flint knapper judging from the tools he was buried with and the lack of any wear and tear on his bones. What they cannot explain is the method of his burial, which was vertical rather than horizontal. Based on gnaw marks on the upper body, it is believed that initially he was buried to his knees, leaving his flesh exposed to predators and the elements-a possible example of excarnation, a common Mesolithic practice. Once this process was complete, the grave goods were added and the body fully covered by earth. But the reason for this unprecedented burial remains a mystery.