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See the Face of a Man Whose Skull Was Mounted on a Stake 8,000 Years Ago

A forensic artist used 3-D scans of the hunter-gatherer’s cranium to envision what he may have looked like in life

Facial reconstruction of a Scandinavian hunter-gatherer who was buried with a wooden stake at the base of his skull (Oscar Nilsson)
smithsonianmag.com

Some 8,000 years ago, the skull of a Scandinavian man in his 50s was impaled on a wooden stake in Sweden. Now, a new facial reconstruction by Swedish forensic artist Oscar Nilsson allows modern viewers to envision this mysterious individual’s prominent cheekbones, blue eyes and brown hair, reports Kristin Romey for National Geographic.

Archaeologists found the man’s cranium—as well as the skulls of eight other adults and one infant—in the boggy sediment of the Kanaljorden excavation site in Motala, Sweden, in 2012. The discovery marked the first archaeological evidence of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers mounting human skulls on stakes.

Kanaljorden is of particular interest because the remains found there were arranged in such an uncommon, purposeful way, according to Elaina Zachos of National Geographic. The human burial, which also included animal bones, was placed on a stone platform submerged in the middle of a small lake. Researchers found remnants of wooden stakes inside the skulls of two of the men.

To give one of these ancient humans—a man nicknamed “Ludvig”—a face, Nilsson scanned his skull and created a 3-D plastic replica of it, reports George Dvorsky for Gizmodo. The forensic artist then drew on genetic evidence to capture Ludvig’s pale complexion and hair and eye color. But the biggest challenge stemmed from what the skull lacked.

Facial reconstruction of Ludvig
DNA analysis and CT scans of the 8,000-year-old skull informed the facial reconstruction. (Oscar Nilsson)

“The jaw was missing, so I had to calculate and reconstruct it from studying and measuring the skull,” Nilsson tells Smithsonian magazine via email. “This is time consuming and difficult, [and] the error margin of course gets bigger when such a vital part is missing.”

Though the majority of the adult Mesolithic skulls in the grave had no jawbones, a 2018 paper on the find detailed the presence of jawbones from various animals, including bears, wild boars, deer, moose and badgers.

The wild boar remains inspired Nilsson to give Ludvig a cloak made of the animal’s hide.

“He wears the skin from a wild boar,” explains Nilsson to Live Science’s Laura Geggel. We can see from how the human skulls and animal jaws were found that they clearly meant a big deal in their cultural and religious beliefs.”

Ludvig’s hairstyle also takes its cue from boars. The front is similar to the short bristles on the animal’s body, while the back features a wisp of hair reminiscent of a tail.

Nilsson tells Smithsonian that he hopes this styling will make people wonder how Ludvig cut his hair. Sharp flint tools could have done the job, but the hunter-gatherer probably would have needed help from a Mesolithic “hairdresser.”

Ludvig facial reconstruction
The front of Ludvig's hair is similar to the short bristles on boars’ bodies, while the back features a wisp reminiscent of a pig’s tail. (Oscar Nilsson)

Researchers are unsure of Ludvig’s exact cause of death. The facial reconstruction includes a prominent one-inch wound on the top of his skull, but the injury showed signs of healing. Puzzlingly, the adult skulls found at the burial site exhibit distinctive trauma patterns: Females sustained injuries on the back and right side of the head, while males suffered a single blow to the top of the head, according to National Geographic.

“Somebody gave them love and care after this [trauma] and healed them back to life again,” study co-author Fredrik Hallgren, an archaeologist at the Cultural Heritage Foundation in Västerås, Sweden, told Live Science in 2018.

Why Ludvig’s skull wound up on a wooden stake is also unclear. Prior excavations suggest that Mesolithic hunter-gatherers tended to respect the bodily integrity of the dead. And the practice of decapitating enemies only emerged later in history.

“The fact that two crania were mounted [on stakes] suggests that they have been on display, in the lake or elsewhere,” co-author Anna Kjellström, an archeologist at Stockholm University, told Gizmodo in 2018.

The dig at Kanaljorden didn’t yield any direct evidence that the people buried there were decapitated or had their jaws forcibly removed. Archaeologists say the individuals’ heads and lower jaws may have been removed after significant decomposition took place, perhaps in the context of another burial.

As Nilsson tells Smithsonian, he hopes the facial reconstruction will connect people not just to history and archaeology, but to the power of science, which provided the intimate details needed to bring Ludvig back to life.

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