‘Vittrup Man’ violently died in a bog 5,200 years ago. Now, researchers know his story

About 5,200 years ago, a man’s life ended violently in a peat bog in northwest Denmark. Now, researchers have used advanced genetic analyses to tell the unexpected story of “Vittrup Man,” the oldest known immigrant in Denmark’s history.

Bog bodies, the uniquely preserved “accidental mummies” discovered in Northern Europe, have long intrigued researchers, but a new study contends it’s the first time that experts have mapped the life history of the deceased to such a degree.

The man’s remains were uncovered in a peat bog in Vittrup, Denmark, during peat cutting in 1915. His right anklebone, lower left shinbone, jawbone and fragmented skull were found alongside a wooden club. Researchers estimate that he died after being hit over the head at least eight times with the wooden club sometime between 3100 BC and 3300 BC.

Scientists analyzed Vittrup Man’s remains in a recent study published in the journal Nature about Denmark’s genetic prehistory that sequenced the genomes of 317 ancient skeletons. Some of the same researchers decided to conduct an individual study of Vittrup Man after his DNA revealed that he was genetically distinct from the rest of the Danish Stone Age population. A study detailing the new findings appeared Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

“I wanted to make an anonymous skull speak (and) find the individual behind the bone. The initial result(s) were ‘almost too good to be true’, which made me apply additional and alternative methods. The outcome was this surprising life history,” said lead study author Anders Fischer, project researcher in the department of historical studies at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden and director of Sealand Archaeology, in an email.

What the team discovered while piecing together Vittrup Man’s life is shedding light on the movements and connections between different Stone Age cultures.

A Stone Age migrant

The research team, eager to uncover as many clues as possible about the life of Vittrup Man, analyzed his tooth enamel, tartar and bone collagen using cutting-edge analytical methods.

The combined detection of specific chemical elements within his enamel, such as strontium, nitrogen, carbon and oxygen, as well as a protein analysis of his teeth and bones, revealed how Vittrup Man’s diet went from being that of a hunter-gatherer to a farmer before dying between the ages of 30 and 40.

Vittrup Man was likely born and grew up along the coast of the Scandinavian Peninsula, perhaps within the frigid climes of Norway or Sweden. He was genetically closest to people from those regions and had darker skin than the Stone Age communities in Denmark.

In Scandinavia, Vittrup Man likely belonged to a northern hunter-gatherer community that enjoyed a diet of fish, seals and even whales, which suggests that the foragers had vessels that enabled them to fish in the open sea.

And then, something caused his life to change drastically, and by the age of 18 or 19, Vittrup Man was in Denmark and subsisting on the diet of a farmer, eating sheep and goat.

His journey to a farming peasant society in Denmark “indicates extensive travel by boat,” the study authors said. Vittrup Man’s long-distance movements were unusual, “but may say something about ongoing exchanges between Danish farmers and northern hunter-gatherers,” said study co-author Karl-Göran Sjögren, researcher in the department of historical studies at the University of Gothenburg.

Why Vittrup Man made such a long voyage is unknown, but the researchers have a couple of theories. It’s possible that he was a captive or a slave who became part of local society in Denmark. Or Vittrup Man was a trader who settled in Denmark.

Archaeologists have known that flint axes were traded from Denmark to the Arctic Circle in Norway, said study co-author Lasse Sørensen, head of research of ancient cultures of Denmark and the Mediterranean at the National Museum in Copenhagen.

“The study adds a concrete human being of flesh and blood to this finding,” Sørensen said.

Studying Vittrup Man has helped researchers gain insights into the genetics, lifestyles and ritual practices that can be traced to Stone Age societies, Sjögren said.

“Vittrup Man is a migrant — the earliest indisputable first-generation immigrant known from Denmark and vicinity,” Fischer said. “As far as we are informed, it is (the) first time scientists have been able to map a north European person’s life story in such great detail and in such a distant past.”

The fragmented skull of Vittrup Man is on display at Denmark’s Vendsyssel Historical Museum. (Stephen Freiheit)

Death in the swamp

Vittrup Man had “a remarkable life course before he was killed and thrown into the swamp,” said Fischer, who has researched Stone Age cultures for more than 40 years. He is particularly interested in how Denmark shifted from a hunter-gatherer culture to one of farmers about 6,000 years ago.

Why did Vittrup Man end up with a smashed skull in a peat bog? The exact answer will never be known, but researchers believe he was killed as a sacrifice, which was a common practice in the region at the time.

“Wetlands appear to have had a special role in the religious life in northern Europe those days,” Fischer said. “Vittrup Man was killed in an unusually brutal way. Other humans were killed by arrow shots or strangulated with a cord.”

“Perhaps we should understand him as a slave who was sacrificed to the gods when he was no longer fit for hard physical labour,” said study co-author Kristian Kristiansen, professor of archaeology at the University of Gothenburg, in a statement.

But it’s also possible that Vittrup Man was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

“Based on archaeological evidence alone it is difficult to tell this apart from e.g. someone who was killed in a conflict, or robbed and killed,” said Roy van Beek, associate professor in landscape archaeology at the Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, via email. “That he may have been a ‘slave’ or held in captivity is quite speculative in my opinion, but the authors also show some reservations there.”

Van Beek was not involved in this study but co-authored research published in the journal Antiquity about the wealth of information that bog bodies provide about prehistoric life.

“In my opinion this is a fascinating study that shows the huge contribution that innovative bioarchaeological methods can make to improve our knowledge on prehistoric societies, including important aspects like population history, migration and lifeways,” van Beek said after reading the new study.

“Our Antiquity study shows that the lifetimes of thousands of prehistoric and early historic humans ended in bogs across Northern Europe, and studies like this one show the incredible scientific potential they have. And this is only one individual — we are only scratching the surface!”


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