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Revealing the Life Story of a Human Sacrifice Through His Teeth

When you pass away, what narrative will your teeth reveal to the geneticists of the future? Hopefully, the account will be more optimistic than that of Vittrup Man, a hunter-gatherer turned farmer whose skull was brutally crushed over 5,000 years ago in what is presently Denmark.

A team of scientists recently analyzed the isotopes preserved in Vittrup Man’s teeth, enabling them to reconstruct his life story from childhood to his demise. They concluded that he originated from coastal Scandinavia and later relocated to Denmark, where he resided on a farm before meeting his tragic end in a ritualistic act of violence. The findings of the team’s research are published today in PLoS One.

“Before our investigation, this was merely an unidentified human skeleton,” stated Anders Fischer, an archaeologist at the University of Gothenburg and the primary author of the study, in a communication to Gizmodo. “Now, we not only know his timeframe and foreign lineage but also significant details about his health, geographical origins, and dietary habits.”

The remnants of Vittrup Man—a shattered skull and a few bones—were discovered in 1915 in a Danish peat bog, accompanied by a hardwood club. Peat bogs, due to their anaerobic nature, serve as ideal environments for natural mummification.

Vittrup Man was estimated to be between 30 and 40 years old at the time of his demise. It is only through the amalgamation of DNA analysis, examination of isotopic levels in his teeth, and sequencing of his dental calculus that researchers have been able to trace the individual’s journey to the bog.

In his early years, Vittrup Man predominantly consumed marine mammals and fish until his teenage years, indicating a coastal dwelling. However, by the age of 18, he had transitioned to a diet consisting of farm produce like goat or sheep upon residing in Denmark. Genetically, Vittrup Man shared close ties with populations in modern-day Norway and Sweden, aligning with the coastal environment suggested by his dietary preferences.

Upon relocating to Denmark, Vittrup Man would have possessed darker skin compared to the local populace. Fischer highlighted in a University of Gothenburg statement that “it is the first instance where scientists have been able to trace a North European individual’s life journey in such intricate detail from such a remote era.”

The research team speculates that the hardwood club discovered alongside him might have been the instrument of his demise. Study co-author Kristian Kristiansen, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg, proposed, “Perhaps we should interpret him as a slave who was sacrificed to the deities when he was deemed unfit for strenuous physical labor.”

Vittrup Man sustained a minimum of eight blows to the head, resulting in a fractured skull. While the circumstances surrounding his death remain ambiguous, we now possess a deeper understanding of his origins and way of life. Fischer informed Gizmodo that the team is presently engaged in unraveling the life stories of similarly preserved remains.