Artist Tom Björklund created a rendering of the child sleeping when still alive. (image by and courtesy Tom Björklund)

An excavation of the burial site of a child who lived around 8,000 years ago has yielded fascinating insights into the funerary practices of Stone Age humans. Archaeologists working on the site in Majoonsuo, a town in eastern Finland, uncovered some of the oldest feather fragments ever preserved in soil, providing insight into how researchers can analyze plant- and animal-based items that are interred with human remains.

A team of 13 archaeologists, biologists, and heritage professionals with institutional affiliations at the University of Helsinki, the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and Stockholm University worked together on the excavation. Tuija Kirkinen, Olalla López-Costas, and Antonio Martínez Cortizas were lead authors of the study, published in PlosONE in late September.

The child would have been between three and 10 years old at the time of death — a conclusion scientists were able to draw by analyzing the child’s teeth. The findings allowed artist Tom Björklund to create an artistic rendering of what the child may have looked like while alive and sleeping.

Archaeologists also found fur, canine hair, and plant fibers. The latter may have come from utilitarian items like a fishing net or a rope, objects which would have since degraded severely in the acidic Finnish soil. Two transverse arrowheads fashioned from quartz, as well as two other objects possibly made of quartz, were discovered. Dating the arrowheads, researchers estimate that the burial took place during the Mesolithic period, around 6000 BCE.

During the Stone Age in Finland, prehistoric humans mostly buried the dead in pits that were dug in the ground. Although few human artifacts from that era remain, archaeologists know from graves in the region that it was common for items made out of bones, teeth, and horns to be left with the deceased, as well as furs and feathers. Stretching back about 7,000 years in southern Sweden, for instance, archaeologists have found dogs buried next to humans.

The site was flagged for excavation in 2018 when it was considered at risk of destruction, and was identifiable by the presence of rich red-ochre soil associated with burials. For prehistoric archaeologists, the dig is particularly remarkable because the soil in the grave was especially well-preserved: 65 soil samples in total were taken and analyzed.

“The discovery in Majoonsuo is sensational, even though there is nothing but hairs left of the animal or animals — not even teeth. We don’t even know whether it’s a dog or a wolf,” Professor Kristiina Mannermaa, an archaeologist on the team, said in a statement. “The method used demonstrates that traces of fur and feathers can be found even in graves several thousands of years old, including in Finland.”

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.