The Double Burial of Bonn-Oberkassel:
a man, a woman – and a dog
In March this years I had the opportunity to meet a special couple and their pet in the exhibition “Hunters of the Ice Age – Living in Paradise” (23 October 2014 – 28 June 2015) at the Landesmuseum Bonn, Germany. The man and the woman – and the dog – were the double burial of Bonn-Oberkassel.
Let’s start at the beginning. In February 1914, workers in the quarry ‘Am Stingenberg’ in Oberkassel (since 1969 a suburb of Bonn) discovered human bones under a basalt slab and covered with a red dye. Not expecting them to be anything special, they collected them and put them in a box. Police was notified, but they quickly realised that they did not have a crime scene on their hands. Eventually archaeologists from the University of Bonn heard about the find and decided to take a closer look. They expected the bones to belong to Romans, after all there had been a Roman settlement in Bonn, Castra Bonnensis, possibly even a subordinate fortification in Oberkassel (there are various theories for the origin of “kassel” in the name). After examining the bones, they excitedly concluded that the skeletons of the double burial of Bonn-Oberkassel were from the Palaeolithic period. The animal bones, which had also been discovered, were at that stage not regarded as important. The finds were then displayed at the Landesmuseum, where I dimly remember seeing them during a school trip in the 1970s.
Since 2008, the 14 000 year old remains have been extensively examined with modern forensic methods, including facial reconstruction, similar to those used in the examination of Richard III’s remains. The skeletons are among the oldest remains of modern humans ever found in Germany. The aim of the recent exhibition was to commemorate the centenary of their discovery and to showcase the new research.
The woman was 20 to 25 years old, the man 35 to 45. They were buried with artefacts. The animal bones turned out to be those of a dog.
The man would have been approx. 1.68m tall and weighed approx. 72.5 kg. The woman was only 1.59m tall, weighing approx. 54.5 kg. Their looks were very different. While he had a very strong face with distinct cheek bones, hers was relatively narrow and petite. The facial reconstructions clearly show that these faces belong to modern humans. In modern clothes, they would not stand out among the crowd in a modern city.
For the age they lived in, the woman’s figure was rather gracile and her bones don’t show as strongly defined muscle markings as the man’s. The bones of her upper arms are quite symmetrical, they do not allow a conclusion whether she was right or left handed. She had given birth to at least one child.
The man on the other hand shows very strong muscle markings, which might also be a result of his relatively old age when he died. He had very strong legs and hips, he must have led a very mobile life. The man had once broken his lower right arm. His left arm was very strongly developed and it has been assumed that he was left handed. He also suffered from a root canal infection and only had four molars left in his upper jaw.
Hygiene was not quite up to our standards and their teeth show clear signs of periodontosis. An isotope analysis showed that both lived their life In the Rhineland. They had eaten a varied diet including plant material, fish and meat.
They must have been very close in life to be buried together, though we do not know in what way. The DNA analysis shows that they were related but not as closely as siblings.
The animal bones had initially been thought to be those of a wolf, however, when they were more closely examined in 1977, they turned out to be those of a domesticated dog (canis lupus f. familiaris), one of the earliest examples of a domesticated dog in Europe. Based on the bones, it was possible to reconstruct what the dog would have looked like.
Very few artefacts from this period have ever been found, which makes the ones found with the double burial of Bonn-Oberkassel extremely interesting. There is an approx. 20 cm long stick of bone, which is decorated with an animal head and notches, though the significance of the latter could not yet be established. The quarry workers are reported to have stated that this stick was lying underneath the skull of the woman, so it could have been a hairpin. Also found were fragments of a little animal sculpture made out of horn. It is not certain which animal it is supposed to depict, there are too few fragments, but the latest assumption is that it is that of an elk. Also found were the tooth of a deer and the penis bone of a bear, both of which were also interpreted as grave goods.
It seems that men and women from the later Upper Palaeolithic period had enough time to make little works of art like these. The researchers concluded that their daily chores just took them four hours a day. This is, however, not why the exhibition has been subtitled “Living in Paradise”. That refers more to the fact that they lived in their natural environment and from their natural environment.
As mentioned above, the human remains, the artefacts as well as the soil show distinct signs of a red dye. This is hematite, a red mineral often found in Stone Age burials, which has been interpreted as a “colour of life”.
15 000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, the climate was getting warmer. The people would have been well protected in a large tent like the one in the exhibition. Based on archaeological finds, it has been constructed with the type of tools and materials which would have been available at the time. They had fires to heat stones, which were then immersed in bowls with food to heat the contents. At that time humans also invented needles with eyes and would have been able to sew waterproof garments. Due to the warmer climate, the landscape changed from one with only few trees with seasonal groups of horses and reindeer, to more forests and a wider variety of animals, e.g. deer, elk and aurochs. However, much of the water was still frozen in glaciers in the artic, and the sea levels were much lower than today. If they had wanted to, the man and woman could have walked to England.
It is certainly interesting to speculate why this man and this woman were buried together. Were they a couple? Was the man the father of her child/ren? Or what was their relationship? And what about the dog? Was he only a useful helper when hunting, or was he also a friend, a pet?
Giemsch, L. and Schmitz, R.W., ‘Das Doppelgrab von Oberkassel – eine zufällige Entdeckung wird zur wissenschaftlichen Sensation’, Eiszeitjäger. Leben im Paradies? Europa vor 15 000 Jahren. LVR LandesMuseum Bonn (2014), pp.131-136
Street, M., ‘Ein Wiedersehen mit dem Hund von Bonn-Oberkassel’, Bonner zoologische Beiträge, No. 50 (2002), pp. 269–290.
Trinkaus, E. and Lacy, S.A., ‚Die Menschen von Oberkassel‘, Eiszeitjäger. Leben im Paradies? Europa vor 15 000 Jahren. LVR LandesMuseum Bonn (2014), pp.153-157
A documentary on the double burial of Bonn-Oberkassel by Georg Wieghaus can be watched (in German) here: http://www1.wdr.de/fernsehen/dokumentation_reportage/wdr-dok/sendungen/knochenjaeger100.html