3,400 years after her death, scientists track a girl's travels

Analysis of ancient remains reveals that a high-status Bronze Age girl traveled long distances

In 1921, archaeologists exploring an ancient burial mound near Egtved, a village in Denmark, unearthed the grave of a girl estimated to have been 16 to 18 years old when she died.

Not much remained of her body — only some hair, teeth, nails, and bits of skin and brain — but scholars could tell a lot about her. Dressed in fine woolen clothing, with a bronze medallion on her belt that probably represented the sun, the Egtved Girl, as she came to be known, was believed to be a person of high status. She was buried with the cremated remains of a small child and a bark bucket that once contained beer. Analysis of the oak coffin in which she lay revealed that she died about 3,400 years ago.

This week, nearly a century after she was discovered, a team of researchers in Denmark filled in more detail of the Egtved Girl’s life story. By analyzing chemicals in her body and in the items in her coffin, they were able to surmise that she hadn’t been born in Denmark, that her diet lacked protein from time to time, and that she traveled widely in the final months of her life.

“Our study provides evidence for long-distance and periodically rapid mobility. Our findings compel us to rethink European Bronze Age mobility as highly dynamic, where individuals moved quickly, over long distances in relatively brief periods of time,” the researchers wrote, in a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports.

According to a statement issued by the University of Copenhagen, the analysis marks the first time scientists have been able to track the movements of a prehistoric person with such precision.

To retrace the Egtved Girl’s ancient steps, study lead author Karin Margarita Frei of the University of Copenhagen and the National Museum of Denmark and colleagues examined samples from the girl’s body and the items buried with her for different isotopes of strontium, an element that is present in the Earth’s crust.

Geographical locations are associated with distinctive strontium isotope “signatures.” Because plants, animals and humans absorb strontium from the Earth through water and food, analyzing isotopes in their tissues can reveal where they have been.

Frei and her team looked at samples from different parts of the Egtved Girl’s body to determine where she was during different periods of her life. They analyzed tooth enamel from a first molar (which would have formed during the girl’s first three years of life) to figure out where she lived in her earliest years. Hair from her head offered clues about the last two years of her life; pieces of her left thumbnail, about her last six months.

Varying strontium isotope signatures in different locations on her hair and nail — from oldest at the ends to youngest near the scalp and cuticle — showed that she moved around a lot in her final two years.

From the tooth, the team learned that the Egtved Girl and the child with whom she was buried both came from outside Jutland, the peninsula that makes up Denmark's mainland. Evidence suggested that both came from near Germany's Black Forest.

“My guess is that the Egtved Girl was a southern German girl who was given in marriage to a man in Jutland so as to forge an alliance between two powerful families,” said Kristian Kristensen, an archaeologist from the University of Gothenburg and a coauthor of the study, in a statement.

At the time, Kristensen said, Denmark was rich in amber, which was highly valued in Greece and the Middle East. The region traded large amounts of amber for bronze, working through middlemen in southern Germany. Kristensen said that marriages were used to maintain relations between regions and keep trade routes operating smoothly.

The team attempted to sequence DNA from the Egtved Girl’s hair, but the genetic material had degraded to the point that they could not analyze it, they wrote in their report.

To learn more about the Egtved Girl, visit this website from the National Museum of Denmark.

For more on science and health, follow me on Twitter: @LATerynbrown

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