Girl with finches in a forest cave

Polish archaeologists have studied human remains from a burial discovered 60 years ago in the Tunel Wielki cave near Krakow. The skeleton, which was first dated back to the 19th century, had a bird’s skull in its mouth, and another bird’s skull lay nearby. An article on multidisciplinary research has been published in Prehistoric Journal.

The Tunel Wielki cave was explored back in 1967-68. Then, in the chamber farthest from the entrance, archaeologists discovered a burial in a small grave. The skeleton was lying on its back with arms along the body, the bones of its lower part were slightly confused. Perhaps this was due to the interest in the burial of animals that lived in or around the cave. There were no burial items in the grave or nearby, but archaeologists found a chaffinch’s skull in the mouth of the deceased. And another one nearby, presumably dropped from the mouth. In the 1960s, the skull with the lower jaw was sent for anthropological research, and its traces were lost. The skeleton left without a skull was stored at the Faculty of Archeology of the University of Warsaw, and only in the 21st century, scientists again became interested. Through a series of analyzes, they established who was buried in the cave and tried to reconstruct the unique burial rite.

Radiocarbon dating carried out on one of the vertebrae clarified the time of burial – the 17th-18th centuries, this is the time of the existence of the state of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth on the territory of Poland.

Using X-ray techniques, computed tomography and isotope analysis, the researchers were able to learn a lot about the person buried in the cave. It was a girl of 10-12 years old. No injuries or other indications of the cause of death were found on the skeleton. Growth turned out to be abnormally small for her age – the events that slowed it down took place several years before her death, but it was not possible to establish what happened to the girl. This stress was not related to diet – it was standard for most of the population of Central Europe at the time.

The genetic study came as a surprise: the girl was not a Slav. Presumably, she could have been born somewhere north of Poland, where the Baltic or Finnish population lived. But in 1655, the Swedish king Charles X started a war with Poland and occupied two castles in this region – Wawel in Krakow and Ojcuvsky, leaving his garrisons there. Researchers draw attention to the fact that there were many Finnish and even Karelian soldiers in the Swedish army at that time. So maybe the girl was local.

However, all this information did not answer the question about the funeral rite – why did someone bury the girl in a forest cave, putting two chaffinch heads in their mouths?

The Finnish or Karelian origin of the girl could explain the use of chaffinch heads in the funeral rite. The authors argue that in the mythology of these peoples there was a belief in the “bird-soul”, in the form of which the dead could visit the world of the living. But there is no evidence that the birds were placed in the graves, and even more so in the mouth of the deceased.

In addition, during the period under review and on the indicated territory, the deceased were buried in cemeteries in consecrated ground. Something else awaited only executed criminals, suicides and unbaptized babies. The young age of the woman buried in Tunel Wielki, according to researchers, suggests that she was hardly a pagan, managed to commit a crime or committed suicide. However, there is ethnographic evidence of the 19th century that Orthodox Karelians considered it impossible to bury the dead or those who died in the forest in cemeteries – they should have been left there.

The tradition of cave burials in Europe disappeared in the early Middle Ages, when Christianity demystified caves – they were used for hermits or as shelters. But the cave could be a convenient secret place for the burial of a girl who died or was killed in the forest. True, the authors stipulate that the emotional moment of the burial in the form of chaffinch heads testifies against murder. Perhaps this was done by someone who knew about the origin of the girl, but was unfamiliar with the Finno-Karelian mythology.

The Tunel Wielki cave is located in Oycuvsky National Park in the vicinity of Krakow. Part of the territory of this smallest national park in Poland is occupied by the valleys of two rivers – Prondnik and Sanspovski. Geologically, this area was formed by Jurassic limestones about 150 million years ago, and the activity of karst waters led to the formation of steep canyons with various rock formations in Oytsuva. About 700 caves were discovered in the park, the longest of them – Lokitek – reaches 320 meters. Excavations in the caves of the Oycuvsky National Park have been going on for several decades. And in recent years, experts have been re-examining old finds.

So, in 2018, among the bone remains of animals from the Dark Cave, during additional research, phalanges of the fingers of a neanderthal… According to the dating, they are about 115 thousand years old. The bones, no more than 1 cm in length, are rather poorly preserved. Having studied them, scientists concluded that the phalanges probably belonged to a child 5-7 years old and passed through the digestive system of a large bird. The age of the find is also confirmed stratigraphically – stone tools typical of Neanderthals were found in the layer with bones.

Source: Автономная некоммерческая организация "Редакция журнала «Наука и жизнь»" by

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