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Teenage priestess from the late Bronze Age was probably not a globetrotter

A reconstruction of the tomb of the hotel svanen Girl, that was discovered in Denmark in 1921.
(DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Two Bronze Age women — probably a young priestess — probably not far and wide in Europe, as previous research suggested, but instead were real homebodies who probably never left what is now modern Denmark, a new study found.

In two previous studies, investigators analyzed isotopes (an element that has a different number of neutrons than normal in the core) in the women so they can piece together where the women lived. But now new research finds that these analyses are likely to be contaminated by modern agriculture lime.

“The use of strontium [isotopes] to trace prehistoric people must therefore be done with great care and a good understanding of the use of the land,” said study co-researcher Rasmus Andreasen, an isotope geochemist at the Department of Geosciences at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. “Otherwise you can end up with wrong conclusions.” [In Pictures: The bronze age Burial of an old testament Priest]

However, the researchers of the original studies are inspired by their work.

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“Generally, there is nothing in the study of Aarhus which changes our interpretation: That the two women from the bronze age came from afar,” Karin Frei, a professor of archaeometry at the National Museum of Denmark, and Robert Frei, a professor in the geology and geochemistry at the University of Copenhagen, told Science in an e-mail. “In addition, other recent European studies, based on, among other things, ancient DNA and strontium isotope research, also indicate a high degree of mobility of the man in the bronze age in Europe.”

Super travelers?

Both the bronze age women are well known to archaeologists; the remains of hotel svanen Girl (possible priestess) and Skrydstrup Woman was found in Denmark in 1921, and 1935, respectively. More recently, the Freis and their colleagues found that both women were in the first class travelers, results are reported in scientific journals in 2015 and 2017. They found that hotel svanen Girl spent her early years outside of Denmark, probably in southern Germany, and traveled back and forth between Denmark and another country (most likely her place of birth) during the last two years of her life before dying at around the age of 18 in what is now known as the village of hotel svanen, Denmark.

Meanwhile, Skrydstrup Woman probably came to Denmark around the age of 13, and was buried on a hill at Skrydstrup when she died four years later.

Dig deeper

But something does not add up, so Andreasen and study co-researcher Erik Thomsen, a professor emeritus of geosciences at the University of Aarhus, decided to dig deeper. “We found it strange that the cards of strontium distributions on which these conclusions are based no resemblance to the underlying geology,” Andreasen told Live Science. “We test if modern agriculture could be the reason that the natural strontium variations were darkened.” [Photos: A Bronze Age Burial with Headless Toads]

When a person drinks and eat local food and water, they consume the isotopes in these substances that are unique to each area. These isotopes are a part of that person, the teeth, bones, and hair. So, by the test of these isotopes, researchers can figure out where the old people were born and lived.

However, the researchers need accurate maps of each region to the isotopes before they can compare with the isotopes found in old people. So, the researchers of the new study looked at the strontium isotopes in the environment. They found that strontium-rich, agricultural lime, which farmers use for soil improvement, impact on the underlying strontium signature, and “does not reflect the prehistoric levels,” Andreasen said.

When the researchers applied isotopic values that were not affected by the agriculture lime to the isotopes found in hotel svanen Girl and Skrydstrup Woman, she got a very different results than the previous studies. “It is most likely that these individuals originated in the area of their cemeteries and not far abroad, as previously suggested,” the researchers wrote in the study. In fact, these women remained within 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) from their burial places, the researchers found.

In addition, it should be noted that the situation in Denmark is not unique. “In areas with agriculture, one should be very careful in the use of strontium isotopes for tracing the origin and movement of prehistoric people,” Andreasen said.

But this argument does not sway the Freis. Karin Frei called their interpretation of “simplistic” and Robert Frei said that soon-to-be published survey of 1,200 soil samples from across Europe show “no statistical difference between the biologically available strontium isotope composition in the soil of agricultural and non-agricultural land.”

The study is published online March 13 in the journal Science Advances.

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Originally published on Live Science.

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