Europe

Prehistoric Danish girl 'probably born in Germany'

Egtved Girl grave Image copyright National Museum of Denmark
Image caption The Egtved Girl's woollen burial garments and bronze belt were remarkably well preserved

A girl buried 3,400 years ago in Denmark, who became one of the country's best-known Bronze Age relics, was probably born in Germany, scientists have discovered.

The so-called Egtved Girl was discovered in 1921 in a burial mound in the Jutland Peninsula, along with the cremated bones of a young child.

She was estimated to have been between 16 and 18 when she died.

It was assumed she was Danish, but this research has challenged that view.

The study has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

A team led by Dr Karin Margarita Frei from the National Museum of Denmark analysed girl's teeth for levels of the radioactive element strontium.

Strontium exists in the Earth's crust and is absorbed by humans, animals, and plants through water and food.

But natural levels of strontium vary from region to region, and the amount found by researchers in one of the girl's first teeth indicated she grew up in the Black Forest area of southwestern Germany, 800km (500 miles) to the south of her burial place.

A long journey

It was already known that the Egtved Girl was born on a summer's day in 1370 BC, but there were few clues in her coffin to where she spent her life.

Her clothes pointed to a person of high standing.

The girl's bones had been dissolved by the acidic water in the coffin but her blond hair, teeth, nails and parts of her brain and skin were extraordinarily well preserved.

Image copyright NAtional Museum of Denmark
Image caption Parts of the Egtved Girl's hair, teeth, nails, brain and skin were preserved

Dr Frei's team traced the final two years of the girl's life by analysing the elements in her 23-cm-long hair. Their groundbreaking chemical sleuthing showed she had been on a long journey shortly before she died.

"If we consider the last two years of the girl's life, we can see that, 13 to 15 months before her death, she stayed in a place with a strontium isotope signature very similar to the one that characterises the area where she was born," Dr Frei said.

"Then she moved to an area that may well have been Jutland. After a period of nine to 10 months there, she went back to the region she originally came from and stayed there for four to six months before she travelled to her final resting place, Egtved."

That timeline represents the first time researchers have been able to so accurately track a pre-historic person's movements.

Image copyright NAtional Museum of Denmark
Image caption Researchers examined the woollen fibres in the girl's clothing to help determine her origin

Prof Kristian Kristiansen from the University of Gothenburg said the discovery confirmed that Bronze Age Denmark shared close ties with southern Germany, and that the girl was likely given in marriage to cement ties between two families.

"In Bronze Age western Europe, southern Germany and Denmark were the two dominant centres of power, very similar to kingdoms," he said.

"We find many direct connections between the two in the archaeological evidence, and 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."

Parts of Sweden and Norway and the geologically old Danish island of Bornholm were also identified as possible locations for her birth, but southwestern Germany was by far the most likely, according to the research team.

Dr Frei and Prof Kristiansen said they now planned to analyse strontium levels in other human remains found in Denmark to piece together the stories of more prehistoric lives.

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