Liz Tollund human sacrifice man
More info i
Credit: Tim Graham / Getty

Body of a sacrificial victim was amazingly preserved down to his last meal

Contributed by
Jul 27, 2021, 1:50 PM EDT

Not all mummies were mummified by human hands. Some that have been unearthed from what were once bogs can rival the most meticulous preservation techniques of the ancient Egyptians.

No shade to the embalmers of Egypt. Most were so highly skilled that, along with the body itself, they were somehow able to keep genetic material intact — but sometimes nature has its own techniques. The “bog bodies” of ancient Europe almost seem frozen in time. Possibly one the most famous and incredibly preserved of them all is Tollund Man, who is thought to have been sacrificed as part of an unknown ritual before a nearby bog claimed his body.

Tollund Man is a relic of early Iron Age Denmark and first emerged in the 1950s. Since then, he has been a subject of wonder to scientists and just about everybody else who has marveled at how he appears to have just gone to sleep. Highly acidic peat bogs have preserved many bodies and even a brain that would have otherwise decomposed. However, his body was not the only thing that survived for thousands of years. 

Researcher Nina Nielsen of Silkeborg Museum, who recently led a study published in Antiquity, found out when she performed an autopsy that revealed what he ate for his last meal.

“We first looked at some representative samples of the gut content under a microscope in order to identify physical remains,” Nielsen tells SYFY WIRE. “Since the gut content came from the large intestine, we also decided to analyze for lipids and proteins in order to identity ingredients that were no longer visible.”

Credit: Werner Forman / Universal Images Group / Getty

 

So what did Tollund Man eat before he was sacrificed? He was given fish and a porridge made of barley, flax, and pale persicaria, a flowering herb that grows wild in barley fields and was usually removed from the barley harvest by Iron Age farmers, who considered it threshing waste. Leftovers from threshing may or may not have some significance in the reason he was sacrificed. Could this have been part of harvest festival during which humans were offered up to the gods? There is no proof of why Tollund Man met an untimely end.

Some bog bodies belonged to individuals who accidentally fell into the bogs, while others were either sentenced to death or murdered (a bog would easily swallow the evidence). Ritual objects have also been found in bogs. Tollund Man’s fate remains a mystery, but what Nielsen and her colleagues do know is that he suffered from parasites. Tapeworm, mawworm, and whipworm* eggs were all found in his intestine. He must have been in pain before he died by hanging, as is evidenced by the braided noose around his neck.

“Analysis of particles that were not pollen resulted in the identification of parasite eggs,” Nielsen says. “Something else that was newly revealed to us was an explanation for the animal fat in the meal. We decided to give mass spectrometry another try, and found out that fish had been part of the meal.”

This may explain the parasites. Analysis of the parasite eggs found in Tollund Man’s intestine helped Nielsen and her team figure out what conditions his people were living in. While other bog bodies have shown evidence of whipworm and mawworm, which are transmitted through contaminated food and water, probably the result of living closely with animals, his is the first one in which tapeworm has appeared. It is likely that all the tapeworm cysts found in his intestine are from consuming undercooked meat that was probably roasted over a fire.

Something that may have been overcooked right before Tollund Man died was the porridge he ate, which was evidenced by bits of crust that must have come from it being cooked in a clay pot for too long. The contents of his large intestine may have revealed less than if they had been in the small intestine, but definitely more than copriolites would have. What Nielsen wants to find out next is how Tollund Man relates to other bodies found in the same area. Elling Woman is one of those bodies, and could possibly have something in common with him.

“We plan to redate Elling Woman, so we hopefully can get a better idea of how the two bog bodies relate to each other in time,” she says. “It would be quite interesting to know whether the Iron Age people remembered the sacrifice of Tollund Man when Elling Woman was sacrificed in a similar way.”