Some people from an ancient community in what is now northern Italy were buried with animals and animal parts such as dogs, horses, and pigs. The reasons remain mysterious, but could indicate enduring companionship between these humans and animals, or religious sacrificial practices, according to a study published on February 14, 2023, in the Open Access Journal. Plus one Zeta Lafranchi from the University of Bern, Stefania Zingle from the Institute for Mummy Studies, Urick Research Bozen, Umberto Techciati from the University of Milan, and colleagues.

Of the 161 people buried in the Seminario Vescovile, an archaeological site in Verona dating from the 3rd to 1st centuries BC, 16 were buried with animal remains. Some graves contain the remains of animals that were often eaten — including several pigs, a chicken and part of a cow — which may represent food offerings to the dead. But four of the people buried at the site were buried with the remains of dogs and/or horses, which are not usually eaten.

To look for patterns that might explain these animal burials, the researchers analyzed human and animal demographics, diet, genetics and burial conditions, but found no significant correlations. Notably, the people intervening with the animals were not closely related to each other, suggesting that it was a custom of a particular family. People buried with dogs or horses also vary — including a child buried with a complete skeleton of a dog, a young man buried with parts of a horse, a middle-aged man buried with a small dog. And a middle-aged woman is involved. A whole horse, several other horse parts and a dog skull.

The lack of artifacts in these graves means that multiple interpretations of these human-animal joint burials are possible, the authors say. For example, animals such as dogs and horses were often religious symbols in ancient cultures — but also, certain individuals may have been buried with their animal companions. In addition, the authors note, these human animal burial practices are determined by the interplay between various individual traits and social customs.

The authors added: “This study, which is part of the CELTUDALPS research project (in collaboration with the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Province of South Tyrol, and with Marco Malela of the University of Bern and Albert Zink of the Institute for Mummy Studies, York research), explores the burial of horses and dogs alongside humans, and may point to unknown rituals and beliefs in Italy in the late centuries BC.”