Stone Age pendant makers did not shy away from using human bones as a raw material.
Symbolic pendants were all the rage during the Stone Age. Made from the teeth and bones of various animals, some were used for fashion, to accessorize or adorn clothes, while others had a more practical purpose in mind as rattles. But the list of ‘various animals’ also seems to have included humans, according to a new paper.
An analysis of artifacts found in burial sites dating back to over 8,200 years, collected during excavations on the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov on Lake Onega in the 1930s. Although the bone items unearthed at these sites were initially classified as being made from animal bones, the current paper reports that they were, instead, made from human bones. The objects are relatively simple pieces, the team adds, with one or more grooves cut into them.
“The surface of the bone pendants we investigated is so worn out that you cannot make out any potential cut marks, which means we have no reason to suspect cannibalism on the basis of the discoveries in Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov,” explains Kristiina Mannermaanotes, an Associate Professor at the University of Helsinki and lead author of the paper.
The paper drew on objects uncovered from 177 graves unearthed at the site in Karelia, Russia. This is one of the largest Early Holocene cemeteries in northern Eurasia, and the artifacts were recovered and described by previous archeological work.
Based on the materials used for the creation of some of these artifacts, and the themes and shapes they took, archeologists found that the Eurasian elk, the beaver, and the brown bear were important animals for the people buried here, with aesthetic value and, perhaps, carrying some sort of spiritual meaning as well.
However, among tooth pendants found here, some contained bones whose origins could not be determined based on their shapes. Assistant Professor Mannermaa, who leads The Animals Make Identities research project at the University of Helsinki that investigates social links between humans and animals in hunter-gatherer burial sites, was obviously keen to delve deeper into the story.
Together with her co-authors, she sent bone pendants found in these graves to the BioArCh research facility at the University of York. Here, they were analyzed using the zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS) technique. This allowed the researchers to tell which species they belonged to from the proteins that were contained in extremely small samples of bone.
According to the results, 12 out of 37 samples were found to be human bone. The rest were predominantly made from the bones of elks or bovines. The pendants of human bone were made from pieces of broken, long bones of various sizes. They were fashioned with one or two grooves.
These human-bone pendants were found in three graves, one of which contained two individuals. They were found mainly in the same context as tooth pendants and animal bone pendants, suggesting they were viewed and treated roughly the same way as these latter ones.
The use of human bones as a raw material is known from examples in Asia and South America, but we have extremely little evidence of this practice in prehistorical settings. What examples we do have are related either to attempts to debase the body parts of enemies and display them as warnings, or the fashioning and wearing of body parts belonging to deceased family members as a sign of respect or attachment.
Other times, the use of human bone as a raw material is associated with cannibals and cannibalism. A telltale sign of this are the marks left over from meat being removed off the bones, but this is harder to verify in an archaeological context.
Exactly why human bones — teeth — were used in the artifacts recovered from this site is still unknown. It is possible that they served as substitutes for lost tooth pendants in ornaments or rattles. This view is supported by the fact that the same type of bone pendants were made from both human and animal bones, and that both types of pendants were found in the same context.
“The fact that the use of human bones was not emphasised in any way and that the objects are indistinguishable and similar to objects made of animal bones may indicate the intertwining of animals and humans in the Stone Age worldview,” Mannermaa says. “Using animal and human bones together in the same ornament or clothing may have symbolised the ability of humans to transform into animals in their minds, in addition to which they believed that animals were capable of taking human form. We know that such blurring of forms and boundaries has been and still is part of the worldview of indigenous peoples.”
The paper “First evidence of human bone pendants from Late Mesolithic Northeast Europe” has been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.