Human bones were fair game for Stone Age pendants, according to ancient tombs

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Stone Age pendant makers did not hesitate to use human bones as raw material.

Two pendants made from the same human femur. Image credits Anna Malyutina / Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera) via Kristiina Mannermaa et al., (2022), JoAS.

Symbolic pendants were all the rage in the Stone Age. Made from the teeth and bones of various animals, some were used for fashion, to accessorize or adorn clothing, while others had a more practical purpose in mind such as rattles. But the list of “miscellaneous animals” also appears to have included humans, according to a new article.

An analysis of artifacts found in burial sites dating back more than 8,200 years, collected during excavations on the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov on Lake Onega in the 1930s. Although the bone objects found at these sites were originally classified as being made from animal bones, the current article 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.

man made pendants

“The surface of the bone pendants we studied are so worn that you cannot distinguish possible cut marks, which means that we have no reason to suspect cannibalism based on the findings at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov “, explains Kristiina Mannermaanotes, a partner. Professor at the University of Helsinki and lead author of the article.

The article was based on objects found in 177 tombs discovered at the site in Karelia, Russia. It is one of the largest early Holocene cemeteries in northern Eurasia, and artifacts have been recovered and described by earlier archaeological work.

Based on the materials used to create some of these artifacts, as well as the themes and forms they took, archaeologists have found that Eurasian elk, beaver, and brown bear were important animals for the people buried here, with aesthetic value and, perhaps, also carrying some kind of spiritual significance.

However, among the dental 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 which studies the social bonds between humans and animals in hunter-gatherer burial sites, was obviously keen to dig deeper into the subject. ‘story.

Together with her co-authors, she sent bone pendants found in these graves to the BioArCh research center at the University of York. Here they were analyzed using the zooarchaeology mass spectrometry (ZooMS) technique. This allowed researchers to tell which species they belonged to from proteins in extremely small bone samples.

According to the results, 12 of the 37 samples turned out to be human bones. The rest was mostly made from the bones of elk or cattle. Human bone pendants were made from broken long bone pieces of varying sizes. They were shaped with one or two grooves.

These human bone pendants were found in three graves, one of which contained two individuals. They have been found mostly in the same context as tooth pendants and animal bone pendants, suggesting that they were viewed and treated in much the same way as the latter.

The use of human bones as raw material is known from examples in Asia and South America, but we have extremely little evidence of this practice in prehistoric contexts. The examples we have relate to either attempts to debase the body parts of enemies and display them as warnings, or the making and wearing of body parts belonging to deceased family members as a sign. respect or affection.

Other times, the use of human bones as raw material is associated with cannibals and cannibalism. A telltale sign of this is the marks left by meat removed from bones, but this is more difficult to verify in an archaeological context.

The exact reason 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 human bones 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 emphasized 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 vision of the Stone Age world,” says Mannermaa. “The use of animal bones and human bones together in the same ornament or garment may have symbolized the ability of humans to change into animals in their minds, in addition to this they believed that animals were able to assume human form.We know that such blurring of forms and boundaries has been and still is part of the worldview of Indigenous peoples.

The article “First evidence of human bone pendants from Late Mesolithic Northeast Europe” was published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports.

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