Researchers exploring social links between humans and animals in Mesolithic Europe have shed new light on the subject through analysis of a collection of grave goods from a site in Russia, which revealed that pendants made of human bone were placed in several burials alongside similar objects made from the bones and teeth of other animals.
Animals Make Identities: The Social Bioarchaeology of Late Mesolithic and Early Neolithic Cemeteries in North-East Europe, a project based at the University of Helsinki, aims to improve our understanding of the social identities of people living in this region between c.9,000 and 7,500 years ago by exploring what their burials can tell us about their relationships with the animals in the world around them.
Most recently, the project has focused on material from Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, a site on Lake Onega in the Karelian Republic, north-west Russia, dating to c.6,200 BC. Originally excavated in the 1930s, Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov is the largest known Late Mesolithic burial site in northern Europe, with 177 recorded burials, many of which contained a variety of bone and stone artefacts. Among these grave goods were a number of pendants made from the teeth of several different animals; but it is the 37 pendants made of animal bone that were the subject of the recent study. Earlier examination of these objects suggested that they were crafted out of splinters of long bones from large mammals, however, they lack the visible morphological features required to identify the individual species from which the bones originated. The researchers therefore sent the bone pendants to the BioArCh lab at the University of York, where they were subjected to Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry (ZooMS). This technique analyses peptides, or amino acids, from proteins in the bone in order to work out what kind of animal it belongs to. To everyone’s surprise, the analysis revealed that 12 of the 37 pendants were made from human bone.
These human bone pendants originated from three graves at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov – one of which contained a double burial – and were all found alongside other animal tooth or bone pendants. It is thought that these objects were once attached to clothing and body ornaments such as headgear and rattles, or other objects like baskets, bags, and blankets. Microwear analysis of the pendants’ surfaces revealed that they had likely been used before their deposition in the graves.
This surface analysis also highlighted that the bone pendants were relatively simply made and roughly finished. Perhaps surprisingly, the pendants made of human bone were identical to those made of cervid and bovid bones, suggesting that, in this context, human bone was treated as a raw material exactly like any other. The researchers propose that this may reflect the beliefs of the Mesolithic society at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov surrounding the relationships between animals and people, and between objects and living beings, which were perhaps more fluid than they are in many modern cultures.
Despite their rough manufacture, however, the animal bone pendants do appear to have been shaped to resemble closely the pendants made of animal tooth in both form and size. It has therefore been suggested that the bone pendants, both animal and human, were made as intentional replicas of animal teeth. This may have been largely for practical reasons; the Mesolithic creators of the pendants appear to have been very selective about the teeth they used, favouring Eurasian elk and Eurasian beaver incisors or brown bear canines, and there are a limited number of these available per animal. Perhaps when a pendant was lost or broken and there was no replacement tooth at hand, they simply created an imitation out of bone instead, as has been observed at some other prehistoric sites, like Neolithic Çatalhöyük. It is also possible that the mixing of different raw materials that occurred in objects featuring a combination of tooth and bone pendants, including those made of human bone, may have added to their symbolic value.
The research has now been published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jasrep.2022.103488).
Images: Stas Shapiro, Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg; Anna Malyutina/Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, Kunstkamera, St. Petersburg. JAS: Reports 2022.; Kristiina E Mannermaa TEXT: Amy Brunskill