Approximately a century ago, archaeologists excavating an 8,200-year-old graveyard in northwestern Russia stumbled upon bone and animal-tooth pendants buried alongside the Stone Age individuals interred there.
Recently, researchers embarked on a re-analysis of these bone pendants with the intention of determining the animal species they originated from. However, the findings took them by surprise—some of the pendants were not crafted from animal bones; they were made of human bones.
Led by Kristiina Mannermaa, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, the team uncovered these unexpected discoveries during their investigation.
The bone pendants were unearthed at a burial site known as Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov in the Karelia region of Russia. This cemetery contained 177 burials dating back to approximately 6200 B.C. The buried individuals belonged to a hunter-fisher-gatherer community, primarily reliant on fish as their dietary staple.
Among the interments, some were buried without any adornments, while others were found with tooth and bone ornaments, some of which were likely sewn onto long-decomposed garments or used as noisemakers in rattles.
Mannermaa and her team were conducting a larger research project to understand the interactions between Stone Age people and animals. As part of this project, they subjected some of the ornaments to analysis using a method that examines molecular differences in bone collagen among different species.
Out of the 37 pendants crafted from bone fragments originating from six different graves, 12 were identified as human bone pendants through the analysis. Another two pendants yielded uncertain results, leaving room for further investigation.
The unexpected human bone pendants were sourced from three distinct graves: two containing the remains of adult men and one belonging to an adult man buried alongside a child. It is possible that additional human bone pendants exist within the graveyard, but further analysis is required to confirm this hypothesis.
Curiously, the Stone Age people did not appear to treat human bones any differently from other materials when fashioning them into decorations. According to Mannermaa, the bones were quickly carved, featuring simple grooves notched into their ends to facilitate attachment to a cord.
Moreover, they closely resembled the size and shape of animal teeth found in close proximity, suggesting they were utilized as substitutes for lost animal teeth that had once adorned garments. Wear patterns on the pendants indicated they had been worn by their owners before being buried with them.
Amy Gray Jones, a senior lecturer in archaeology at the University of Chester, emphasized that the apparent interchangeability of human and animal bone did not imply insignificance. Ancient Europeans assigned great symbolism to animal bone pendants and tools, treating them with care and disposing of them in particular ways after use.
Unlike contemporary Western culture, which largely devalues animal bone, ancient Europeans may have imbued both human and animal bone with significant meaning.
Mannermaa clarified that this is the first known use of human bone pendants in northeastern Europe, although pendants crafted from human teeth dating back to approximately 6000 B.C. have been discovered at a site called Vedbaek Henriksholm Bøgebakken in Denmark.
In 2020, a couple of human-bone arrowheads were also found in the Netherlands. Additionally, there are scattered examples of carved human bones from various regions of Stone Age Europe, including a notched arm bone from Serbia.
Gray Jones expressed the belief that researchers have only scratched the surface of the ancient applications of human bone. The current study employed a relatively new method of analyzing collagen molecules, and it is likely that previously discovered bone fragments would be identified as human if subjected to this analysis.
Mannermaa and her team are currently examining the animal bone pendants discovered at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov to confirm whether they were crafted in a similar manner to the human bone pendants.
A compelling avenue for future research would involve attempting to extract DNA from the bone pendants to determine if they belonged to individuals related to those buried alongside them. However, such studies necessitate the destruction of significant amounts of bone, making them unlikely to be pursued in the near future.
The recent re-analysis of bone pendants from an ancient Russian burial site shed light on a surprising use of human remains. These Stone Age people, who relied heavily on fishing for sustenance, incorporated bone and animal teeth into their adornments.
Strikingly, some pendants were crafted from human bones, suggesting an interchangeability between human and animal materials. The findings highlight the potential symbolic significance assigned to both human and animal bone in ancient European cultures.
Further research is required to uncover the full extent of human bone utilization and explore possible ancestral connections through DNA analysis.