Pendants with powerful symbolism were made from animal teeth and bones in the Stone Age, adorning clothing or accessories and serving as rattles. 

Human bones were also used as a raw material for pendants, as evidenced by an 80-year re-examination of burial finds dating back over 8,200 years.

On the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, grave 69 of an adult male. Human and animal bone pendants, as well as an elk tooth pendant, were discovered on the femurs. They most likely formed an ornament on the hem of a garment or some kind of rattle. (Image: Tom Björklund's drawing)
On the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, the grave 69 of an adult male. Human and animal bone pendants, as well as an elk tooth pendant, were discovered on the femurs. They most likely formed an ornament on the hem of a garment or some kind of rattle. (Image: Tom Björklund’s drawing)

On the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, the grave 69 of an adult male. Human and animal bone pendants, as well as an elk tooth pendant, were discovered on the femurs. They most likely formed an ornament on the hem of a garment or some kind of rattle. (Image: Tom Björklund’s drawing)

The discovery is quite surprising, as the objects are simple pieces of bone with one or more grooves cut into them. The bones were previously classified as animal bones in a previous study.

Many questions are raised by the human bone pendants: Whose bones were they, and how were they obtained? Did the people who wore the pendants know what kind of bones they were made of? Was the origin of the bones significant?

In the 1930s, archaeological excavations on the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov on Lake Onega exhumed the remains of deceased individuals and various objects from 177 graves.

Every third pendant is made from human skin.

The Eurasian elk, beaver, and brown bear were important animals for these people, according to animal tooth pendants and miniature sculptures. Among the tooth pendants were bone pendants whose shapes made it impossible to identify the species.

The University of Helsinki’s Animals Makes Identities research project examines the meanings of animals in Stone Age cultures using burial finds. The project’s lead, Associate Professor Kristiina Mannermaa, and her colleagues sent bone pendants discovered in the graves to the University of York’s BioArCh research facility to be analyzed using the zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS) technique. 

The technique uses mass spectrometry to identify species from peptides, or amino acids, extracted from proteins in extremely small samples of bone.

The findings were unexpected: 12 of 37 samples were found to be human. According to the study, the remaining pendants were primarily made from the bones of elks and a bovine animal. The human bone pendants are flakes of broken long bones with one or two grooves cut into them. They came from three graves, one of which had two deceased people. The pendants were discovered in the same area as tooth pendants and animal bone pendants.

Two pendants fashioned from the same human femur. Photo courtesy of Anna Malyutina/Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera)
Two pendants fashioned from the same human femur. Photo courtesy of Anna Malyutina/Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography (Kunstkamera)

Because there are often traces of meat removal on the bones, the use of human bone as a raw material is usually associated with cannibalism. However, the scarcity of irrefutable evidence makes it difficult to confirm cannibalism based on archaeological findings. Cannibalism for ritual purposes, according to Mannermaa, may have been more common than previously thought, but the underlying causes are unknown.”The surface of the bone pendants we investigated is so worn out that you can’t make out any potential cut marks,” Mannermaa says. “This means we have no reason to suspect cannibalism based on the discoveries in Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov.”

Based on their uniform appearance, the bone pendants could have been replacements for lost tooth pendants in ornaments and rattles. The researchers find it particularly intriguing that the same type of bone pendants was found in the same contexts as the tooth pendants, made of both animal and human bones.

“The use of human bones was not highlighted in any way, and the objects are indistinguishable and similar to objects made of animal bones,” Mannermaa says. “Using animal and human bones in the same ornament or clothing may have symbolized in their minds the ability of humans to transform into animals, as well as the belief that animals could take human form.” We know that such blurring of forms and boundaries has been and continues to be part of indigenous peoples’ worldview.”

Reference: https://linkinghub.elsevier.com/retrieve/pii/S2352409X22001511

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