Mesolithic hunter-gatherers living in northern Siberia held ecstatic dance events during which clan members raved with elk teeth attached to their clothes, thereby generating trippy rhythmic sounds that helped the whole community enter into a kind of trance. According to the authors of a new study, the teeth would have rattled as dancers moved their bodies, “dictating the movements, pulse, and tempo” of both the music and the entire group.
Appearing in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal, the study seeks to illuminate the purpose of certain artifacts unearthed at the Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov burial site in northwest Russia, where 177 ancient graves have been found. More than half of the individuals interred at the site are accompanied by elk tooth ornaments, some of which consist of several hundred teeth.
The majority of these teeth have been fashioned into pendants and appear to have been attached to the garments worn by the site’s deceased inhabitants. Yet the study authors were struck by the distinctive pattern of “pits and craters” seen on many of the teeth, indicating that they had been dented and deformed by some kind of rigorous activity. This led to the conclusion that the “artifacts were not solely grave gifts, made only for the funeral ritual and shortly before it.”
The researchers, therefore, decided to recreate the ornaments, attaching elk teeth to a specially designed piece of clothing that mirrored those worn by their defunct study participants. They then conducted an experiment which they called “The Stone Ageish Disco”, which involved dancing energetically for six hours straight before analyzing the pattern of wear and tear left on the teeth with which they were adorned.
“Our active movement experiment, called the ‘Stone Ageish Disco’, produced a wear pattern that comes close to the Mesolithic pitting or pecking,” write the authors. A secondary experiment, involving gentle movements over a 60-hour period, failed to reproduce this pattern of deformity, suggesting that only an “intensive energy boost, like a dance or dance session” could have caused the dents seen on the ancient elk teeth.
Hear for yourself what a Stone Age rave might have sounded like. Video credit: University of Helsinki/YouTube
Explaining the purpose of these noisy accessories, study author Riitta Rainio commented that “wearing such rattlers while dancing makes it easier to immerse yourself in the soundscape, eventually letting the sound and rhythm take control of your movements. It is as if the dancer is led in the dance by someone."
“This feeling, mixed with accelerated heartbeat, respiration, rising blood pressure, sweat, and exhaustion probably comes close to the feelings of depersonalization and dissociation from the body that are characteristic of dance trance and other altered states of mind,” write the researchers.
Taking this theory a step further, they suggest that raving may have helped to bond communities together, since “moving together rhythmically and following the same pulse tends to blur the self-awareness of the participants and evoke and sustain group cohesion, solidarity and a feeling of togetherness.”