Stone Age occupants of what is now northwest Russia may have worn pendants made from human bones, according to a new study in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports. The osseous accessories were originally unearthed on the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov on Lake Onega way back in the 1930s, yet researchers were unable to distinguish the species from which the items were made at the time.
Using mass spectrometry to identify proteins within the samples, the authors of this much-belated study have now confirmed that 12 of the 37 pendants were in fact manufactured from human remains. The rest appear to have been whittled from the bones of elks, deer, and bovine animals.
Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov is thought to be the largest Mesolithic cemetery in Northern Europe, dating back to around 6200 BCE. A total of 177 Stone Age graves have been exhumed at the site, and the 12 human bone pendants were deposited in three of these.
The simple adornments were made from splinters of long bones of various sizes, usually with one or two grooves cut into them. Noting the crudeness of the items, the authors remark that “it is interesting that people who had such high standards for processing animal bones, for example, carving figurines and weapons from them, decided to produce such unfinished-looking and robust artefacts from human bone.”
It is also telling that the human pendants were all found in the same context as those made from animal teeth. Based on this observation, the researchers conclude that “the human bone pendants were used in a similar way as the tooth pendants: they were attached to separate ornaments, rattles, head gear and clothes.”
In a statement, study author Kristiina Mannermaa added that “the fact that the use of human bones was not emphasised 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 Stone Age worldview.”
“Using animal and human bones together in the same ornament or clothing may have symbolised the ability of humans to transform into animals in their minds, in addition to which they believed that animals were capable of taking human form. We know that such blurring of forms and boundaries has been and still is part of the worldview of Indigenous peoples.”
Tantalizingly, the authors also point out that the use of human bones to make tools or jewelry has previously been associated with cannibalism, although none of the artifacts found in this particular graveyard display any obvious signs of meat removal.
“The surface of the bone pendants we investigated is so worn out that you cannot make out any potential cut marks, which means we have no reason to suspect cannibalism on the basis of the discoveries in Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov,” says Mannermaa. However, she and her colleagues go on to state that “'it is possible that the bones had cut marks that are not visible in these small fragments.”
Taking this ambiguity into consideration, they conclude that “cannibalism cannot be ruled out even though we do not have clear evidence of such.”