Did Our Ancestors Make Tools Out of Human Bones?

A recent study analyzing hundreds of skeletal artifacts found that Neolithic societies in Spain repurposed the bones of the dead to create functional objects. The findings, however morbid, point to an important revelation — prehistoric humans maintained cultural traditions surrounding death for thousands of years.

Zita Laffranchi and Marco Milella of the University of Bern in Switzerland and Rafael M. Martinez Sanchez of Spain’s University of Córdoba published their research last month in the academic journal PLOS ONE. The scholars identified 12 individuals buried in Andalusia’s Marmoles Cave and used radiocarbon technology to date the bodies to between the fifth and second centuries BCE, a timeline that proves the location was used as a funerary site from the Neolithic to Late Bronze Ages.

The team then examined 411 skeletal fragments from the cave. Around a third of them had marks, and only 13 of the artifacts had incisions from animals.

The scholars don’t think the people using the cave were cannibals, judging by the rarity of cut marks on the bones. Nonetheless, the fragments present an abundance of evidence pointing to human intervention: fractures, scraping marks, and changes to the marrow all suggest the bones were cleaned or manipulated.

In two instances, the bones were clearly repurposed: A tibia bone was transformed into a pointed tool, and a skull was turned into a cup. Similar objects have been discovered in other caves along the Mediterranean.

“This is really intriguing,” Laffranchi told Hyperallergic. “It suggests shared ideologies surrounding death and the human body, extending for millennia.”

Other bones showed signs of manipulated but not explicit repurposing.

With or without the presence of manipulated bones, a host of other caves in Southern Europe have also been uncovered as Neolithic burial sites.

“This suggests the symbolic centrality of this place for the human communities in the region,” Laffranchi continued, “And the link to its use for long-lasting traditions.”

In their journal article, the scholars acknowledge that caves would have provided practical sanitation solutions for burying the dead, but insist that a sheerly functional explanation “does not seem satisfactory.” 

“This is based on the dangers of applying modern Western cultural attitudes to prehistoric societies,” the paper reads. The authors list a few possible symbolic meanings. Perhaps subterranean darkness was seen as an ideal environment for community members to rest. Maybe caves were seen as a refuge from the changing seasons of the outside world and interpreted as a way to resist the passage of time.

Laffranchi explained that the recent findings shed light on the “necessarily difficult to decipher” cultural practices of late prehistoric people in the region.

“We can think about our study as adding a new piece to a large, complex, and, more excitingly, yet unfinished mosaic,” Laffranchi said.

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