Broken pebbles offer clues to Palaeolithic funeral rituals

Date:

Share post:

Humans may have ritualistically “killed” objects to remove their symbolic power, some 5,000 years earlier than previously thought, a new international study of marine pebble tools from an Upper Palaeolithic burial site in Italy suggests.

Broken pebbles offer clues to Palaeolithic funeral rituals
Pebbles were refitted during analysis [Credit: Université de Montréal]

Researchers at Université de Montréal, Arizona State University and University of Genoa examined 29 pebble fragments recovered in the Caverna delle Arene Candide on the Mediterranean Sea in Liguria. In their study, published in the Cambridge Archeological Journal, they concluded that some 12,000 years ago the flat, oblong pebbles were brought up from the beach, used as spatulas to apply ochre paste to decorate the dead, then broken and discarded.

The intent could have been to “kill” the tools, thereby “discharging them of their symbolic power” as objects that had come into contact with the deceased, said the study’s co-author Julien Riel-Salvatore, an associate professor of anthropology at UdeM who directed the excavations at the site that yielded the pebbles.

The Arene Candide is a hockey-rink-sized cave containing a necropolis of some 20 adults and children. It is located about 90 metres above the sea in a steep cliff overlooking a limestone quarry. First excavated extensively in the 1940s, the cave is considered a reference site for the Neolithic and Palaeolithic periods in the western Mediterranean. Until now, however, no one had looked at the broken pebbles.

Broken pebbles offer clues to Palaeolithic funeral rituals
A rendition of a 4-cm-long pebble in use [Credit: Université de Montréal]

“If our interpretation is correct, we’ve pushed back the earliest evidence of intentional fragmentation of objects in a ritual context by up to 5,000 years,” said the study’s lead author Claudine Gravel-Miguel, a PhD candidate at Arizona State’s School of Human Evolution and Social Change, in Tempe. “The next oldest evidence dates to the Neolithic period in Central Europe, about 8,000 years ago. Ours date to somewhere between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago, when people in Liguria were still hunter-gatherers.”

No matching pieces to the broken pebbles were found, prompting the researchers to hypothesize that the missing halves were kept as talismans or souvenirs. “They might have signified a link to the deceased, in the same way that people today might share pieces of a friendship trinket, or place an object in the grave of a loved one,” Riel-Salvatore said. “It’s the same kind of emotional connection.”

Between 2008 and 2013, the researchers painstakingly excavated in the Arene Candide cave immediately east of the original excavation using small trowels and dental tools, then carried out microscopic analysis of the pebbles they found there. They also scoured nearby beaches in search of similar-looking pebbles, and broke them to see if they compared to the others, trying to determine whether they had been deliberately broken.

Broken pebbles offer clues to Palaeolithic funeral rituals
Claudine Gravel-Miguel is with anthropologist Vitale Stefano Sparacello at the Arene Candide site in 2011 
[Credit: Université de Montréal]

“This demonstrates the underappreciated interpretive potential of broken pieces,” the new study concludes. “Research programs on Palaeolithic interments should not limit themselves to the burials themselves, but also explicitly target material recovered from nearby deposits, since, as we have shown here, artifacts as simple as broken rocks can sometimes help us uncover new practices in prehistoric funerary canons.”

The findings could have implications for research at other Palaeolithic sites where ochre-painted pebbles have been found, such as the Azilian sites in the Pyrenee mountains of northern Spain and southern France. Broken pebbles recovered during excavations often go unexamined, so it might be worth going back and taking a second look, said Riel-Salvatore.

“Historically, archaeologists haven’t really looked at these objects – if they see them at a site, they usually go ‘Oh, there’s an ordinary pebble,’ and then discard it with the rest of the sediment,” he said. “We need to start paying attention to these things that are often just labeled as rocks. Something that looks like it might be natural might actually have important artifactual meaning.”

Source: University of Montreal [February 09, 2017]

ADVERTISEMENT

spot_img

Related articles

Antikythera Mechanism older than thought

A riddle for the ages may be a small step closer to a solution: Who made the famed...

Karnataka’s archaeological riches crying for attention

Karnataka's rich heritage of monuments are crying for special attention for effective conservation as well as restoration works,...

Magnetic pole reversal happens all the (geologic) time

Scientists understand that Earth's magnetic field has flipped its polarity many times over the millennia. In other words,...

2,000 year-old tomb found in China

An ancient tomb more than 2,000 years old has been excavated in northeast China's Liaoning province, sources with...

Human-caused climate change increased the severity of many extreme events in 2014

Human activities, such as greenhouse gas emissions and land use, influenced specific extreme weather and climate events in...

17th Century strain of smallpox retrieved from partial mummified remains of Lithuanian child

New genetic research from an international team including McMaster University, University of Helsinki, Vilnius University and the University...

A spectacular landscape of star formation

This image, captured by the Wide Field Imager at ESO's La Silla Observatory in Chile, shows two dramatic...

“Whodunnit” of Irish potato famine solved

An international team of scientists reveals that a unique strain of potato blight they call HERB-1 triggered the...