The funerary rituals of our prehistoric ancestors are a constant source of mystery and fascination. For archaeologists and anthropologists, the history of burial practices are often taken as a measure of a society’s development. Now, a new study seems set to drastically change what we think about funerary rituals from thousands of years ago.
One common ritual associated with early human burials is the “killing” of inanimate objects, ostensibly to break the symbolic power of those objects. Until now, it was thought that this practice only appeared around 8,000 years ago. The new study, published in the Cambridge Archeological Journal, claims to have found evidence that this symbolic killing was actually practiced up to 5,000 years earlier.
Researchers from Université de Montréal, Arizona State University and University of Genoa examined 29 pebbles taken from an Upper Paleolithic burial site in Italy to make their conclusion. They believe that roughly 12,000 years ago the flat, oblong pebbles recovered from Caverna delle Arene Candide on the Mediterranean Sea in Liguria had been brought up from the beach and used as spatulas to apply ochre paste to decorate the dead. Once the decoration had been completed, the pebbles were broken and discarded.
Study co-author Julien Riel-Salvatore, an associate professor of anthropology from the UdeM, said the reason for breaking the stones could have been to “kill” them, “discharging them of their symbolic power”.
Roughly the size of a hockey rink, the Arene Candide cave is home to a necropolis containing the remains of some twenty adults and children. Situated in a steep cliff some 90 metres above sea level, it’s considered a vital reference site for the Neolithic and Paleolithic periods in the Mediterranean. Although the cave has been known about and subject to excavation since the 1940s, the broken pebbles were always overlooked.
“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 study 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.”
Crucially, no matching pieces were found for the pebble fragments analysed by the team. They speculate that this could be because 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,” explained Riel-Salvatore. “It’s the same kind of emotional connection.”
For five years the team painstakingly excavated the Arene Candide area using trowels and dental tools before carrying out rigorous microscopic analysis on the pebbles they found. For comparison, they also carried out a similar process on pebbles from nearby beaches, to prove that those from Arene Candide had indeed been deliberately broken.
“This demonstrates the underappreciated interpretive potential of broken pieces,” the authors write in the conclusion to their study. “Research programs on Paleolithic 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.”
Broken pebbles are often overlooked during excavations. Riel-Salvatore suggests that this could have led to many vital insights being missed. “Historically, archeologists 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. 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.”
Image courtesy of Université de Montréal