A reindeer. Credit: Wallpaperscraft

12,000-Year-Old Engraved Reindeer Antler May Be One of the Oldest Gifts in the World

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Found in Central Poland but originating from northern Scandinavia or north-western Russia, an engraved reindeer antler has piqued researchers interest. The reasons behind its long journey, purpose, and implications regarding social contact between hunter-gatherer groups in the area 12,000 years ago are all significant. An added element of interest is that researchers believe it was meant as a sort of spiritual gift from one population to another.

The engraved reindeer antler. One of the oldest gifts in the world?

The engraved reindeer antler. One of the oldest gifts in the world? Source: Osipowicz et al

According to IBTimes UK , the artifact is known as a bâton percé (perforated baton). It measures approximately 30 cm (12 inches) long and about 2-3cm (1-1.5 inches) in diameter. A line of triangular patterns is engraved on the artifact and a large hole is present at one end. These features hint at the artifact having had some special value to its creators.

Drawing of the engraved reindeer antler.

Drawing of the engraved reindeer antler. ( Osipowicz et al )

The exact function of the artifact is uncertain. As the lead researcher in the current study, Dr. Grzegorz Osipowicz, told MailOnline :

“The function of bâtons percé is still not clear. Many hypotheses have been put forward in this regard, starting with function connected with ritual sphere, through straighteners of points and harpoons, simple mattocks or tools used for fixing ropes in huts.”

An example of a Magdalenian era bâton percé found in France.

An example of a Magdalenian era bâton percé found in France. ( CC BY 3.0 )

The antler was discovered in 2013 at Gołębiewo in Central Poland. This is the first time a reindeer antler from that period has been found in Eastern Europe, which set off some bells for researchers. Furthermore, no other artifacts or evidence of a settlement were found during excavations, which certainly made researchers curious about its origins.

The recent study shows the engraved antler was found at least 1,000 miles (1,600 km) south of its proposed creation site – possibly the North Karelia region of western Finland or South Lapland. The antler source species and its geographic origin were discovered through DNA and stable isotope analyses. Radio carbon dating placed the artifact to roughly 12,000 years old.

Autumn scenery in Koli National Park. North Karelia region, Finland.

Autumn scenery in Koli National Park. North Karelia region, Finland. (Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho/ CC BY 2.0 )

Phys.org reports that part of the significance of the find is that the antler suggest goods could have been exchanged by hunter-gatherer groups across large distances in the Early Holocence. Osipowicz explained ,

“The route taken for transporting the Rangifer tarandus antler from nearby North Karelia to Central Poland, and the motive for transporting it, remain impossible to determine conclusively. However, the obtained results are the first direct evidence for the flow of goods between hunter-gatherer groups in the Early Holocene at such a great distance.”

A reindeer with a sleigh in Kuusamo Lapland.

A reindeer with a sleigh in Kuusamo Lapland. (Heather Sunderland/ CC BY 2.0 )

There are few known examples of gift exchanges over such large distances during that time. Moreover, the exchange of goods between hunter-gatherer groups living so far apart probably mean that ideas were also exchanged and bonds could have been formed. Similar flint making techniques suggest that social contact may have been possible between populations from the distinct areas at that time.

But Osipowicz told MailOnline the act of gifting the antler could have held more importance than simply social or trade connections:

“The process of these gift exchanges was unlikely a simple exchange of products. It is believed they were sanctioned by a number of principles that strongly link the individuals or groups on a social and often spiritual level.”

Chart of the three worlds in ancient Sámi spirituality.

Chart of the three worlds in ancient Sámi spirituality. ( Mulk & Bayliss-Smith 2006: 96 )  Reindeer are one aspect of the traditional spiritual beliefs of this indigenous group.

The researchers also suggest that the gifting may not have been routine, saying that the Scandinavian group that gave the bâton percé may have only encountered the southern group during a rite of passage trip.

The results of the study were published in the journal PLOS ONE by Grzegorz Osipowicz and colleagues at the Nicolaus Copernicus University in Poland. The engraved antler is currently located in the Fr. Dr Władysław Łęga Museum in Grudziądz, Poland.

Top Image: A reindeer. Credit: Wallpaperscraft

By Alicia McDermott

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