Stone Age Peoples Made Bone Arrowheads - From Human Bones!
A recent analysis of artifacts obtained from North Sea beaches has revealed a surprising fact about life in ancient Europe. It seems that some Ice Age peoples carved weapons from human bones. This was confirmed through a process of molecular analysis that allows scientists to identify the specific animal source of fossilized skeletal remains. The startling discovery was just announced by scientists associated with Leiden University in the Netherlands, who designed the study that produced these remarkable results.
“As an expert in this field, I really wasn’t expecting that,” Newcastle University archaeologist Benjamin Elliot told Smithsonian Magazine . Elliot wasn’t involved in the research project that uncovered the shocking evidence, but the surprise he is voicing is shared by many in the archaeological profession. This is the first time scientists have found clear and indisputable evidence that pre-modern Europeans constructed weapons from human bones.
Can it really be true that pre-modern Europeans constructed weapons, such as bone arrowheads, from human bones? ( Public domain )
Revealing the Lost Secrets of Doggerland
Approximately 7,000 to 8,000 years ago, rising sea levels fed by melting glaciers submerged the land bridge that once connected the British Isles with mainland Europe, which scientists have named Doggerland. Little did anyone realize that archaeological treasures were lying buried on the bottom of the North Sea as a result of this deluge, in the form of artifacts left behind by hunter-gatherers who roamed the area during the last Ice Age.
These treasures remained hidden and inaccessible for thousands of years, until human ingenuity intervened. The 20th century invention of deep sea mechanical dredgers allowed engineers to scoop out tons of material from the bottom of the North Sea, which was then used to rebuild and refortify the eroding shoreline of the Netherlands.
Mixed in with the muck were an impressive collection of fossils and human-crafted artifacts, fascinating remnants that could potentially reveal new details about the lost nomadic lifestyle of the hunter-gatherers who populated Stone Age (Mesolithic Era) Doggerland. These artifacts were found scattered across Dutch beaches, where they were eagerly harvested by archaeologists, anthropologists, fossil hunters, and other interested parties. Among these artifacts were some small, sharp, pointed weapons that had been crafted from bone, presumably for placement on hunting tools like arrows, spears, and harpoons.
The bone points in themselves weren’t an eye-opening discovery, since similar pointed weapons had been found at other sites in Europe and Asia. The difference was that instead of being excavated during scientific explorations, they’d simply appeared almost as a form of refuse, casually and haphazardly strewn across the North Sea beach sand by dredging operations. Perhaps because of the way they’d been discovered, over the years little serious research had been performed to investigate their properties.
That is, until the Leiden University research team of decided to apply sophisticated molecular measuring techniques to determine the animal sources of the recovered arrowheads. These techniques can identify specific protein markers or signatures that are unique to each animal species, including human beings.
The scientists weren’t sure if proteins would remain intact and un-degraded in bones that had been sunken in undersea mud for thousands of years. As it turns out, proteins can stay intact inside bones that have been preserved in this unique way, and when the Leiden researchers analyzed the bone points closely they discovered something unexpected. While most of the points were made from the bones of ancient red deer , a species common to the Doggerland region during the Mesolithic Era, two of the pointed weapons tested were found to have been carved from human bone fragments.
Graphic showing the bone arrowheads found on Dutch beaches believed to have come from sediment from the bottom of the North Sea. (Dekker et al. / JAS)
At the Edges of Knowledge, Uncertainty Always Remains
Speculation about the meaning of this finding has already begun:
“This [the use of human bones] was not an economic decision,” asserted Joannes Dekker, a graduate student at Leiden and the lead author of the report about these finding that was just published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports . “[The choice] is unlikely to have been opportunistic and instead seems to be strategic in nature.”
Dekker notes that ancient weapons makers using bones would have had multiple options, since Stone Age hunter-gatherers hunted many species of animals. Yet the red deer and human bones were the only ones used to make the arrowheads found in the Netherlands. “There must have been some other reason, a cultural reason, why it was important to use these species.”
In an interview with New Scientist , Dekker said he thought the use of human bone was “linked to the identity of the individual.” Following this line of reasoning, the bones could have been those of a skilled hunter, and the weapons makers may have been trying to channel their good luck or symbolically honor their memories.
Notably, recent molecular testing performed on bone arrowheads collected from peat bogs in Denmark and Sweden failed to replicate these results. In those instances, all the points tested (about 120 in all) were made from the bones of animals. This raises the possibility that the practice of using bones to create weapons was limited to the Doggerland region.
“It might be that there were strange people there… people that did different things,” suggested Theis Zetner Trolle Jensen, a researcher from the University of Copenhagen who helped analyze the arrowheads collected in Denmark and Sweden.
A Needle in the Haystack: Just How Widespread Was This Practice?
One factor that throws some uncertainty into the Leiden University study is the small number of points that were tested, which was only ten in total. The discovery that two of these arrowheads were made from salvaged human bones reveals the reality of this practice, but the overall small sample size makes it impossible to determine how widespread this practice was among Doggerland peoples.
“It might very well be that they found a needle in the haystack,” Jensen commented. In other words, the practice might have been quite rare and the finding might never be duplicated again. Then again, a larger sample sized might have revealed that Doggerland inhabitants salvaged human bones for arrowheads routinely and prolifically. If this were true, the practice might have been motivated by foundational religious, spiritual, or cultural beliefs that helped unite Doggerland peoples.
Or perhaps the practice emerged from the warlike nature of certain groups of Doggerland residents, who may have been harvesting the bones of those they’d killed in battle. In this case, the practice might have been more pragmatic or opportunistic than Dekker imagines. Ultimately, a definitive explanation for the practice is unobtainable. Fossilized bones can tell interesting stories, but there are crucial facts about ancient cultures that they can never reveal.
Top image: One of the human bone arrowheads discovered by Willy van Wingerden in 2017. Source: Willy van Wingerden
By Nathan Falde