Stone Age People’s Fascination With Elk Teeth Pendants Examined
Seeking to unlock the secrets of a long-lost Stone Age society, a team of archaeologists recently performed an in-depth study of more than 4,000 elk teeth pendants currently housed at the Peter The Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia. These elk teeth pendants were recovered from 84 graves found on the island of Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov on Lake Onega in the Republic of Karelia in northwestern Russia, bordering Finland. The graves and their contents have been dated to approximately 6,200 BC, which means the people interred there lived during the late Mesolithic or mid-Stone Age era.
The full report on their findings has recently been published in Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences. The archaeologists, headed by Kristiina Mannermaa from the University of Helsinki, were interested in studying the specific manufacturing techniques involved in making the pendants. They also hoped to discover something about the people who made, wore, and collected them by studying their distribution patterns.
DNA Shows Elk Teeth Pendants Made By Inclusive Society
Ancient DNA has been collected from burial sites on Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, raising the possibility that certain correlations might be detected between genetic identity and how the pendants were manufactured and allotted.
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The researchers found no evidence to connect the pendants to any type of genetic markers. Genetic studies have revealed multi-ethnic origins for the Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov (YOO) people, but the similarity in manufacturing techniques used to make the elk teeth pendants, and the physical characteristics of those pendants, indicate a cultural homogeneity that contrasts with the genetic variations.
In other words, the YOO hunter-gatherer culture seems to have been unified by their cultural practices more than by their genetics, suggesting they were an inclusive society that sought unity-in-diversity through a shared cultural heritage.
The oldest artifact ever found in Eurasia is an elk tooth pendant. It was discovered in the Altai region of Russia in an Denisovan cave. (Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography)
The YOO People Used Elk Tooth Grooves Instead Of Holes
The manufacturing style used by the YOO people to make the elk teeth pendants was unique. Many ancient peoples of northern Europe and Asia venerated the elk and relied on this large herbivore for sustenance. And, like the YOO, they honored the importance of the elk in their societies by creating pendants from elk teeth, which could be worn and displayed on a daily basis or on special occasions.
But the samples of Stone Age elk teeth pendants found in other locations were made from elk teeth that had been perforated, so the sinew or fiber strings that would have supported them could be threaded directly through each tooth. In contrast, the YOO people carved circular grooves into the outside of the teeth near the root tips, meaning the pendant support strings would have been wound or tied around them.
“The grooves were not always made on the broadest side of the tooth, which would be the easiest option,” noted researcher Riitta Rainio in a press release issued by the University of Helsinki, which contributed to this new study. “In many graves, the grooves are on the thin side of the tooth where the unstable position of the tooth makes them harder to do. The artisan may have resorted to this method in order to tie them in a specific position.”
While the groove-carving approach was nearly universal, there were some small variations in manufacturing style found among these pendants. Pendants recovered from the same graves were mostly manufactured uniformly, but variations in style were detected when comparing pendants collected in one grave from those found in others.
In total, the archaeologists were able to identify 19 distinct manufacturing subtypes. However, just seven of those types accounted for approximately 85 percent of the teeth recovered.
Elk teeth, thousands of them, were used by the YOO people to make their unique elk teeth pendants. (Alexandra / Adobe Stock)
A Stone Age Marketplace for Elk Teeth Pendants?
If there were in fact 19 manufacturers who made these thousands of elk teeth pendants, that raises a fascinating question: could these manufacturers have operated in some sense as vendors, or traders? Did they mass produce elk teeth pendants for some type of consumer marketplace? This would explain both the diversity of manufacturing styles found within the basic groove-carving template (vendors need to differentiate their products), and the fact that seven manufacturers were able to grab so much of the market share (free markets generally produce a few winners and many losers).
Needless to say, this system would have operated according to its own rules, which might have borne some resemblance to modern capitalist/free trade marketplaces but would have undoubtedly been distinct in many ways.
Individuals collecting elk teeth pendants may have acquired them through some type of free or fair trade. But they also may have been awarded those pendants in return for some service they performed for the greater community. In the latter case, the choice of manufacturer may have been determined by authority figures in the society rather than by the individuals who actually received the pendants.
Under this scenario, manufacturers may have been rewarded for their services with material goods, but they could also have benefited in some other non-material way. They may have gained higher status in the community, brought honor to their families, or been in line for special rewards in the afterlife according to YOO spiritual traditions.
Interestingly, the graves that contained the largest number of pendants were those of young adults (both men and women) in the prime of their lives. The graves of children and adolescents contained far fewer pendants, as did the graves of older adults in most instances.
The lack of pendants in the graves of older people suggests these individuals may have either given their pendants to younger people or family members or traded them away, perhaps on their own initiative or perhaps at the behest of society leaders. Young adults might have been entitled to possess more pendants, based on their active contributions to the health and welfare of the group as a whole. On the other hand, if the trades were voluntary older adults may have traded their pendants to acquire food and other supplies they were no longer capable of collecting on their own.
Stone Age petroglyphs found on Lake Onega, Republic of Karelia, Russia which were likely made by the ancestors of the elk teeth pendant makers. (Semenov.m7 / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Where History Ends, Speculation Begins
Any attempt to ascertain the motives of long-extinct peoples who left no written records is fraught with difficulty. Inevitably, explanations for the artifacts they left behind will be based largely on speculation and conjecture.
Speculation or educated guessing aside, the reasons why the YOO people chose to manufacture and collect elk tooth pendants in large numbers may be entirely obscure and unimaginable to modern scientists, archaeologists, or historians.
This activity may have been connected to practical or spiritual concerns that would be far outside our range of understanding, even if we could somehow be transported back in time to see it for ourselves.
Top image: A total of 90 elk teeth were placed next to the hips and thighs of one female skeleton, possibly attached to a garment resembling an apron. Red ochre had been sprinkled on top of the deceased. This drawing shows what the Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov woman may have looked like when she died. Source: Tom Bjorklund / University of Helsinki
By Nathan Falde