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Neolithic ring proved to be made of antler or bone.   Source: John Nakata / Adobe Stock

Neolithic Hunter’s Ring Found to Be Made of Antler

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Sometime about 5,700-years-ago a Neolithic hunter in what is now Denmark carefully crafted a finger ring, but the nature of the material used had baffled archaeologists. Broken in two and apparently dropped and left where it fell, after almost 6 millennia buried beneath dirt and under the sea, researchers have used a new scientific method to reconstruct much of the ring’s history, including identifying the animal from which the raw material had come.

An Absolutely Phenomenal Site

Syltholm, is Denmark’s largest Neolithic site which recently came under the spotlight after scientists reported discovering a Late Mesolithic/Early Neolithic chewed piece of birch pitch ( ancient chewing gum ) on the island of Lolland in southern Denmark. In this earlier study, published in  Nature Communications , Dr. Theis Jensen, a postdoctoral researcher in the Globe Institute at the University of Copenhagen and the Department of Archaeology at the University of York, said “Syltholm is completely unique” and, absolutely phenomenal”.

A series of modern dams built in the area first exposed an ancient settlement dating from about 6,300 years, which lasted to around 5,500 years ago when encroaching seawater covered the site. Thus, everything at the site is sealed in thick black mud, which is an archaeologist's dream, for the preservation of organic remains discovered there is second to none.

Figure 1. (a) Location of the site on the southern part of Lolland, Denmark. (b) Overview of site MLF906-II where the ring was found in the northern part. (c) Digitized archaeological wood and stones found in a small section of the site, from where the ring was found. Digitization based on seven three-dimensional models obtained by Structure from Motion. (d) Photograph of the ring. (Theis Jensen et al. The Royal Society Publishing)

Figure 1. (a) Location of the site on the southern part of Lolland, Denmark. (b) Overview of site MLF906-II where the ring was found in the northern part. (c) Digitized archaeological wood and stones found in a small section of the site, from where the ring was found. Digitization based on seven three-dimensional models obtained by Structure from Motion. (d) Photograph of the ring. (Theis Jensen et al. The Royal Society Publishing)

Proteins Can Live For ‘Millions Of Years’

Analysis of the ancient ring required a multi-disciplinary research project bringing together archaeologists, paleoanthropologists and paleontologists and the findings were published in a  Royal Society Open Science , which lean greatly on “paleoproteomics”; the study of ancient proteins.

According to Discover Magazine , while information obtained from DNA samples can reveal an organism's species, paleoproteomics, looks at the molecular-level differences in fossils and artifacts. And while DNA holds much more information than ancient proteins can, the latter is much more resilient and until recently it was held that in cold and low humidity environments, proteins, can sometimes survive for about 1 million years. But this was all flipped on its head in 2019.

Proteins Identify Animal Species 

Several 2019 studies demonstrated that ancient proteins can be retrieved from a wide variety of climatic conditions, for example, one  study extracted “3.8-million-years old proteins from ostrich shells ” and another team of researchers extracted proteins from the 1.9 million years old fossilized teeth of  Gigantopithecus, the largest primate that ever lived, showing it was closely related to the orangutan. And because the Gigantopithecus tooth had been discovered in a subtropical Southern China, scientists found out that even in hot and humid environments, ancient proteins can survive for millions of years - while DNA lasts only around 10,000 years.

And using paleoproteomic techniques the researchers revealed that the 5700-year-old ring was made from the antler of either an elk (Alces alces) or red deer (Cervus elapse), but it wasn’t possible to differentiate between the two similar species. The study says the ring is only the second that has ever been found and tests suggest it was made about 5,500 to 6,300 years ago, during the Early Neolithic period (3900-1700 BC).

The ring has been determined to be made of deer or elk bone or antler. (University of Copenhage / Theis Jensen)

The ring has been determined to be made of deer or elk bone or antler. (University of Copenhage / Theis Jensen)

Why was the Neolithic Ring Broken?

By pairing paleoproteomics with micro-CT scanning the scientists wrote that they observed “a lack of microwear” suggesting the ring had hardly been worn, if at all. And the scientists are not sure how the ring came to be became broken or why it had been discarded, but one could not expect the perhaps simple answers to these things to be obvious to archaeologists; few of whom know much about hunting.

If you have ever been hunting or fishing, maybe rule number 1.1, right after ‘don’t ever point a weapon at someone,’ is take off all your jewelry. Why? Because it gets caught on clothing, snagged on weapons and lines, and hooked on undergrowth; and especially finger rings bring chaos and unpredictability into a controlled environment. It is no wonder it was flung away and left to rot (or not) - someone could have lost a finger with that thing.

The full report is published by The Royal Society Publishing . https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.191172

Top image: Neolithic ring proved to be made of antler or bone.   Source: John Nakata / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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