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Inner and outer surfaces of pottery containing bone residue

Researchers find Neolithic Bulgarians ate bone powder - but was it human?

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About 8,000 years ago in southwestern Bulgaria, around the time agriculture, husbandry and pottery were emerging, people were consuming bone powder. In a new scholarly paper published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal , a team of researchers has sought to unravel the reasons why people would resort to including bone powder in their diet.

The researchers have not yet undertaken DNA testing of the bones, so it is currently unknown whether the bone powder is of human or animal origin. However, the consumption of human bone powder is not unheard of.  In Medieval Europe, people consumed human bone powder for its supposed medicinal properties.

In the 18th century skull powder was used as medicine to treat illnesses. This jar label represents “CRAN(IUM) HUM(A)N(UM) P(RE)P(ARA)T(UM)”.

In the 18 th century skull powder was used as medicine to treat illnesses. This jar label represents “CRAN(IUM) HUM(A)N(UM) P(RE)P(ARA)T(UM)”. Credit: Museum of Pharmacy, Cracow

The team of French archaeologists and researchers is fairly certain that people in seven settlements in Bulgaria’s Struma River Valley were eating bone powder following the results of chemical analyses of beige residue on many pieces of pottery, which date from 6100 to 5600 BC. The researchers have observed similar beige residue on Neolithic pottery across the region, from northern Greece, to Macedonia, to central Bulgaria and Thessaly.

The researchers, headed by Julien Viegué of the French Research Center in Jerusalem, speculate that the practice may have been dietary, perhaps a replacement for milk and dairy products as seen in other places and times. Archaeologists who study skeletons from the Neolithic say there was a general decline in health around that time, so inclusion of bone powder in the diet may have been a nutritional practice.

Many scientists are studying why the rise of agriculture among human beings would coincide with a decline in health of the general population. The finding has even led to a phenomenon called the Paleo Diet, in which people try to mimic the diet of Stone Age peoples. The new paper does not say how Neolithic people in Bulgaria would know about calcium in bones and dairy foods.

The practice of eating bone residue may have been cultural as well as dietary, as reflected in distinct pottery decorations – the pottery with bone residue has less diverse decorations and shapes than other pottery in the seven villages, meaning that a certain type of pottery was used for eating bone powder.  If the bone residue turns out to be of human origin, this could suggest its use in funerary practices.

“The consumption of bone powder during the Early Neolithic in the Balkans was probably caused by both cultural and nutritional factors,” the researchers write. “Future research will aim to understand the precise role of this foodstuff within the Neolithic societies of southeastern Europe. Was the bone powder a substitute for milk, as testified in other societies? Did it replace the dairy products in a systematic or occasional way?”

In their paper, the researchers did not draw any firm conclusions, being uncertain if the people even had dairy production from domesticated animals in southwestern Bulgaria at the time.

Skull with multiple drill markings.

Skull with multiple drill markings. Credit: Gino Fornaciari/University of Pisa

Medieval Consumption of Bone Powder

Ancient Origins reported on the case of a 15 th century Italian man whose skulled had been drilled to harvest bone powder for medicine. His skull was in the crypt of the Otranto Cathedral, which has the skulls and bones of 800 men behind large glass panels. The dead men, alleged to have been executed by invading Ottoman Turks in 1480, are known as the martyrs of Otranto.

One of these skulls is unique in that it possesses 16 perfectly round holes on its top. How the holes were made, and for what purpose, confounded experts and visitors to the cathedral. However researchers were recently able to determine that the holes were trepannated – or drilled – into the skull after death as a way of harvesting the ground-up powder.

The Journal of Ethnopharmacology published a study of the skull in December 204 saying medieval Europeans thought skull and bone powder could treat many illnesses and diseases, such as epilepsy, paralysis or stroke. These ailments and others were believed to be caused by demons or magical influences.

Featured image: Inner and outer surfaces of pottery containing bone residue

By Mark Miller

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