New tech­nol­ogy can tell an­i­mal bones used to make an­cient tools

New re­search sug­gests that only cer­tain an­i­mals were used for tool man­u­fac­ture

The East African - - OUTLOOK - By JUSTIN BRAD­FIELD Justin Brad­field is a re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg. First pub­lished in The Con­ver­sa­tion

An­i­mals played an im­por­tant role in pre­his­toric so­ci­eties. They were a source of food, raw ma­te­rial, and, some­times, rev­er­ence. Their bones were also used to cre­ate tools — for ex­am­ple, ar­row­heads. The use of an­i­mal bone as raw ma­te­rial for tools dates back at least 1.8 mil­lion years.

In sev­eral parts of the world, an­i­mals and the tools made from their bones were held in high re­gard. For ex­am­ple, in South Africa, the fre­quent de­pic­tion of cer­tain an­i­mals such as eland and rhi­noc­eros in rock art il­lus­trates their cul­tural im­por­tance.

Some an­i­mals served as im­por­tant sym­bols of power and re­li­gion among hunter-gath­erer and Bantu-speak­ing farmer groups.

But it was not clear to what ex­tent cer­tain an­i­mals’ sym­bolic im­por­tance trans­lated into other as­pects of so­ci­ety such as tech­nol­ogy and tool man­u­fac­ture. That is be­cause most bone tools re­cov­ered from ar­chae­o­log­i­cal ex­ca­va­tions are so ex­ten­sively mod­i­fied that it is im­pos­si­ble to iden­tify the type of an­i­mal from which they were made. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists could only as­sume that peo­ple made tools from the same an­i­mals they preyed on for food.

But emerg­ing tech­nol­ogy is now pro­vid­ing some an­swers. A re­cent study by sci­en­tists in South Africa and the UK has iden­ti­fied the an­i­mals used by peo­ple in the past to make bone ar­row­heads.

The find­ings sug­gest that only cer­tain an­i­mals were used for tool man­u­fac­ture. Oth­ers ap­pear to have been de­lib­er­ately avoided. For ex­am­ple, car­ni­vores and bush pigs ap­pear not to have been se­lected for tool man­u­fac­ture de­spite their re­mains be­ing found in ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites. Their ap­par­ent avoid­ance may have to do with cul­tural taboos.

This is the first time a species-level iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of bone tools has been un­der­taken in Southern Africa.

Fu­ture re­search could of­fer greater in­sight into how an­cient peo­ple chose the raw ma­te­rial for their tools. This, in turn, could pro­vide clues about the so­cial, ide­o­log­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal con­sid­er­a­tions that gov­erned their choices and how th­ese have changed through time.

An­i­mal iden­ti­fi­ca­tion

The new study used an an­a­lyt­i­cal tech­nique called Zooar­chae­ol­ogy by Mass Spec­trom­e­try (ZOOMS). This uses unique col­la­gen pep­tide mark­ers (which are the amino acids that make up the or­ganic com­po­nent of bone) to dis­tin­guish be­tween dif­fer­ent groups of an­i­mals. It can some­times iden­tify bone to the level of species.

The re­sults in­di­cate that farm­ers used fewer species for tool man­u­fac­ture than they hunted for food. We also found that cer­tain an­i­mal species were used for tools that did not ap­pear to have been hunted for food.

We iden­ti­fied a nar­row range of an­te­lope from the bone tools from nine ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites from Gaut­eng and Lim­popo. Of par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est is the pres­ence of sable, roan, ze­bra and rhino. Un­til now, we did not know that th­ese species’ bones were used to make tools in Southern Africa.

Sable and roan were im­por­tant sources of su­per­nat­u­ral po­tency among the Bush­men. But their sym­bolic im­por­tance to early farm­ers is un­known.

Rhi­nos, on the other hand, were an im­por­tant sym­bol among both hunter-gath­er­ers and farm­ers. Rock en­grav­ings of rhi­noc­eros (as well as of raon, sable, sheep, wilde­beest and gi­raffe) are com­mon in our study area. Rhi­nos were likely as­so­ci­ated with shaman­ism and rain mak­ing by the Bush­men, and lead­er­ship by the farm­ers.

De­spite the sym­bolic im­por­tance at­tached to the rhi­noc­eros, they were still ac­tively hunted and con­sumed by farm­ers. This in­di­cates that their sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance did not spare them from be­com­ing food.

We also iden­ti­fied cat­tle bones at sev­eral farm­ing sites, sup­port­ing the long-held no­tion that farm­ers used live­stock bones to man­u­fac­ture tools.

If we ac­cept that rock art and the an­i­mals it de­picted were be­lieved to be im­bued with su­per­nat­u­ral pow­ers, then it is con­ceiv­able that the tools made from their bones were viewed in a sim­i­lar way.


It is worth­while not­ing which species do not ap­pear to have been tar­geted for tool man­u­fac­ture.

There are many dif­fer­ent an­i­mals in the study re­gion whose bones are the cor­rect size from which to make ar­row­heads. Yet, de­spite a wide range of an­i­mal re­mains found at the sites, only a frac­tion were used to make bone ar­row­heads. Most of the bone tools come from bovids. The two ex­cep­tions are ze­bra and rhi­noc­eros. Why was this so?

Car­ni­vores’ long bones, for ex­am­ple, are me­chan­i­cally ill-suited for im­pact-re­lated tasks like ar­rows. That may ex­plain why we did not find any bones be­long­ing to species like the jackal, leop­ard or lion. But we are not sure how to ex­plain the ab­sence of other species, such as pigs, whose bones share the same broad me­chan­i­cal prop­er­ties as those of cows and an­telopes and which are also present at all the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal sites.

The ap­par­ent avoid­ance of cer­tain an­i­mals in bone tool man­u­fac­ture may be un­der­stood in terms of their bones’ fit­ness for pur­pose: That is, could it per­form the de­sired task? Yet, it is clear that this was not their only con­sid­er­a­tion and that cul­tur­ally-me­di­ated tech­no­log­i­cal strate­gies were prob­a­bly a fac­tor too.

Fu­ture direc­tions

This study looked at only a small sam­ple of bone tools from a small ge­o­graph­i­cal area. There is clearly much more scope to im­prove our un­der­stand­ing by ex­pand­ing the study to in­clude older con­texts from other parts of southern Africa. This line of en­quiry has al­ready started to gain trac­tion in Europe and North Africa.

The ap­par­ent avoid­ance of cer­tain an­i­mals in bone tool man­u­fac­ture may be un­der­stood in terms of their bones’ fit­ness for pur­pose.”


Pic­ture: AFP

Tools made of bone un­earthed from a tiny Tai­wan-con­trolled islet, Liang Is­land off China. A new study sug­gests that only cer­tain an­i­mals’ bones were used to make tools.

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