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Prehistoric hunters from the North Sea used human bones as weapons

Over the years, many spectacular archaeological finds have been washed ashore on the Dutch coast. Among these a large assemblage of barbed points made of bone and antler from the Mesolithic (11,000-8000 BC). The species used by Mesolithic hunter-gatherers to manufacture their barbed points remained unknown until these recent discoveries. Some of these barbed points were made of human bone.

Two of the barbed points analysed in this study. Photo: R.J. Looman

Cultural decision to use human bone

The researchers suggest that the use of only human and red deer bone indicates that the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers of Doggerland, the land mass that has now been flooded by the North Sea, selected these species specifically for barbed point production. They could find no evidence suggesting that human and red deer bone make for better projectile points than other species. The researchers also say that it is unlikely that a raw material selection based on the availability of bones would result in the use of only these two species. Therefore, they argue that the selection of human and red deer remains for the production of barbed points was the result of a cultural rather than an economic decision.

Tool's function determines material

Barbed points were an important part of the hunting toolkit of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. The species used for the manufacture of barbed points can provide us a great deal of information on the role of the barbed points and on how their producers interacted with the environment. Not all animal bones are equally suited as projectile points and the bones of some species are easier to acquire than others. The raw material selection of people from the past can tell us whether they preferred easily available bone, bone with the best functional properties or whether they had other reasons to select particular species for barbed point manufacture.

However, due to their intensive working, the species of which these barbed points were made could not be determined using traditional zooarchaeological methods. Consequently, only some broad guesses have been made on the species identity of the barbed points and little is known about the raw material selection of Mesolithic hunter-gatherers in Doggerland.

New method of analysis

To address this gap in our knowledge, a team of researchers from Leiden University, the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands, the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Copenhagen decided to investigate what species were exploited for barbed point production. They used ZooMS (Zooarchaeology by Mass Spectrometry), a protein-based identification method (fig. 3). ZooMS requires only a few milligrams of bone material and was applied to barbed points, found at various Dutch beaches, to identify from which species they were made. 

To their surprise, the researchers discovered that two of the barbed points were made of human bone, while most of the others were made of red deer bone. 

A plate with samples, ready for ZooMS analysis

Further research

Future research will reveal with the aid of ZooMS how widespread the use of human bone for barbed point production was and if these human and red deer barbed points were used differently. Further exploring this line of research will reveal the role these barbed point played in Mesolithic hunter-gatherer life and it will show the variation in the ways humans in the past treated death and the dead.

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