Tools Made of Animal Bones in Burial Site in Belgian Cave




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Some of the animal bones from the Neolithic collective burial of Abri des Autours. B. awl made of a sheep or goat metatarsal. C,E: rods made of red deer antler. F: rib of a large bovid fashioned into a point. A,D: unmodified bones. (Photo: RBINS)
Tools Made of Animal Bones in Burial Site in Belgian Cave
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Reinout Verbeke

Scientists have identified tools in a 6.000 year old grave in the Abri des Autours cave, near the Belgian city of Dinant. It is the fourth Neolithic burial site in Belgium where worked animal bones were found.

Researchers from the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences (RBINS) and the University of Liege have analysed around 230 animal bones from the rock shelter Abri des Autours near Dinant. The remains of snails, toads, birds and both domestic and wild mammals were found in and around three graves. These burial sites were excavated by archaeologist Nicolas Cauwe (Royal Museums of Art and History) in the early nineties.

Two of the burials date to the Early Mesolithic (between 11.000 and 10.000 years ago) and the third dates back to the Middle Neolithic (6.200 – 6.000 years ago), radiocarbon dating shows. The only animal bones that appear to have been worked belong to the Neolithic grave. The other animal remains show gnaw marks and were probably dragged in by carnivores. Other bones are intact and possibly belong to animals that died in the cave.

Six Tools and a Pendant

Near the Neolithic burial, the scientists identified six mammalian bones that were converted into working tools: an awl made from one halve of a sheep or goat metatarsal, a needle from a pig fibula, two pointed ribs from a large bovid (possibly a cow) and two rods made from red deer antlers. A canine tooth from a red deer was also found. This tooth was pierced to string it, possibly on a necklace. However it was found outside of the three graves, so it cannot be linked to a certain context.

‘The first analysis of wear marks by TraceoLab (University of Liege) showed that the tools were intensively used before they were put in the burial’, says author Quentin Goffette (RBINS). ‘The pointed ribs were probably used to work animal skins and the needle to work plant fibres.’

Re-used Grave

The Neolithic burial, right next to the entrance of the cave, is only the fourth Neolithic grave in Belgium were scientists have identified worked animal bones. Apart from the six animal bone tools, there were two stone tools – a scraper and a retouched blade – a couple of potsherds and two nacre beads. Previous studies by anthropologist Caroline Polet (RBINS) showed that the grave contains at least six children and three adults. The items could not be assigned to one of the individuals in the burial.

‘Most of the human bones were mixed up and were manipulated’, Polet says. ‘That is why we suspect the bodies were first buried somewhere else. Another interpretation: the grave was re-used and older remains were partly removed.’

For now, no tools can be assigned to the older Mesolithic graves. The collective Mesolithic burial, two meters further into the cave behind a stone wall, contains the bones of at least six children and six adults. The single grave, on the other side of the wall and from the same period, contains the almost intact skeleton of a woman that died around the age of fifty. The pelvis was covered in ochre. She had a back fracture and her two forearms and left shin were broken. This was likely the result of an accident that she survived, the bone healing process shows.

The study about animal bones in the Abri des Autours cave was published in Anthropozoologica.

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