Stone Age People Donned Elk-Tooth Ornaments During Spirited Dance Sessions

Thousand of animal incisors discovered at an 8,000-year-old Russian cemetery may have been valued for their role in keeping a beat

Drawing of Stone Age man dancing while wearing elk-tooth ornaments
Adult male from grave 76a in Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, drawn as if alive during a dance session, with 140 elk teeth on his chest, waist, pelvis and thighs Drawing by Tom Bjorklund / University of Helsinki

Some 8,000 years ago, Stone Age people decorated themselves with elk-tooth pendants that made a musical rhythm when their owners danced. Now, a new study published in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal vividly recreates that auditory experience.

As Tamar Beeri reports for the Jerusalem Post, the paper’s lead author, Riitta Rainio, an auditory archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, danced for six hours straight while wearing modern versions of “tooth rattler” ornaments found at the Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov burial site in northwestern Russia.

“Wearing such rattlers while dancing makes it easier to immerse yourself in the soundscape, eventually letting the sound and rhythm take control of your movements,” says Rainio in a statement. “It is as if the dancer is led in the dance by someone.”

After trying out the ornaments, the researchers examined the microscopic marks made as the elk incisors knocked against each other. The team found that the patterns were similar to those seen on rattlers discovered at the prehistoric cemetery in Russia’s Karelia region, near Finland. Comparatively, the Stone Age teeth’s markings were “deeper and more extensive,” per the Jerusalem Post.

“As the Stone Age teeth were worn for years or even decades, it’s no surprise that their marks are so distinctive,” says study co-author Evgeny Girya, an archaeologist at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in the statement.

Stone Age Rattle Reconstructed

The researchers also wore the pendants during daily chores, totaling 60 hours over one month. This activity left no noticeable marks on the teeth. Walking and light jumping similarly failed to produce the kinds of nicks found on teeth at the burial site.

To date, researchers have discovered more than 4,300 elk incisors across 84 burials at Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, reports Ruth Schuster for Haaretz. Though the materials the ornaments were once attached to no longer exist, grooves in the teeth indicate how they were probably tied to clothing, from dresses to cloaks to headdresses, according to a separate statement. The researchers suspect that some elk-tooth ornaments were composed of 300 or more individual incisors. Petroglyphs in the region suggest that elk were important to local people over many millennia.

Per the study, some ethnomusicologists believe that rattles made from strong shells, bone, teeth, hooves or beaks were among the world’s earliest musical instruments. Rattles remain a part of religious ceremonies and dances for many groups today, including the Tlingit of the Pacific Northwest and the Sámi of northern Europe.

“Elk tooth rattlers are fascinating, since they transport modern people to a soundscape that is thousands of years old and to its emotional rhythms that guide the body,” says study co-author Kristiina Mannermaa, an archaeologist at the University of Helsinki, in the statement. “You can close your eyes, listen to the sound of the rattlers and drift on the soundwaves to a lakeside campfire in the world of Stone Age hunter-gatherers."

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