Hunter-gatherers used every part of the animal

In the Palaeolithic and Mesolithic before people took up farming they fed themselves by hunting and gathering. But the animals they hunted didn’t just provide food. They provided clothes, containers, glue, tools and so many other necessary things. Though we don’t know if this was the case in Europe, if we look at other cultures, the bounty provided by animals was deeply respected in other hunter-gatherer societies that survived to be recorded by westerners. Though the animals were killed, they were treated as gifts from the spirits and not a bit was wasted.

We have surprisingly large amounts of evidence for various parts of the animal being used, other than the meat. Bones were hollowed out and used as containers or flutes, or they could be splintered into thin slices and made into needles, bodkins and barbed points for hunting.

Bone barbed points from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251555

Bone barbed points from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251555

Other bones were used as scrapers and burnishers for working with hides. Very large hard bones such as those from the wild ox (aurochs) and elk were sometimes turned into axes, like this one found in the river Thames. Antlers were turned into mattocks for digging in the ground, or as soft hammers for flintknapping. And, of course, animal teeth, horns and antlers were used as decoration. Star Carr’s red deer antler frontlets, worn as headdresses, may have been more than decoration. They were probably used for religious ceremonies.

Red deer antler frontlet from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251554

Red deer antler frontlet from Star Carr. By Jonathan Cardy – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29251554

The soft bits of animals have not survived in great numbers for us to find, but there are clues. The skulls of smaller animals such as pine martens, foxes, wildcats, otters and badgers with telltale marks of skinning found at Tybrind Vig in Denmark suggest they were caught for their fur.

Residues of animal fat have been found in shallow stone bowls along the coastline of Germany and Denmark, which may have been used as lamps. Similar traces, though coloured, were found on a wooden plate at Møllegabet in Denmark. The colour came from pigment and may have been used for body painting.

Traces of glue have been found on preserved tools and arrows, but it is invariably pine or birch pitch, not glue from boiled up animal hooves or hide. This might be because hide glue is water soluble so would quickly dissolve.

Although animals were clearly valued for more than their role as prey in the Palaeolithic, demonstrated by all the cave paintings and portable art, in the following Mesolithic this is less clear. But nevertheless, life would not have been possible without them.

Woolly rhinoceros at Chauvet Cave. By Inocybe at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Woolly rhinoceros at Chauvet Cave. By Inocybe at fr.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

References

Benozzo, F. 2010. The Mesolithic Distillation of Pitch and its Ethnolinguistic Reflections: A Holocene Etymology for an Italian Verb. In Scritti in onore di Eric Pratt Hamp per il suo 90. compleanno, ed. G. Belluscio e A. Mendicino. Rende, Università della Calabria, 29-42.

Clarke, J. G. D. 1954. Excavations At Star Carr: An Early Mesolithic Site at Seamer Near Scarborough, Yorkshire. Cambridge University Press.

Davis, S.J.M. 1987. The Archaeology of Animals. Yale University Press.

Heron, C, Andersen, S, Fischer, A, Glykou, A, Hartz, S, Saul, H, Steele, V, Craig, O. 2013. Illuminating the Late Mesolithic: residue analysis of ‘blubber’ lamps from Northern Europe. Antiquity 87, Issue 335, 178-88.

Menotti, F. 2012. Wetland archaeology and beyond: theory and practice. Oxford University Press.

Milner, N, Taylor, B, Coneller, C, Schadla-Hall, T. 2013. Star Carr: Life in Britain after the Ice Age. York, Council for British Archaeology.

Vahur, S, Kriiska, A, Leito, I. 2011. Investigation of the adhesive residue on the flint insert and the adhesive lump found from the Pulli early Mesolithic site (Estonia) by MICRO-ATR-FT-IR spectroscopy. Estonian Journal of Archaeology 15, Issue 1, 3-17.

Wood, J. 2011. Prehistoric Cooking. Stroud, The History Press.

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