Animals have long played an important symbolic role in human societies. They feature prominently in myths and folklore throughout the world. In some cases animals are used metaphorically: they express clan identity and are used to illustrate concepts of leadership, healing and protection.

In a newly published study, scholars in South Africa and the United Kingdom – myself among them – have discovered a possible link between the animal bones people used to make tools, like arrowheads, and the symbolic importance that people attached to those animals in the past.

The study focused on what is today the Tugela River catchment area of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province. Here, about 1,200 years ago, immigrant Nguni farmers came into contact with Bushman hunter-gatherers. Ethno-historical records show that animals played an important role in both cultural groups as symbols and metaphors to express ideas. Early interactions between these two groups, as happened in our study area, resulted in the dynamic exchange and assimilation of ideas and symbols.

We wanted to know whether the symbolic importance of certain animals translated into the technological domain at this time and place. That is, whether people were selecting the bones of specific animals and not others to use as raw material for their tools. And, if so, we wanted to know which animals they were selecting.

In several other parts of the world, such as Canada and Russia, people used the bones of animals that were important within their respective cultures to make tools. Nothing like this has been documented in southern Africa and we wanted to find out whether this was because this practice was not followed in the region or whether it was simply undocumented.

To find out, we used a method known as ZooMS. This analyses the collagen proteins found in animal bones. Collagen proteins are unique to different groups of animals. So, we could “fingerprint” samples from modern animals and then recognise them in archaeological samples of unknown origin.

The study found that there was selective targeting of animals for tool manufacture at some sites, with a narrowing of the range of selected species after about AD 1,000. Certain groups of antelopes appear to have been deliberately avoided. This suggests bones weren’t used just because they happened to be available. We hypothesise that distinctive animal behaviours, such as that of the rhebok, were appropriated by people to serve as metaphors through which to understand human society. And we believe this symbolism was expressed through people’s tools as a means of harnessing the “power” of the animal.

Animal symbolism

The Bushmen (or San) believed that animals such as the eland, rhebok and hartebeest possessed supernatural powers. These could be harnessed by shamans during certain ceremonies to bring about rain or influence the movement of game. In some cases, items of clothing made from these animals would be worn during healing and rain-making ceremonies.

Animals were also frequently depicted in San rock art. A clear emphasis was placed on those species believed to be particularly powerful, such as eland, rhebok and roan.

Among the Nguni, spirits of the ancestors were commonly ascribed the behavioural traits of certain wild animals, among them elephants, rhinoceros, lions and baboons.

Forty-three species are known to have been divinatory animals among the Nguni: some of these species’ bones regularly formed part of diviners’ kits because they were believed to confer those animals’ “powers” to the diviners.

The archaeology of KwaZulu-Natal

The Tugela River catchment area was first occupied by hunter-gatherers from about 7,000 years ago. Once farming communities began settling the area in the fifth century AD, hunter-gatherers started moving out of the mountainous areas to live nearer the farmer settlements. There, they benefited from trade in pottery and agricultural produce in exchange for wild animal skins and services rendered.

When farmers and hunter-gatherers came into contact, they adopted parts of each other’s material culture as well certain words and concepts linked to divinatory animals. The Nguni regarded the Bushmen as spiritual mediators, able to intercede with the supernatural world to bring about rain and other boons.

Even the caves the Bushmen occupied were seen by the Nguni as places of power. On the other hand, the new domestic animals introduced by the Nguni farmers were quickly assimilated into hunter-gatherer cosmology. They replaced eland and other antelopes as a favoured rock art motif.

Technology for answers

Using technology to analyse which animals’ bones were used in hunting tools, the researchers were able to draw several conclusions. Dr Justin Bradfield

We extracted small amounts of collagen from 84 bone arrowheads excavated from 11 archaeological sites spanning a 6,000-year period in the Tugela River catchment region. We then identified the taxonomic tribe of animal represented in the bone arrowheads.

Antelope species belonging to the Alcelaphini tribe (including hartebeest, wildebeest and bontebok) were the most abundantly represented source of bone arrowheads. Certain species of antelopes, including impala, gazelle, springbok and duiker, were not represented in any of the bone arrowheads. This is despite the fact that these species are abundantly represented in the unmodified food waste at the sites: they account for 66% of the meat consumed.

We also found that at some sites bone points were made from animals – including giraffe and buffalo – that were not represented at all in the unmodified fauna food waste.

This suggests deliberate targeting and avoidance of certain species. We think those animals that were deliberately targeted to make tools represent animals that people considered culturally or symbolically important. Our findings also suggest that the range of species targeted by hunter-gatherers to make their tools narrowed after farmers moved into the area.

We ruled out mechanical properties (that the bones used for tool manufacture were mechanically the best suited to their role as arrowheads) and trade as the reasons for the pattern of raw material selection we identified.

Symbolic significance emerged as the most likely reason for certain animal bones being used in tools to the exclusion of other, readily available animals. For instance rhebok, hartebeest and eland were all well represented in our sample; each is a symbolically important animal in 19th century Bushman folklore. These animals were associated with rain, and the power to influence game during a hunt. So, it’s possible their bones would be used in hunting tools, to imbue the tools with powers to aid in the hunt.

Future research will aim to test our hypothesis by analysing larger numbers of bone tools from the region.

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