Elk teeth pendants may have been the jewelry of choice for at least one Stone Age group that lived 8,200 years ago.
A Stone Age burial ground on a small Russian island revealed more than 4,300 Eurasian elk teeth pendants found in 84 separate burials. The placement of the pendants in these graves suggests they were attached to coats, dresses, cloaks, belts and headdresses — although the clothing itself has not survived the passage of time.
The island, only about 1.5 miles across, is called Yuzhniy Oleniy Ostrov, and it’s located in Lake Onega, found in Russia’s Republic of Karelia.
In addition to the elk teeth, there was also a significant dusting of red ocher in the graves, a natural clay pigment used for ornamentation and other purposes.
Ornaments and other goods recovered from ancient graves paint a picture of what different cultures were like, as well as what was important or sacred to them.
University of Helsinki archaeologist Kristiina Mannermaa and her colleagues studied the elk teeth, now housed at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, in an attempt to understand their significance and learn more about the people buried with the pendants.
The study published last month in the journal Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences.
While some of the pendants in the graves came from beaver or bear teeth, many were made from elk incisors.
“The share of elk teeth in them is overwhelming,” Mannermaa said.
Elks have eight incisors each. The largest ornamentation the researchers analyzed required teeth from eight to 18 elks. These large animals were sparse in the forest zone where these people lived and were not killed often.
The elk was the most important animal for Eurasian prehistoric hunter-gatherers, both in ideology and beliefs, according to the researchers.
The highest number of elk teeth were found in the graves of young women and men, which has suggested they could be associated with a person’s peak years reproductively. The lowest amount were found in the graves of children and the elderly.
The researchers analyzed how the pendants were made and found the process was identical: Small grooves were made at the tip of the tooth’s root so the pendants could be attached to items.
The groove patterns were usually the exact same in individual graves or clusters of graves, which means they were created quickly using a process easier than perforating the teeth with holes for attachment. The researchers also believe that the patterns reflect a tradition of grooving within this culture.
“Interestingly, the grooves were not always made on the broadest side of the tooth, which would be the easiest option. In many graves, the grooves are on the thin side of the tooth where the unstable position of the tooth makes them harder to do. The artisan may have resorted to this method in order to tie them in a specific position,” said Riitta Rainio, study coauthor and researcher at the University of Helsinki, in a statement.
While these groove patterns likely would not have been visible, they may have affected the positioning of the pendants or caused them to rattle in a way associated with cultural communications, the researchers said.
Eurasian indigenous cultures, including the current Sámi communities across Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula, have used decorations as symbols of someone’s origins and identity. These ornaments also strengthen communication and uniformity within their communities.
Pendants like these could also be used to identify a neighboring community, much like Mannermaa refers to this group as the people of grooved elk tooth pendants.
“Hunter-gatherers were very mobile, and the intensive network of waterways connecting Lake Onega across a huge geographical area in all directions offered easy routes for people to move, build contacts and mix genes with each other,” the authors wrote in the study.
“Based on our observations, we suggest that elk teeth were associated with the lived life of the buried people and that pendants were personal belongings of the deceased. Their importance was something more profound and meaningful than a mere symbol of wealth.”